Why the Head of ACLU’s Human Rights Program Has Regrets About Emigrating From Israel

Palestinian-Israeli lawyer Jamil Dakwar, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Program, has worked toward justice at Guantanamo, represented CIA torture victims and developed a unique view of U.S. and Israeli rights violations

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ג'אמיל דקוור
Jamil Dakwar. “Israel has created a system that looks liberal and democratic from the outside, and it actually is like that for Jews. But it’s hard to find a parallel anywhere in the world for the level of day-to-day oppression, the control of the life of certain populations, particularly Palestinians.”Credit: Nir Arieli
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

The offices of the American Civil Liberties Union are situated in an elegant building at the southernmost point in Manhattan, the island’s pointed edge, at the confluence of the East River and the Hudson River. It’s hard not to be impressed by the power this location exudes, where the huge buildings of Manhattan’s financial district, one of the world’s great centers of wealth and power, reside alongside a few small buildings that have survived from the city’s earliest days.

From the windows of the ACLU’s offices, which take up three floors of a 40-story skyscraper, looms a different, but no less breathtaking, slice of landscape. The symbols are there, too: the Statue of Liberty, embodying the American idea of freedom, equality and a safe haven, and not far from there, Ellis Island, which was the main point of entry for successive waves of immigration to the U.S. for over half a century, through which 12 million immigrants from all over the world entered the country. Many were refugees who had been persecuted in their homelands; others sought to start a new life in a land that promised, ostensibly, a fair opportunity for freedom and economic prosperity. The staff of the organization whose building overlooks this historic site in New York Harbor are dedicated to correcting the faults that on many occasions prevent the United States from fulfilling this promise.

Jamil Dakwar, the director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program, did not pass through Ellis Island – it was closed as a site for immigrant intake in 1954 and more recently converted into a museum – but he himself is a relatively new U.S. citizen, one who possesses a unique perspective of life on both sides of the barrier.

He was born 49 years ago in Haifa, attended a prestigious local high school – the Orthodox Arab College – and got a bachelor’s in law at Tel Aviv University, where he also headed the Arab Student Union.

A Palestinian student of Israeli citizenship in a Jewish university didn’t have an easy time in the first half of the 1990s, he relates, particularly in the wake of the general euphoria over the Oslo Accords. “There was a festive atmosphere all around, because peace had arrived,” he recalls, “but from our point of view, the Palestinian students, we felt that that wasn’t really what was happening, because in reality we still suffered discrimination when we tried to rent an apartment in [the upscale, Jewish neighborhood of] Ramat Aviv, we were still viewed as second-class citizens and we weren’t given equal access to all the same things that Jewish students had access to.” (These included lack of recognition for the elected Arab Student Union, funding for Arabic-language cultural activities or the ability to study in Arabic, among other things, according to Dakwar.)

“We also possessed political awareness and we understood that Oslo wasn’t the right thing, the way it was done. It was clear that the agreement wasn’t based on equality, but on one very strong side dictating terms to the other, weak side. We advocated for Israel to be a state of all its citizens [the term used to refer to a situation of complete equality for all citizens, on both the individual and collective levels]. And when [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin ordered the expulsion of 415 members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to Lebanon in 1992, hardly any of the law professors talked about the fact that the move was contrary to international law. So it was an interesting experience, to put it mildly.”

In 1997, after graduating, Dakwar began work as an attorney at the newly founded NGO Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. To this day, he is involved in various initiatives intended to defend the rights of Palestinians, both citizens and residents of the occupied territories.

One achievement of which Dakwar is proud from his stint at Adalah is a 1998 settlement of a case before the Supreme Court, in which Ma’atz, as the National Roads Company was then known in Hebrew, agreed to add Arabic names to all of Israel’s intercity road signs, most of which were until then in Hebrew and English only. “It was the first brief to argue that this was a violation not only of language rights but also of the human dignity of Arabic speaking Palestinians, because Arabic was an official language – this was of course before the nation-state law” – a reference to the 2018 Basic Law that demoted Arabic from “official” status to that of a “special” one.

