Dan Yakir – one of the first graduates of NIF’s prestigious Law Fellows program – is now one of Israel’s leading human rights lawyers. In 1995, he became Chief Legal Counsel of NIF flagship grantee the Association of Civil Rights in Israel’s (ACRI). Since then, he has won a range of precedent-setting cases before Israel’s Supreme Court. In July 2007, he was awarded the NIF UK Human Rights Award in recognition of his outstanding accomplishments in the field of human rights and civil liberties in Israel. To mark his 25th anniversary as Chief Legal Counsel, NIF asked him about the past, present, and future of human rights in Israel.
What’s changed since you started working for ACRI? “It’s a difficult time to be assessing the last 25 years, because the last two months of the summer were devastating, both because of the war in Gaza and because of what happened in Israel – the high rise in racism and intolerance, the violence against demonstrators, and the sanctions against employees who had expressed their views on Facebook. So the recent period was less good for human rights, but over the last 25 years there have been a lot of achievements, and the discourse around human rights has developed significantly. There were landmark Supreme Court decisions on cases brought by ACRI, but the main issues of the occupation and human rights violations persist – in these areas there wasn’t a significant and dramatic change, and the problems are unfortunately still with us.”
Do you see that changing in the near future? “Ending the occupation is clearly a political question. With the current reality, human rights organizations can try to ease the Palestinians’ harsh reality in the West Bank and Gaza and try to prevent human rights violations, but the broader problem of the occupation can only be solved through a political process.”
What have been the highlights of your career at ACRI? “There were two major decisions at the High Court of Justice. The first was in September 1999, where the Supreme Court struck down the investigation methods of the security services and said it was illegal to use physical force during the interrogations of Palestinians who were suspected of terrorist attacks. That was one of the most sensitive issues that the court had to deal with, and it had an immediate effect on the investigations of the Shabak [Shin Bet] – the head of the Shabak sent a new directive the same day ordering agents to stop using physical force. It wasn’t banned entirely, and there are still complaints, but it is clearly no longer used as a systematic policy during interrogations.”
And the other case? “There was the case of the Kaadan family, who wanted to buy a plot of land in Katzir [now Katzir-Harish, in Wadi Ara area], but were rejected because the land was leased to the Jewish Agency whose policy was to only settle Jews. In one of the Supreme Court’s most important decisions regarding the Arab citizens’ rights to equality, they ordered the ILA, which administers all state land, not to lease as a discriminatory body, and ruled that every Israeli citizen is entitled to a fair share of all public assets. It took another petition for the family to sign a lease on a plot of land in Katzir, and although few Arabs have moved to Jewish settlements, the significance of the judgment and its implications regarding issues of equality for Arab citizens of Israel was immense.”
What about the future? “It’s hard to foresee. There are many challenges ahead. First of all is the occupation and the human rights violations which will unfortunately continue to cast a shadow on all struggles for human rights in Israel. Another major front which has opened up in recent years is freedom of speech and demonstration, and the threats from police, which disperse legal demonstrations and arrests demonstrators, as well as the threat from private organizations and entities which use violence against demonstrators who oppose their message.”
What inspires you to continue this important work? “On a personal level I feel privileged to be involved in cases I truly believe in. There are only a handful of lawyers who can say that, and it’s been a special privilege to work over the years with my wonderful colleagues at ACRI – very special people with a lot of dedication, talent, and creativity. This empowers me to continue despite all the frustration, failures, and the dark side of the current reality in Israel.”
Are you hopeful? “Without any optimism it’s useless to continue to struggle for human rights, so I’m trying to maintain my optimism. There are advances both in the courts and through legislation, but the struggle continues and issues which we thought were settled long ago are now popping up again, like freedom of speech and demonstration, which we dealt with 20 or 30 years ago. It’s an uphill struggle, but it must continue.”