When Airbnb, the online lodging service, announced in November that it would ban Israeli listings in the disputed West Bank, hardcore anti-Israel groups took an undeserved victory lap. Surprisingly, though, the credit belongs to Human Rights Watch, an nongovernmental organization with seemingly no reason to enter into the circus of anti-Israel activism.
With ground support from a big tent of vitriolic groups, it was HRW that pressured Airbnb into boycotting Israel. It was HRW that published “ Bed and Breakfast on Stolen Land,” a report documenting alleged human rights violations associated with renting Jewish properties in the West Bank. To avoid bad press, Airbnb yanked its Jewish-owned listings one day before the report dropped.
It’s unclear exactly when HRW began to juggle both human rights research and anti-Israel activism. One could point to the joint declaration of the 2001 NGO Forum in South Africa, reportedly formulated with Human Rights Watch’s assistance, which endorsed sanctions against the Jewish state. It also could have been 2004, when it hired anti-Israel activist Sarah Leah Whitson. Soon after she took over as Middle East director, HRW endorsed a campaign led by vehemently anti-Israel groups to suspend sales of Caterpillar equipment to the Jewish state after pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie was killed when she stood in the way of an Israeli military bulldozer.
By 2009, the anti-Israel invective reached a fever pitch, prompting HRW founder Robert Bernstein to pen a critical New York Times op-ed. Around this time, HRW became part of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a group dedicated to countering anti-Semitism, describes BDS as a “thinly-veiled, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic ‘poison pill,’ whose goal is the demonization, delegitimization, and ultimate demise of the Jewish State.”
Connections to the Palestinian NGO al-Haq may also explain HRW’s BDS contortions. The two groups have collaborated since at least 2007, when HRW urged Israel to allow al-Haq director Shawan Jabarin to travel abroad. According to a 1994 Israeli submission to the United Nations, Jabarin is a senior member of the terrorist group known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He was detained on seven occasions for his ties to the group, which he denies. In 2007, Israel Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein described Jabarin as a “Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde,” heading an NGO while also belonging to a terrorist group. In 2011, HRW appointed Jabarin as an adviser.
Labeled a terrorist group by the U.S., European Union, Canada, and Israel, the PFLP was notorious in the 1960s and 1970s for high-profile hijackings and attacks against Israelis. In October 2001, the group assassinated an Israeli minister. In 2014, the PFLP claimed responsibility for a gruesome attack on a Jerusalem synagogue that left six dead, including three American rabbis.
Jabarin denies his PFLP connections while he continues to assail Israel through his NGO, which has called for a European boycott on Jewish goods from the West Bank and a French financial boycott of Israel. Jabarin submitted several reports to the International Criminal Court as part of an anti-Israel lawfare campaign, and he was instrumental in the recent push in Ireland to criminalize business transactions with Jewish businesses in the West Bank.
Jabarin is not al-Haq’s only contribution to HRW. A former legal researcher with al-Haq, Anan AbuShanab, is currently HRW’s West Bank researcher. There is also Charles Shamas, a co-founder of al-Haq, who has been an HRW adviser since at least 2002. Shamas also founded the MATTIN Group, which lobbied Europe to exclude Israeli products from free trade agreements.
HRW has since joined several other controversial BDS campaigns. This includes the malicious 2015 effort to lobby the U.N. to blacklist Israel as an abuser of children in armed conflict. In 2016, the group unsuccessfully petitioned the world soccer federation FIFA to block matches in Israeli settlements.
In January 2016, HRW published “ Occupation, Inc.,” a report claiming Israeli businesses in the West Bank contribute to Palestinian human rights violations. The U.N. Human Rights Council, the group former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley blasted as a “cesspool of political bias,” soon called for a blacklist of companies operating in Israeli settlements, in line with HRW’s vision. HRW brass cheered the move and even recommended three companies to blacklist for good measure.
In October 2016, HRW hired BDS advocate Omar Shakir as its new Israel-Palestine director. In 2017 and 2018, HRW began pressuring banks to cease operations in Israeli settlements. It was also around this time that HRW began lobbying Airbnb and Booking.com to delist Jewish properties in the West Bank. When Airbnb relented in November, Arvind Ganesan, business and human Rights director at HRW, crowed, “Airbnb has taken a stand against discrimination, displacement, and land theft.”
While HRW may do serious work on other issues, it is now an activist group aligned with a vitriolic movement. The connection to al-Haq may explain some of this. But it’s unclear why HRW’s leadership, beginning with Executive Director Kenneth Roth, allowed an otherwise mainstream group to become a ringleader for BDS.
David May is a research analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president.