The court encouraged the two sides to come to a compromise, under which all the country’s road signs would become trilingual in five years. “It took more than five years,” Dakwar says, “and there are still many problems with it – for example, instead of writing ‘Bir Seba,’ the Arabic name of Be’er Sheva, they simply used Arabic letters to write ‘Be’er Sheva.’ Or ‘Akko’ [Acre], even though in Arabic it’s ‘Akka’, and Jaffa is ‘Yaffa.’ Why not write ‘Akka’? Or, they minimized the importance of large Arab cities. For example, where do you see signs that direct you to Nazareth? You only see them when you’re very close to the city itself. But signs for Jewish cities that are far smaller, like Afula, will appear far earlier [along the road]. It’s a diminishment of the Arab presence.”

How is Jerusalem written? I think signs also say “Al-Quds.”

“Both. It appears as ‘Urashalim’ [an Arabic transliteration of the Hebrew ‘Yerushalyim’] and sometimes as ‘Al-Quds.’ This was the first case I advocated on behalf of Adalah. In the petition, I quoted something interesting I had found, a study that was done at the Technion [Institute of Technology] in the 1980s, showing that the absence of road signs in Arabic created a safety problem. Because the first thing Arab drivers will read is their mother language. If you are an Arab driver, and you don’t see Arabic on the sign, you will find it hard to understand the directions. In addition to the principled argument that Arabic must appear on the signs, because it is the language of 20 percent of the country’s population – we spoke about [Arabs’] collective rights, arguments which the Supreme Court hadn’t heard before.

“In another petition that was submitted afterward with ACRI, requesting the addition of Arabic to the local street signs in the mixed cities of Upper Nazareth [today Nof Hagalil], Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Ramle, Lod and Acre, the High Court of Justice ruled in favor by two to one. [Justice Dalia] Dorner wrote the majority decision in 2002. [Justice Mishael] Cheshin was in the minority; he wrote that there was no such thing as group rights in Israel – in Israel there are only individual rights. [Court President] Aharon Barak concurred with Dorner. He maintained that Arabic is an official language of the State of Israel and must be treated accordingly.”

When the decision was handed down, Dakwar was already in New York, having arrived there with his then-wife and their first child, a son, who was then 2 years old; his wife was doing a doctorate at Columbia University Teachers College, in communication disorders. Dakwar did a master’s at New York University Law School and intended to do a doctorate before returning to Israel. “But my doctoral proposal wasn’t accepted, and it occurred to me that this was a sign for me to go back to legal advocacy.”

He received a research fellowship from Human Rights Watch, also based in New York. “I worked in the Middle East and North Africa division, and published a report on how the criminal justice system in Morocco reacted to the [series of 12 simultaneous] terror attacks in Casablanca in 2003, when 33 civilians were killed. And at the end of my fellowship, I also conducted a study on the use of torture in Israel.”

Security prisoners at Guantanamo. “There were reports about former Israeli interrogators who assisted with the interrogations there.”Credit: Marc Serota / REUTERS

When the fellowship ended, in 2004, he received a job offer from the ACLU, which was in the process of establishing a program within its legal department to examine the application of an international human-rights framework to U.S. domestic law. Dakwar’s extensive experience in similar cases rendered him particularly suitable for the position.

He has been there ever since, for 18 years, initially as a rank-and-file attorney, now as director of the program. As far as he knows, he is the first Palestinian lawyer and then director ever hired by the ACLU – and he hadn’t yet obtained U.S. citizenship. From this anomalous position, he also learned a lot about the balance of powers and interplay of interests between states and their intelligence and security authorities, on one hand, and ordinary citizens on the other. As a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, working for an American organization, he succeeded frequently, he says, in confusing the authorities with which he came into contact. The result, as we will see later, was that no few odd moments occurred that made clear to him first-hand the schematic conceptions the system entertains about the connection between origin, nationality and motivations.

‘Basic protections’

I am interviewing Dakwar in English, even though he was born, raised and attended school in Israel, and speaks fluent Hebrew. English is more comfortable for him, slightly for political reasons, perhaps, but mainly because it’s the language he has used to talk about his work for two decades. From the outset, he draws a distinction between what he will say within the framework of his position in the ACLU, related to his field, and his opinions about Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, which are his personal views and do not represent the organization he works for. The ACLU itself refrains strictly from taking a position on foreign policy issues or intervening in national or ethnic conflicts, other than cases in which the United States is involved in human rights violations in other countries, such as use of torture, or other war crimes committed by United States forces overseas.

Shortly after he began working at the ACLU, in 2004, Dakwar was sent to be one of the first observers of the military commissions in the American detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which was established after the events of September 11, 2001. Among other cases, Dakwar was present as an observer in the hearing of Salim Ahmad Hamdan, a Yemeni national who was Osama bin Laden’s personal driver. Subsequently, Hamdan appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that the military commissions were violating the basic legal protections to which he was entitled, and asked to be tried in civilian court.

