Hafez Omar is a Palestinian artist and a recognised human rights defender based in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. His work, which is powerful, visually and politically, has been utilised to educate a global audience on the human rights violations Palestinians face and experience daily under military occupation.
On Human Rights Day, Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights can announce that we have nominated Hafez Omar for the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards Fellowship 2021: “an award which honours the world’s most remarkable free expression heroes.”
Index on Censorship is a London-based non-profit organisation that publishes work by censored writers and artists and campaigns against censorship worldwide. Winners will receive 12 months of mentorship, networking and strategic support.
LPHR’s nomination of Hafez Omar is supported by an endorsement from Front Line Defenders who work to protect those classified as ‘Human Rights Defenders’ – individuals who work, non-violently, to protect and promote rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Hafez’s artwork and its inextricable relationship to defending basic human rights
Hafez’s widely spread work has gained rightful acclaim. His images have contributed to Palestinian issues being visible on a global level and, therefore, alive and in the public eye. Hafez’s work strongly relies on, and in turn improves, the right to freedom of expression.
Illustratively, Hafez is vocal on the issue of Israel’s military occupation, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and house demolitions. NGOs in the occupied Palestinian territory have used Hafez’s art as posters to educate and inform, domestically and internationally, the pervasive human rights violations faced by Palestinians living under military occupation.
Further, Hafez’s work has also greatly assisted with establishing a presence online with respect to individual human rights cases, including an image of a faceless political prisoner on hunger strike in an Israeli prison. This avatar by Hafez was used by thousands to replace their Facebook and Twitters profile photos. His work contributed to much needed discourse on alleged ill-treatment in prisons, arbitrary detention and the psychological effects harsh and unwarranted incarceration have on individuals and their families.
Finally, Hafez’s work has sought to deepen connections with other humanitarian issues across the world. Notably, Hafez has demonstrated solidarity with youth movements during the Arab Spring and other international movements to protect, promote and support human rights.
Attacks on Hafez and his artwork: Israel’s military authorities suppressing freedom of expression
Hafez had opened a new graphic studio and was working prior to being arrested by Israeli military police in a terrifying night raid on his house at 4:45am on 13 March 2019. He was not told why he was arrested or what charges – if any – he was facing. His phone was confiscated and he was handcuffed and blindfolded. On the same night, 23 other Palestinians were also arrested in their homes by Israeli security forces, which resulted in clashes that broke out on the streets of Ramallah. When taking Hafez Omar, the officers made him walk in front of them through the clashes effectively using him as a human shield. The use of human shields is prohibited under international law and constitutes a war crime.
Hafez was detained and denied access to a lawyer. Hafez’s pretrial detention was extended by a military court eight times over the course of nearly a year prior to his sentencing. On 8 January 2020, the Public Prosecution filed an indictment accusing him of ‘incitement against the Palestinian Authorities and Israel’, ‘joining the youth movement’, and ‘helping a wanted person’. On 26 February 2020, Hafez was sentenced to 13 months imprisonment by a military court, on the basis of amended charges relating to political activities which included ‘illegal assembly’ and ‘stone throwing’. Hafez pleaded guilty upon legal advice that he would not face a fair trial under Israel’s military court system and to mitigate the substantial risk of an excessive sentence if he did not take a guilty plea. Hafez was also fined 2000 NIS which is approximately 520 Euros, a considerable sum for the region. Hafez was released on 12 April 2020 after being in continuous military incarceration for 13 months. Hafez’s family were banned from visiting him in prison for the first ten months of his imprisonment and this was the source of acute pain for Hafez and particularly his mother.
It is deeply disturbing that Hafez clearly appears to have been punitively targeted by Israel’s military authorities due to his prominence and to attempt to deter him from his impactful work.
How are Israel’s military authorities trying to continue limiting Hafez’s human rights work?
Hafez has faced, and continues to face, a plethora of issues as he promotes and defends Palestinian human rights through his art. The continued targeting he experiences from Israel’s military authorities poses a serious and grave threat to his physical autonomy, liberty, psychological well-being and financial security. Hafez has been told by Israeli authorities that he will never be permitted to travel again and faces a life travel ban.
The targeting is not just limited to Hafez as his family have also been impacted. Hafez’s younger brother was targeted, threatened and physically assaulted in his home just prior to Hafez’s arrest.
Why does LPHR support Hafez, his artwork and this Fellowship award nomination?
Hafez has shown enormous tenacity and commitment to both his artwork and to Palestinian human rights issues. Hafez has been physically abused as a result of being targeted by the Israeli authorities during protests against land annexation and illegal settlements. He has sustained a broken nose and other physical injuries. His commitment to human rights has not been deterred.
Hafez helped to found one of the first professional art exhibition spaces in the West Bank: Al-Mahatta Gallery in Ramallah. In the face of arbitrary detention, withholding family contact from him in a punitive fashion during detention, and being physically abused, he remains dedicated to giving human rights a valuable artistic platform and dimension.
During his time in prison, Hafez continued to produce artwork and remains committed to utilising ‘art as a form of resistance’. Some of the work Hafez produced in prison, along with a powerful audio component, was published by Front Line Defenders and can be accessed here. Hafez continues to advocate for Palestinian human rights; just last month on 1 October 2020, at the 2020 Build Palestine Summit on artistic resistance, he spoke as part of a panel of artists who use their work as a form of human rights defence. Hafez’s commitment to human rights through this artwork is remarkable, inspiring and unwavering.
Aleisha Ebrahimi, Tareq Shrourou