Israel expelled the country’s director of Human Rights Watch on Monday after a lengthy court battle, accusing him of supporting boycotts of the Jewish state.
Omar Shakir, the New York-based rights group’s director for Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, arrived at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on Monday afternoon, where he was greeted by around 20 supporters.
“Today culminates a two-and-a-half year effort to deport me over my human rights advocacy, an effort to muzzle Human Rights Watch,” the 35-year-old, who denies Israel’s claims, said at the airport.
“One day you will welcome me here, I hope, when it is a better day -– a day in which all people, Israeli and Palestinian, have their human rights respected.”
He flew out on Monday evening.
Authorities said Shakir’s expulsion was the first from inside Israel under a 2017 law allowing the deportation of foreigners who support a boycott.
The European Union, United Nations and others had called on Israel to reverse course, with the UN warning of a “shrinking space for human rights defenders to operate” in Israel and the Palestinian-controlled territories.
But the United States, Israel’s closest ally, said only that it supported freedom of expression worldwide.
HRW said Shakir would continue in his position despite being expelled, working from neighboring Jordan.
The rights group said Israel was the first functioning democracy to expel one of its staff.
The Israeli government offered the organization an opportunity to send someone to replace Shakir. However, HRW argued that since Shakir had adhered to its policy and never called for a boycott, it made no sense to fill his position with someone else.
“It’s not about Omar; it’s about Human Rights Watch. There’s no point replacing Omar, because our next researcher would do the exact same thing,” said HRW’s executive director Ken Roth, known as a bitter critic of Israeli government policies, at a Monday press conference in East Jerusalem.
The Strategic Affairs Ministry, which spearheaded the effort to oust Shakir, in a statement released Monday said that Israel has the right to decide who can and who cannot enter its borders and obtain work visas.
“Omar Shakir, as the District and Supreme Courts have already determined, is an active BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] propagator [sic] who zealously promotes boycotts against Israel. Just days before the final ruling in his case, he again expressed open support for the boycott and isolation of the entire State of Israel,” the statement read.
“The State of Israel sees great importance in the activities of human rights organizations, and grants hundreds of visas each year to said organizations. HRW is welcome to appoint another coordinator in place of Mr. Shakir who will actually deal with the protection of human rights rather than focus on promoting policies that harm Israeli citizens,” it said.
Senior Palestinian Authority official Hanan Ashrawi called the deportation an Israeli attempt to “conceal its war crimes.”
“It is an alarming wake-up call to all those who seek peace and justice for both sides that Israel will resort to extreme measures to hide the truth,” she said in a statement.
The case against Shakir was initially based on statements he had made supporting a boycott before joining HRW.
But the government also highlighted work he did with the rights groups, including criticizing Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Shakir, who started in the HRW Israel post in 2017, appealed the deportation but the Supreme Court backed the government earlier this month.
Israel sees the BDS movement as a strategic threat and accuses it of anti-Semitism — a claim activists deny. Supporters compare it to the economic isolation that helped bring down apartheid South Africa.
Roth claimed that US President Donald Trump’s support for Israel’s fellow right-wing government, including last week’s announcement that it doesn’t view settlements as contrary to international law, had emboldened it to crack down on human rights groups.
“It is hard to imagine Omar’s deportation going ahead if the US government hadn’t given a kind of implicit green light,” he told AFP.
The US embassy said only that it had raised Shakir’s case with Israel and that it supports “freedom of expression.”
“At the same time, our strong opposition to boycotts and sanctions of the State of Israel is well known,” it said.
The right-wing Jerusalem-based group NGO Monitor, meanwhile, charged that HRW focuses unfairly on Israel.
“It’s the singling out we disagree with,” said Gerald Steinberg, head of the organization.
But Steinberg also admitted that Israel’s move had created negative publicity that helps its critics.
“This is playing into their hands,” he said.