Dakwar: “That case put to the test the question of whether the president has the authority to create a military commission by executive order. In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that he does not have that authority, and then the administration asked the U.S. Congress to enact a special law, the Military Commissions Act. But the important part of that decision was that the Supreme Court ruled that the international conflict the United States was engaged in against Al-Qaida was also subject to the Geneva Conventions. It follows that there are basic protections that must be given to all individuals – regardless of their status as combatants or civilians directly participating in hostilities – who are being held in detention as part of the United States’ ‘Global War on Terrorism.’ Even for people who committed grave crimes, it is essential that basic principles regarding humane treatment and a fair trial be observed.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, President George W. Bush was compelled to shut down all the secret detention facilities run by the CIA that were scattered in various countries and in which abusive interrogations were being conducted, including with methods of torture, and in total secrecy. The 119 detainees in these facilities – in Afghanistan, Poland, Morocco, Thailand and other places, as well as an unknown number of other detainees whose identities remain classified – were incarcerated incommunicado and without access to lawyers, courts, family members or even the International Red Cross. Most of them were released back to their countries when the facilities were shut down, but 16 of them, who were classified as “high value detainees,” were transferred to Guantanamo.

Were there such detention facilities in Israel?

“I don’t think they were held in Israel, but there was at least one person who was arrested in Jordan and brought to Israel for interrogation, and then released to the Gaza Strip. There were reports about former Israeli interrogators who assisted with the interrogations at Guantanamo or who trained interrogators, but there isn’t much evidence that Israel directly supplied training or instruction in interrogation methods that included torture. However, a decision by the High Court of Justice in Israel from 1999 – in petitions filed by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, setting forth what are considered unacceptable means of interrogation – was quoted in one of the U.S. Justice Department’s legal memoranda, in order to show that there are certain methods of interrogation in Israel that are not considered torture there.”

In Guantanamo, they tried bypassing centuries-old laws of due process … It’s a big mistake to try, early in the 21st century, to create a judicial system that is based on secrecy and on violating the right to a fair and just trial.

Jamil Dakwar

On a shelf in Dakwar’s small office is a portrait of Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery in the United States in 1818, but was able to escape and become a major activist in the struggle to abolish slavery. There’s also a photograph of Malcolm X, the Black, American and Muslim human rights activist, who was assassinated in 1965. On another wall is a work that political cartoonist Joe Sacco did for The Guardian, documenting one of the important legal cases in which Dakwar was involved. In that instance he represented Iraqis who had been tortured by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib, a prison complex west of Baghdad, following the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003. Their attempts to bring suits against U.S. officials who authorized a policy of torture were dismissed in federal court, on the grounds that the constitutional and international law protections did not apply to Iraqi and Afghan nationals in American custody in those countries and that U.S. officials were immune from lawsuits stemming from actions taken "within the scope of their official duties."

Says Dakwar: “All the lawsuits against U.S. officials dealing with the abusive interrogation methods used by the CIA and military against detainees following the 9/11 attacks were dismissed, except for the suit we filed against the psychologists who helped the CIA create its torture program, in which we reached a settlement.”

The latter occurred in 2017, when a Federal District Court in Spokane, Washington, addressed a civil suit brought against two psychologists, Dr. Bruce Jessen and Dr. James Mitchell. It was alleged that the two, former subcontractors for the CIA who established a company for that purpose, had been paid $81 million in return for planning a program of interrogation techniques that included torture for the agency. The ACLU filed the suit on behalf of two former prisoners who had been held in a secret U.S. facility in Afghanistan, Mohamed Ben Soud and Suleiman Salim, and the family of a third detainee, Gul Rahman, who died in custody from torture and whose place of burial remains unknown.

In August 2017, to avoid a public trial by jury, the case was settled. The details of the settlement were not disclosed. According to Dakwar, the very fact that the court recognized the possibility of bringing individuals to trial for being involved in interrogations that used torture – and also ordered declassification of many documents that shed light on the procedures employed in American detention facilities worldwide – constituted an important legal landmark.

