On Oct. 19, international human rights attorney Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), gave a talk in Stirn Auditorium on the organization’s 2021 report that found the Israeli government guilty of apartheid against its Palestinian population.
One of the largest international human-rights organizations headquartered in the U.S., HRW researches and reports on global human rights abuses.
The event was hosted by the Environmental Justice Alliance in collaboration with Liyang Amherst (a Philippines-focused human rights group) and Amherst Amnesty International.
According to two of the event’s organizers, Meenakshi Jani ’23 and Mollie Hartenstein ’23, the event was intended to serve as a starting point for more balanced and informed conversations about this issue on campus, and they hoped that Shakir’s expertise would inspire students to learn more about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Shakir’s presentation was a summary of the 214-page report in which HRW defines the Israeli treatment of Palestinians as apartheid. He began by providing a summary of the situation: The Israeli government rules over the area between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea, and it systematically privileges Jewish Israelis while repressing Palestinians.
His argument was systematic and empirical in nature, which is part of what made the presentation “extremely convincing,” said attendee Hannah Kim ’25. The first step was understanding the on-the-ground reality in Israel through case studies and past data. “The question was, ‘How does Israel treat Palestinians?’” said Shakir. The second step was to apply the legal definition of apartheid to the facts the report identified.
Shakir defined the crime of apartheid under international law as “inhumane acts committed with the intent to dominate amid a context of systematic oppression of one group over another.” During his presentation, he applied the case studies and data to each element of this definition: (1) Israel’s intent to dominate, (2) systematic oppression of Palestinians, and (3) inhumane acts carried out against the Palestinians.
He first explained Israeli intent to dominate through strategic management of land ownership. In Jerusalem, Israeli policy-planning documents lay out the goal of maintaining a Jewish majority in the city, even including target demographic ratios that would ensure a solid Jewish Israeli majority. In the West Bank, Israel’s policy has been to maximize Jewish Israeli land and isolate Palestinian populations in order to, according to the plans,“make it hard for Palestinians to create territorial contiguity and political unity.”
The second element of apartheid is the systematic oppression of an out group. In this case, Shakir referred to the 15-year closure and blockade of the Gaza Strip, which severely restricts entry and exit to and from the territory. “For the first three years of the closure, Israel calculated the average caloric intake they wanted to maintain for the population of Gaza and restricted what food was allowed in to match that target level,” reported Shakir. He also pointed to the fact that the majority of families in Gaza frequently lack electricity, unlike Jewish Israelis, as further evidence of such systematic oppression.
Shakir also discussed the separate legal status of Jewish Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. A Jewish Israeli and a Palestinian who commit the same crime and who live in the same neighborhood are subject to different laws and are tried in different courts. While the Israeli has due process rights under the law, the Palestinian does not. This creates a system in which Palestinians receive harsher sentences than Israelis for committing the same crimes.
Having shown the systematic oppression of the Palestinian people, Shakir explained, HRW identified five clusters of inhumane acts, the third element of apartheid, being carried out against Palestinians.
The first is the sweeping restriction of movement of Palestinians. This includes the 2.1 million Palestinians effectively trapped in the 25-by-7 mile territory of the Gaza Strip. Other examples of these restrictive policies include the requirement that Palestinians obtain permits to enter large portions of the West Bank. The second category of inhumane acts is the mass confiscation of Palestinian land, which is often re-allocated for illegal Israeli settlements. Other categories include policies that prevent Palestinians from building homes, schools and businesses, the limitation of the right of Palestinians to live in their cities of origin, and the suspension of Palestinian civil rights, including free expression, assembly and association.
The data in the report, compiled by HRW and other humanitarian groups such as Amnesty International, Al-Haq, and B’Tselem, allows HRW to conclude that Israeli authorities are guilty of apartheid against Palestinians, said Shakir.
Shakir also acknowledged the existence of threats to Israeli security, but he noted that “none of these policies are even justified by the Israeli government in the name of security.”“Just as ... security doesn’t justify torture, it doesn’t justify apartheid or other crimes against humanity,” he added.
Shakir also brought up the human rights abuse carried out by the Palestinian Authority and by Hamas authorities, noting that “they are a significant part of human rights abuses on the ground.” Still, he highlighted the inequality between the populations. “A single system methodically engineered to ensure the domination of one Jewish Israeli at the expense of another Palestinian is not a conflict between two equal parties,” he said.
The report concludes by recommending that perpetrators of the apartheid be investigated and held accountable for their crimes, and that third party states cease complicity in the apartheid.
Shair ended his presentation with a reflection on why the designation of apartheid matters. “The first step to solving a problem is to diagnose it correctly,” he remarked.
Both Jani and Hartenstein characterized the event as a success. “I felt like we were kind of able to create space for honest conversation,” Jani said, adding, “I was happy with the attendance at the event.” Hartenstein was also impressed by the diversity of attendees, “I think a good amount of people from different parts of campus and … of different beliefs showed up.” She also felt that the event succeeded in “shift[ing] the baseline assumption” that “anti-Zionism is violent toward Jewish people.”
Hartenstein, who described herself as a “Jewish woman on this campus who’s also anti-Zionist,” thought the event was specifically important to “try to challenge the narrative of Jewish support for the Israeli government … on this campus.”
She added that the designation of apartheid shifts the conversation from a moral judgement of the State of Israel to a judgement of apartheid — this allows for more productive and fact-based conversation of the issue, she said.
Jani also believed that the event was especially important for Amherst students due to the United States’s complicity in the Israel-Palestine conflict, a point Shakir also made in his presentation: “[Understanding the issue] is really our responsibility, because the United States is one of Israel’s strongest allies,” he said. “We are all connected to this.”
Jani was impressed with the speaker’s field-based experience: She called the event “a unique chance to hear from someone who was on the ground.” Shakir had spent several years in Israel observing the situation himself before being deported. For Jani, this first-hand knowledge contributed to her sense that he was presenting “very concrete parts of the situation.”
Hartenstein echoed this sentiment: “It’s really hard to challenge … someone who works for one of the largest human rights organizations in the country, who goes all over the world.”
Jani, Hartenstein, and Kim were receptive to the fact that Shakir repeatedly encouraged criticism of the report and of his presentation. “Please don’t take me at my word,” he said during the Q&A. “I want you to read the report, go Google criticisms of the report. Read those criticisms, make your own decision, make your own opinion.”
For Hartenstein and Jani, the discussion of the Israel-Palestine issue on campus is far from complete. Hartenstein’s vision for the discourse around the topic is “a recognition that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, that although Israel is a Jewish state, the actions of its government do not reflect Jewish values.” She believes that more public forums involving experts like Shakir will help inform a more productive conversation in the future.
“This is a campus of people who … care about learning,” Jani said. “There are definitely many students who … have a clear vision of what [they] want the world to look like.” The event was an important model of “bringing together education and advocacy,” Jani added, and she hopes that the college will continue to host more events like this one in the future.