Human Rights Watch (HRW), an American organization founded in the 1970s as Helsinki Watch to campaign for the release of political prisoners in the Soviet Union, reinvented itself with the end of the Cold War. It is now a political lobby, selectively using human rights and international law to promote the ideological causes of its main patron, George Soros.
Israel is a favorite target for HRW and its long-time leader, Kenneth Roth. With an annual budget of $70 million, the organization produces a stream of “reports” condemning Israel for alleged war crimes and related violations, which are then cited in boycott resolutions and petitions to the International Criminal Court. Roth has stocked the Middle East and North Africa division with a number of BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) and lawfare activists, supported by a highly skilled public relations team.
Omar Shakir is one of HRW’s professional BDSers, hired in 2016 as a “researcher on Palestine.” He applied as a “foreign expert” for an Israeli work visa–routinely provided by the low-level clerks in the Interior Ministry to NGOs, including many deeply involved in propaganda wars. But by this point, the benign image of NGOs was gone, other ministries were consulted, and in early 2017, HRW received a letter denying the application and citing the organization’s track record of demonization. Sixteen years after HRW’s leading role in the infamous NGO Forum of the UN Durban Conference that launched BDS and labeled Israel an “apartheid state,” and nine years after HRW helped shape the Goldstone report fiasco, it appeared that Israel was finally taking NGO demonization seriously.
However, by sending Roth’s organization the response directly and not making it public on its own terms, Israel allowed HRW to control the story and spin the denial as another ostensibly anti-democratic move by the Netanyahu government. A flood of condemnations predictably followed (ignoring the fact that all democracies routinely deny visas on various grounds), and Israel suddenly and inexplicably reversed itself, and Shakir got a one-year visa.
If the ministries, including Strategic Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office, weighing in on NGO visas expected the reversal to cause HRW or Shakir to tone down the propaganda and seriously take up human rights violations of Hamas, they were wrong. Instead, the anti-Israel accusations and media performances (videos, press conferences, interviews, etc.) intensified. In the past year alone, HRW pushed divestment from Israeli banks, targeted Israel’s membership in FIFA (the international soccer association), called for arms embargoes and ending security cooperation, lobbied the UN to “blacklist” companies doing business in Israel, and petitioned the International Criminal Court to open prosecutions against Israeli officials. In the political theater of human rights, HRW displayed its mastery.
Shakir quickly assumed center stage. In a highly publicized May 2017 trip, he flew to Bahrain, ostensibly to push participants in a meeting of FIFA’s congress to take action against Israel. He also used Bahrain’s refusal to give him a visa to gain favorable press coverage for HRW’s campaign. On social media, he supported proposed US legislation to restrict military aid to Israel, repeating false NGO allegations on theme of systematic mistreatment of Palestinian children.
In response to the government’s apparent ineptness on this issue, an organization known as Shurat HaDin (Israel Law Center) filed suit arguing that Shakir’s activities violated a recent amendment designed to block visas for BDS activists and groups. This triggered a formal review by the ministries involved, and Shakir was informed in November 2017 that his visa was being reviewed. Shortly afterwards, in a particularly cynical move even for HRW, Deputy Director for the Middle East Eric Goldstein suddenly appeared and posted selfies of himself and Israel/Palestine Advocacy Director Sari Bashi at the site of a protest in Jerusalem demanding action to free Avera Mengistu, an Israeli who had crossed into Gaza in 2014 and was being held, along with two others also with mental health issues. Goldstein and Bashi said nothing about the two Israeli soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, killed in the 2014 war. Their bodies are still being held by Hamas, in blatant violation of all human rights norms.
HRW’s token interest in the human rights of Mengistu did not save Shakir’s visa, and he was notified that it would not be renewed. But again, the bureaucratic and political process that has no understanding of the theatrics of human rights gave HRW control over the story. For the second time, and without interference, HRW was able to sell the image of Israel as suppressing legitimate NGO criticism to sympathetic media and diplomatic audiences. Shakir, with the support of the wider NGO network, became the symbol of human rights, victimized by dark right-wing antidemocratic forces. In this role, he was embraced by the EU Delegation in Tel Aviv, including a group selfie with Shakir that described HRW as a “globally renowned” human rights organization.
Shakir and HRW then used the Israeli courts as a stage, claiming that “neither HRW – nor Shakir as its representative – advocate boycott, divestment or sanctions against companies that operate in the settlements, Israel or Israelis (sic).” The Israeli High Court rejected a stay on deportation pending legal review of the case, but Shakir got another round of media interviews and sympathetic coverage. The appeal, which can be expected to repeat the process, will be conducted without his physical presence. HRW will no create a virtual stage for Shakir, as well as sending talented proxies.
In over a year of engagements and skirmishes across many stages, Shakir and HRW emerged with their images enhanced. The Israeli government, in contrast, bumbled through every act–first in the botched handling and then reversal of HRW’s initial visa application, and then by giving HRW the basis for stage managing the decision not to renew it. While government officials belatedly recognized that HRW and soft power warfare are serious threats, their one-dimensional strategies are still blind to the crucial theatrics.