“It wasn’t a big class-action suit, but in the end, it was our most successful case,” Dakwar notes. “Through this case we obtained a great deal of information that would otherwise not have been made public. These subcontractors had never been brought to criminal trial, because it was claimed that there was insufficient evidence to convict them. But here, we reached the stage of depositions and discovery, and we think that the federal government wanted to close the case quickly, because otherwise they would have been compelled to go up the chain of command to President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

An unidentified detainee standing on a box with a bag on his head and wires attached to him, at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.Credit: AP

“In Europe, too,” he continues, “there were attempts by the Center for Constitutional Rights to hold U.S. officials accountable by asking prosecutors to open criminal investigations into suspected commission of war crimes. In parallel, the International Criminal Court prosecutor initiated its own investigation into the armed conflict in Afghanistan. But because the United States is not a member of the ICC, it argued that there was no jurisdiction to investigate. The court rejected that argument, because the suspected war crimes in question occurred in Afghanistan, which since 2003 has been a member of the ICC. The investigation was initiated in 2006, and a full investigation was subsequently authorized, but last year the prosecutor decided to deprioritize it because of limited Taliban cooperation. The ICC investigation is not against the United States as a state, but against American officers or agents who were involved in torture. There have not been any criminal prosecutions of CIA torture program in the United States, and any attempts to file civil lawsuits in American courts have been unsuccessful, on various grounds, including immunity, lack of jurisdiction, or the fact that they dealt with American actions perpetrated overseas, or because of the potential threat of state secrets being revealed.”

Sounds familiar.

“Exactly. What’s interesting in Israel is that there is more standing to bring suits and petitions, making it possible for more plaintiffs to appear before the courts, even in cases against security forces relating to treatment of Palestinians from the occupied West Bank or Gaza.. But once the court is approached, the decisions are usually made according to the same rationale as in the United States: namely, in line with what is perceived as considerations of military and national security. The state possesses the authority to do these things and has immunity from civil suits and claims of compensation, and it is difficult to enforce international law obligations in courts.”

For these reasons, in the United States, Dakwar explains, most suits dealing with human rights violations involving detainees from foreign countries are rejected outright. Those who have had their standing recognized were detainees from Guantanamo, about which it was difficult to argue that it is not under American control. But this, too, he says, is old news, as the present composition of the U.S. Supreme Court shows a rightward tilt. Even a modicum of success, such as in the case of Salim Ahmad Hamdan, is unlikely to repeat itself.

“There were also suits that were rejected based on grounds of immunity or of the power of the authority that carried out the actions, such as torture. The court said that it was done within the framework of their job. We argued that it was inconceivable for approval of torture to be within the scope of anyone’s job.”

Even though under the Geneva Conventions, torture is not legal?

“The United States ratified those conventions, but did not make them enforceable in the courts. The position of the U.S. government was that the Geneva Conventions are a contract between states. And if damage was caused to one of the sides, it had to be dealt with at the interstate level. In its attempts to evade the Geneva Convention, the United States was very much influenced by the legal theories that developed and were presented in the courts in Israel, and afterward migrated to academia and the legal world in the United States.”

I often feel remorse [about staying in the U.S.], and I try to find ways to devote some of my time and my expertise to various initiatives that are trying to support the legal community defending human rights in Israel.

Jamil Dakwar

Such as?

“Israel has the Unlawful Combatants Law. It was enacted originally to place certain Hezbollah combatants outside the bounds of the Geneva Conventions, so that Israel could hold them as detainees indefinitely, for use as future bargaining chips in prisoner exchange deals. When the bill was brought to the Knesset, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which generally does not take a public stand during political deliberations, intervened and said that it was out of the question to create a new category like this of human beings who are beyond the bounds of protection under international humanitarian law. The 9/11 attacks occurred shortly afterward, and then the Bush regime also created a category of ‘unlawful enemy combatants’ – people who would be outside the protection of international humanitarian and human rights law.

“It was argued that people who were taken into custody on suspicion of involvement in terror attacks are not entitled to even the most basic standard of humane treatment, and that the Geneva Conventions are not meant to apply to them. It was further argued that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) does not apply to American forces overseas, and of course that the U.S. Constitution is also not applicable outside the United States. The result was the formation of a legal black hole that leaves people in limbo, in regions where there is no law that applies to them. In fact, the U.S. and Israel are the only countries to claim that the ICCPR doesn’t apply extraterritorially.”

John Adams’ inspiration

Morally and philosophically, I am puzzled: If it’s known for certain that someone is responsible for the mass murder of innocent people – someone like bin Laden himself, let’s say – in your opinion does he still have rights that the human community should protect?

