Skip to content

Human Rights Watch's Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir speaks at Rutgers—Newark event

On February 29, Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), spoke at an event hosted primarily by the Rutgers Law Students for Justice in Palestine and the Center for Security Race and Rights at Rutgers—Newark. – Photo by i24NEWS English / YouTube

On February 29, the Rutgers Law Students for Justice in Palestine and the Center for Security Race and Rights at Rutgers—Newark, alongside other partners, hosted a talk with Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The event was focused on defining apartheid and human rights violations in the context of the Israel-Hamas war. It began with an introduction from a representative of the Students for Justice in Palestine at Rutgers—Newark detailing various experiences encountered by Palestinian activists and their allies on and off college campuses.

The representative said advocacy for Palestine has increased despite efforts to censor pro-Palestinian Rutgers community members since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, 2023.

They also referenced recent demonstrations of solidarity nationwide, including former active-duty member of the Air Force Aaron Bushnell's self-immolation outside of Israel's embassy in Washington, D.C. and a recent movement from Michigan's young voters to mark "uncommitted" on primary ballots.

"We have shown the U.S. and its corrupt officials that this is not something that we are willing to stand by and let happen," the representative said. "We have shown them that no matter how much propaganda and false information they try to throw at us, we will strive to push the truth forward and continue to do so no matter what they throw our way."

Afterward, Shakir opened his portion of the lecture by explaining the living situation in Gaza prior to Oct. 7, 2023, and the scope of the conflict's history.

"What's unprecedented is the scale of those atrocities, not the kind," Shakir said. "Because many of these abuses we've been seeing, documenting, speaking out on (have been happening) for years and for decades. And it's precisely the impunity for those grave abuses that produced the unspeakable atrocities that we're seeing on the ground today."

After Israel's initial military occupation from 1967 to 2005, Shakir said Israel continued to strictly regulate every aspect of life in Gaza, including transportation inside and outside of the region, access to utilities and natural resources and documentation.

Almost all shipments and travel, except for travel necessary for humanitarian reasons, were barred despite the fact that Gaza houses many refugees, he said. Those who demonstrated against these regulations were often killed.

"On October 6, you had 75 years, for the majority of the population (to be) refugees," he said. "Fifty-six to 57 years of occupation. Sixteen years of basically treating Gaza like an open-air prison, but that's not even the end."

Shakir then outlined his work at HRW, which involves observing how Palestinians and Israelis were treated across a span of two years and applying international human rights law pertaining to "apartheid," a term he defined as extreme oppression.

Laws against apartheid are the most stringent in the legal field of international human rights, he said. Apartheid is described as a crime against humanity by the Apartheid Convention of 1973 and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) of 2002. It requires three conditions to be met: act, intent and context.

To legally claim something to be apartheid, Shakir said it must be established that a certain group is attempting to maintain control over another group, that they are using inhumane actions to sustain this control and that these acts are part of a larger culture of oppression.

Considering these elements, Shakir said HRW found that citizenship and housing policies uniquely targeted Palestinians living in areas occupied by Israel.

Shakir said the Israeli government attributes these policies to safety, but that the intent of such policy is to control the region.

"The Israeli government has gone so far beyond what international law justifies that security no more justifies apartheid, as it would justify torture or unlawful killing or other abuses undertaken in the name of security," he said.

The Israeli government perpetuates a culture of oppression in the region by holding Palestinian and Israeli citizens to different legal and travel standards, Shakir said.

Restriction of travel, unlawfully obtaining and maintaining control over property and refusing recognition of residency, nationality and civil rights are all acts that satisfy the HRW's definitions of inhumane actions, he said.

Shakir then moved to discussing the events of Oct. 7, 2023, and its aftermath. 

Shakir stated that Hamas' acts of harming and taking civilians hostage in southern Israel that day should be identified as war crimes that should not be vindicated.

He said Israel's retaliation, which includes continuously denying utilities and humanitarian aid, destroying agricultural resources and bombing schools, medical and aid facilities cannot be justified either.

"That is textbook collective punishment," Shakir said. "That is a war crime under international law: punishing the entire civilian population for the acts of some individuals on October 7."

Shakir then discussed the role of International Court of Justice (ICJ) proceedings in a case, brought forth by South Africa, focusing on whether Israel was violating human rights conventions.

He said that in this case, ICJ determined it was possible that Israel was violating human rights conventions. The court ruled that Israel needed to prohibit acts, encouragement and commission of genocide in Gaza and safeguard evidence to prevent biased rulings.

He said Israel was required to report their compliance within a month, a deadline that passed on February 26. HRW and other groups released reports determining that Israel had not met the requirements set forth by the ICJ, while Israel released a separate confidential report to them.

The ICJ also holds another role in the Israel-Hamas war, Shakir said. For the second time since 2022, it has been asked to provide an advisory opinion on the conflict after finishing its review of more than 50 entities' critiques of Israel's actions and compliance with international law.

The ICJ's advisory opinion based on these arguments is expected to cover a few debated topics in the realm of this context.

First, the ICJ is expected to issue a ruling on whether Israel’s occupation of the region since the late 1960s was legal at all given its use of violence, Shakir said. Proponents of this case alternatively label Israel's acts as annexation, an illegal act or a violation of the right to self-determination.

He said proponents of the occupation sometimes justify it through self-defense, but an occupation that spans more than 50 years does not match the perceived level of threat.

Second, the ICJ will rule on which framework of governance should be given more priority in this case: human rights or humanitarian law. Third, the court could issue another ruling on grounds of persecution, racial discrimination or apartheid.

Lastly, the ICJ will also detail penalties for Israel and its allies for abetting and legitimizing acts that may be considered illegal.

Before moving on to an interactive forum with the audience, Shakir concluded his discussion by explaining a few questions that courts will need to answer or take into account.

Shakir first explained courts must consider more questions about how early into the occupation courts are permitted to make rulings, including whether the ICJ can rule on these issues at all yet. The courts must also consider whether the ways in which bombs and airstrikes have been used in Gaza have been appropriate and whether the decision they issue will be political.

He then called on people to reckon with the realities of life in Gaza and demand accountability. He attributed college administrations' censorship of Palestinian voices as a sign of their inability to legitimately advocate for the Israeli government's actions.

"The reason why we see the crackdowns happening on college campuses is because the supporters of apartheid (that) supported the Israeli government know they've lost the argument," Shakir said. "The last tool in the toolkit is to try and shut down the debate. But the more of us that stick out (our) necks, the harder it is to cut it off."

Related Articles

Join our newsletterSubscribe