Israeli authorities have rejected a request from Human Rights Watch to grant a work permit to its regional director, accusing the group of engaging in Palestinian “propaganda,” the group said Friday.
The decision was Israel’s latest step against human rights groups and other advocacy organizations that it accuses of bias against the Jewish state.
Israel’s Interior Ministry issued its ruling this week, some six months after Human Rights Watch asked for permission for its New York-based Israel and Palestine director, Omar Shakir, to be able to work in the country.
In a letter dated Monday, the ministry said the group’s reports “have engaged in politics in the service of Palestinian propaganda, while falsely raising the banner of “human rights.” The decision, it said, was based on a recommendation from Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon called Human Rights Watch a “blatantly hostile anti-Israeli organization whose reports have the sole purpose of harming Israel with no consideration whatsoever for the truth or reality.”
He said “there is no reason” to give a visa to a person or organization that wants to hurt the country. “We are not masochists and there is no reason we should keep doing that,” he said.
HRW, Nahshon said, had “demonstrated time and again it is a fundamentally biased and anti-Israeli organization with a clear hostile agenda.”
Nahshon added that the group was not banned and its Israeli and Palestinian employees would still be permitted to work in Israel and issue reports.
“But why should we give working visas to people whose only purpose is to besmirch us and to attack us?” he asked.
He said the decision was connected solely to the group’s activities and had nothing to do with the ethnicity of Shakir, a US citizen of Iraqi descent.
Shakir, a Stanford-educated lawyer, has also done work on human rights in Egypt, Pakistan and at the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, according to his biography.
Before joining Human rights Watch in 2016, Shakir was a legal fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, an organization that has filed war crimes lawsuits against former Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and former director of the Shin Bet security service Avi Dichter.
Shakir himself has campaigned against Israel and is a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. He has compared Israel to apartheid South Africa and equated Zionism to Afrikaner nationalism, which begat apartheid.
The New York-based group monitors human rights in over 90 countries, including nations throughout the Middle East. It said it has direct access to most of these countries, but said a small number of them, including Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Uzbekistan and Venezuela, have blocked access to its staff.
“The denial letter came as a shock, given that we have had regular access to Israel and the West Bank for nearly three decades and regularly engage Israeli authorities,” Shakir said in an email. “Branding us as propagandists and fake human rights advocates puts Israel in the company of heavily repressive states like North Korea, Iran and Sudan that have blocked access for Human Rights Watch staff members.”
“We were shocked they (Israeli authorities) were not able to distinguish between genuine criticism and propaganda,” Shakir said.
He admitted to having taken part in pro-Palestinian campaigns before joining HRW.
According to Shakir, Israeli authorities told HRW the visa ban was not targeting him alone but would be applied to all foreign members of the organization.
Nahshon said other organizations such as Amnesty International would be assessed on a case by case basis.
Nahshon said HRW’s local staff could continue to operate and publish reports.
Israel, its advocates and some of its critics have repeatedly accused Human Rights Watch of pursuing an anti-Israel bias — a criticism which the organization’s founder, Robert L. Bernstein, joined in an unusual op-ed he published in 2009 in The New York Times. Bernstein reiterated his criticism the following year during a lecture at a Nebraska university.
In the letter, Bernstein said Human Rights Watch “casts aside its important distinction between open and closed societies,” citing “far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law” by the group “than of any other country in the region.”
He wrote that Human Rights Watch “has lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah,” ignoring their egregious violations. “Yet Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism,” he added.
In September 2009, the group’s former senior military analyst, Marc Garlasco, was revealed to be a collector of Nazi memorabilia. He was suspended and then dismissed.
In 2011, Kathleen Peratis, co-chair of the Advisory Committee of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division, visited Gaza and met with several Hamas officials.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the US did not agree with Israel’s characterization of Human Rights Watch.
“HRW is a credible human rights organization and even though we do not agree with all of their assertions or conclusions, given the seriousness of their efforts, we support the importance of the work they do,” Toner said.
Human Rights Watch has published a series of reports that were highly critical of Israel, especially after wars or periods of heightened violence with Palestinian militants. For instance, it accused Israel of committing war crimes during fighting with Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014. Israel harshly rejected the findings of that report.
HRW has also staunchly campaigned for Israeli soccer clubs based in West Bank settlements to be expelled by the sport’s governing body FIFA.
The group has also issued reports critical of the Palestinians. For instance, last year it accused the internationally backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the rival Hamas Islamist terror group in Gaza of arbitrarily detaining journalists and activists. It also has criticized executions carried out by Hamas.
But Israel has long accused the group, as well as other human rights groups, of focusing excessively and unfairly on it. The nationalist government last year passed a law that increased regulation on rights groups that receive foreign funding. It also has taken aim at Israeli rights groups that criticize military and government policies overseas. Critics accuse the government of trying to stifle dissent.
Iain Levine, program director at Human Rights Watch, called Israel’s decision worrying.
“The Israeli government is hardly the only one to disagree with our well researched findings, but efforts to stifle the messenger signal that it has no appetite for serious scrutiny of its human rights record,” Levine said. “We hope the Israeli authorities will reverse this decision and allow both international and domestic human rights groups to work freely.”
Last year, the Knesset passed a controversial law compelling Israeli NGOs that receive most of their funding from foreign state entities to declare it in official reports.
The law did not specifically refer to left-wing organizations, but is applicable to some 25 NGOs.
Right-wing NGOs, such as those supporting Israeli settlements, tend to rely on private donations, to which the law does not apply.
Roy Yellin from the Israeli rights group B’Tselem said they felt the government was trying to “scapegoat” them.
“It is part of a larger illiberal wave in recent years that is trying to portray critics as enemies of the state,” he said.
HRW has periodically fallen foul of governments across the globe. In 2011 the government of Uzbekistan closed down HRW’s office in the capital Tashkent, while one of its delegations was expelled from Venezuela in 2008.
“We have little relations with governments in North Korea, Sudan, Uzbekistan, Cuba and Venezuela where there is zero appetite for human rights engagement,” Shakir said. “With this decision, Israel is joining the list.”