“Everyone, irrespective of their crimes, even those who committed the most heinous acts, has certain basic rights. Especially in the context of criminal trials. At a minimum, they are entitled to a fair legal process and a just trial. Even if they committed crimes that themselves violated these basic principles. In the Guantanamo context, we created [together with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers] the John Adams Project, whose aim is to recruit defense counsel in order to represent persons who are accused of capital crimes before Guantanamo’s military commissions. The inspiration for it was John Adams, America’s second president, and who, at the start of the U.S. War of Independence provided legal defense to the British soldiers who in Boston had massacred people demonstrating against colonial rule. He argued that even they deserved a fair trial and proper legal procedure.”

Is that possible in every instance? For example, would you term the Eichmann trial fair? A trial was held, Eichmann was represented, but did it conform to all the rules of proper legal procedure? Did Eichmann have a chance of being acquitted?

“That’s a good question. I haven’t studied the Eichmann trial sufficiently and I don’t know whether it was conducted according to all the fair legal standards, but it was definitely a groundbreaking trial. As far as I remember, the defense dealt quite a bit with the question of the legality of Eichmann’s kidnapping itself and of bringing him to trial in Israel. And besides that, Eichmann was the first to be accused of committing crimes against humanity, and Israel was one of the first states to enact such a law. Israeli law refers only to crimes against humanity perpetrated by Nazis.”

Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, standing trial in Israel, being examined by a doctor in his cell in the Ramle Prison.Credit: John Milli, GPO

In other words, Israel would not have brought to trial other criminals who committed crimes against humanity in other contexts, like the Serbian politician Slobodan Milosevic, for example.

“Right. But the hand of Israeli law against Nazi criminals also reaches beyond the borders of the State of Israel, which corresponds with the accepted practice today regarding such laws. Today there is an area of law – universal jurisdiction – according to which, countries are able to investigate and prosecute international crimes, even if those crimes were not committed in their territory, and even if the crimes were not committed against their own citizens. So, the procedure that was right for the Eichmann trial exists today in other places as well. In any event, that was a trial that became [an occasion for] documentation of the horrors of the Holocaust. It wasn’t just an ordinary trial. In the Eichmann trial, due process even gave him the possibility of an appeal of his conviction to the Supreme Court.

“One can also consider the Demjanjuk trial in Israel, whose guilty verdict was overturned on appeal, resulting in his acquittal, because the prosecution was unable to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Following that, Demjanjuk was released, and he returned to the United States. Later he was extradited to Germany and convicted there. [John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-American who was a guard in the Nazis’ Sobibor death camp, was convicted of being an accessory to the murder of nearly 30,000 people.] So, even in the case of these terrible people, who perpetrated mass killings of human beings, we must not take shortcuts when it comes to justice and their being brought to trial.”

Can you imagine Osama bin Laden having been brought to trial in the United States?

“The person accused of planning the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is now in Guantanamo and facing trial by a military commission. The Obama administration tried to bring him to federal trial here in the Southern District of Manhattan; the only reason it didn’t happen was because of heavy pressure by businesspeople and political figures, who claimed that the security arrangements would paralyze the whole area. I think it was possible, and important, [to try him in the United States], even if it entailed difficulties.

"I am not saying that the American judicial system as a whole is always fair. It has serious flaws, especially in regard to marginalized groups – Black, brown and Indigenous people. But we still believe that a federal court is the best way to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others who are facing capital charges of terrorism and conspiracy to commit murder.

“That is preferable because of the protections afforded by the rule of law and in order to preserve basic rights of due process, and it’s good for the victims of the 9/11 attack who sought justice. It’s also good in order to show that this type of crime cannot be swept under the carpet because the authorities wanted to secure easy and quick convictions, and were ready to use lower standards of due process and secrecy, in order to shield what was done in the CIA torture program. In Guantanamo, they tried bypassing centuries-old laws of due process and fair trials, and attempted to create a new system from scratch. It’s a big mistake to try, early in the 21st century, to create a judicial system that is based on secrecy and on violating the right to a fair and just trial.”

When suits you file are rejected time after time with all kinds of ploys such as creating extraterritorial locations where the law does not apply, or when you are an observer of military commissions that are posing as legitimate judicial bodies, don’t you feel the limitations of this way of thinking, of the atmosphere of agreement within which you operate? Doesn’t the law come across as lacking all significance and force?

“That sort of feeling exists. You feel that you have no control over what is happening. But we do the best we can, and the best we can do is to continue to challenge the system, to continue to raise these principled objections. It really is difficult to operate in a system like this, which doesn’t give you enough tools to put up a significant defense of the accused.”

The guard [in Morocco] couldn’t decide if I was an agent of the Mossad or CIA. So he called in a security team. At the police station, I actually was subjected to a mild version of the procedure I was investigating.

Jamil Dakwar

To Dakwar, this scenario very much brings to mind the military courts in Israel. “The maximum that lawyers in them can do is to reduce the damage to their clients,” he says. “The conviction rates in Israeli military courts in the territories are something like 99 percent. It is not a legitimate system of justice. That is why Israel did not bring Marwan Barghouti before a military court in 2002 [when he was indicted on murder charges for offenses that occurred during the second intifada], but tried him in a civilian court in Tel Aviv – which he boycotted – in part from a desire to avoid questions of legitimacy.

“When I worked in Adalah, I defended a political activist, a Palestinian Israeli citizen from Reineh, a small village near Nazareth, who was arrested during the October 2000 protests at the beginning of the second intifada. He was held in administrative detention [incarceration without charge or trial] because there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him. It was almost impossible to defend him, all the evidence was classified. In the course of our representing him, it was claimed by the Shin Bet [security service] that we had received classified material by mistake, and so they asked the court to issue a search warrant for our offices. I think it was deliberate, they just wanted to intimidate us. But we were not intimidated, and we were not deterred. They showed up, and we told them they couldn’t search our offices without a representative of the Israeli Bar Association also being present, and they left after local activists and media showed up.”

As a Palestinian activist, have you ever thought you could be more useful by returning to Israel?

“The truth is, I always harbor a certain feeling of betrayal. I also felt that I was betraying my parents, who very much wanted us to return. When I came to the United States, I was already married and had a 2-and-a-half-year-old son. The intention was to return to Israel after four or five years, at most. I always felt very connected, and I continue to be connected to what is happening there, both because my parents and my friends and my community are there, but also because the serious violations of human rights committed by Israel. So I often feel remorse, and I try to find ways to devote some of my time and my expertise to various initiatives that are trying to support the legal community defending human rights in Israel and Palestine. In certain instances, I have helped by bringing cases to courts in the United States, so as to hold Israeli officials accountable for human rights violations.

“The ACLU cooperates with organizations in 14 other countries, including Israel, Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia and Russia, as part of the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations – INCLO. We issue reports about the use of force, including the illegal use of ‘less-lethal’ weapons, and about government surveillance problems and the like. For example, several reports that were written in conjunction with INCLO organizations, including our Israeli partner, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, contain legal analysis and case studies from Israel. Because Israel is a laboratory for the development and use of surveillance technology and weapons, mainly on the Palestinians under development, and from which it is often exported to other countries.”

Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind, in 2003. He’s currently facing trial by a military commission.Credit: AP

On the other hand, did you ever feel that people are looking at you oddly – why is this guy, who before 2019 wasn’t even an American, doing this work? You’re in a position of criticizing the U.S. administration, and you are not from here.

“Yes, it’s a very unusual thing, though I have worked with a handful of ACLU colleagues who were also not citizens. But at the ACLU I have never been made to feel that I’m different. The difference is felt more outside the organization. In a broader sense, the main thing people don’t like about the ACLU is that we try to hold the government responsible for its deeds.”

In fact, Dakwar’s foreignness was actually one of the main reasons he was hired by the ACLU: “Most of the people who work here are graduates of American law schools. Few have an international background. I was hired because of my background in international human rights. They thought they needed people with a grasp of international mechanisms and international law, plus the organization can better represent people who are mainly Arabic speakers and who are victims of torture. I can communicate with them in Arabic without an interpreter, which is tremendously important for building relations of trust. At first I didn’t even have a Green Card, I was simply on a work visa. And when I traveled to Guantanamo, it was strange, because I had to get a security clearance every time I went there. Maybe because my passport was Israeli, it was easier for me to get to Guantanamo, which would naturally be more difficult for others who are also not American citizens, especially if they’re from the Middle East.”

It’s amusing to think that as a Palestinian, your Israeli passport gave you an advantage.

“Yes, it was easy to get the security authorizations. My guess is that it’s because Israel has a close relationship to America and supports it in its struggle against terrorism, something like that. But before that, when I traveled to Morocco for Human Rights Watch on an Israeli passport, to conduct a human rights investigation, it was a bit more complicated. I came with a letter from the organization, in case something happened, and something did in fact happen while I was doing my field research in the city of Fez. I took a picture of the courthouse from the outside, and a security guard stopped me and took me to the prosecutor’s office. He looked at me and he couldn’t comprehend what he saw: a guy with an Israeli passport and the business card of an American organization, who has an Arab name and speaks fluent Arabic.

“He couldn’t decide if I was an agent of the Mossad or the CIA. So he called in a security team. They held me in a room with no windows and said they needed to take me to the police. At the police station, I actually was subjected to a mild version of the procedure I was meant to be investigating: process and the conditions of detention and interrogation in Morocco. It fascinated me. Suddenly I felt an interrogation on my flesh – even though, of course, I did not undergo torture and I was not beaten. In the end, the call from Rabat arrived telling them to release me. I realized that I needed to leave the city as fast as possible, so I went straight to the train station. There I noticed that someone was following me to make sure I boarded the train back to Rabat.’

After obtaining U.S. citizenship, in 2019, Dakwar observed that he was in fact getting stricter attention at TSA security points. “When I traveled to the United States with an Israeli passport, I was not profiled in airports even though I have an Arab name. If I’d had a passport of a Palestinian from Jordan or travel documents from East Jerusalem, it would have been harder to enter and leave. But with an Israeli passport, I didn’t encounter any difficulties entering the United States... They simply treated me as an Israeli citizen.

“In terms of the identification system at U.S. border crossings, I’m not considered a Palestinian, not even an Arab. That shows the absurdity of the system. People complain about Israel for discriminating against Muslim Americans and Arab Americans at border crossings, and also against political activists, BDS activists and so forth. And without justifying what Israel does, the United States also has a very problematic profiling system against Muslims and political activists. We have represented people who did not receive a visa because they expressed support for the Palestinian struggle. During the period of the Trump administration, we saw that they monitored people’s use of social media as part of their visa-issuing process, and there were cases of entry being denied even to people who had a valid U.S. visa.”

In Dakwar’s view, these spheres in which the United States and Israel operate in similar fashion create a type of fraternity between the two countries. They cooperate in defending each other in cases where an effort is being made to hold them responsible for serious crimes.

It looks as though Israel and the United States tend to steal horses together.

“The two countries are said ‘to share common values.’ You hear that here on Israel’s Independence Day, when administration officials congratulate Israel, and vice versa. I agree with academics and activists who understand the history of the United States and the history of Israel, and who will say that they agree that the two countries have common values: values of settler-colonialism, land-plundering, police brutality and militarization, racial segregation – there are plenty of shared values in that sense. You see police and army violence in both countries, assaults on civilians, unfair military judicial proceedings. In the United States it’s an assault on migrants and racism against Black people, in Israel against asylum seekers and migrants, and of course Palestinians. Those are things that are unbelievably alike.

“I took two delegations of lawyers and activists from the United States to Israel, and I insisted that we visit a refugee aid center, too, because I wanted people to see not only what is happening in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, but also how African asylum seekers are treated in the heart of Tel Aviv.”

Where is the situation worse in terms of human rights – Israel or the United States?

“It’s hard to say. Israel has created a system that looks liberal and democratic from the outside, and it actually is like that for Israeli Jews, who feel that the situation is reasonable. But it’s hard to find a parallel anywhere in the world for the level of day-to-day oppression, the control of the life of certain populations, particularly the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There’s perhaps a similarity to the United States as it was in the period of the Jim Crow laws, or during the worst times of discrimination against Black people in the South.

“The United States is still a terrible place for many people, in terms of their ability to feel secure and equal. Especially for Black, brown and Indigenous people. That relates to some of the work I’ve done in recent years in an attempt to promote racial justice in the United States – to turn the United States into a place to which the world will look not only as a beacon of democracy, in its own eyes, but as a place that is also fulfilling the promise of racial equality for everyone.

“There are attempts in the United States to censor the study of slavery, of genocide, of gender inequality, and there are attempts to erase identities of entire groups, be it the hundreds of bills at the state level against transgender people, or the censorship of books and learning materials in school curricula. So not only has there never been full recognition or reparations for slavery, they also don’t want the subject to be discussed. And to return to your question of where it’s worse – it’s hard to say. It’s always worst for the people who are enduring it.”



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