EU urges Israel not to kick out top Human Rights Watch official

Brussels warns Jerusalem not to ‘join a very short list of countries’ that refuse presence of HRW staff, also calls for probe into injury of Arab human rights activist in Haifa

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Human Rights Watch's Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir, a US citizen, sits in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 9, 2018. (Abbas Momani/AFP)
Human Rights Watch's Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir, a US citizen, sits in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 9, 2018. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

The European Union on Tuesday urged the government not to kick out a senior Human Rights Watch official, warning Israel not to “join a very short list of countries” that have expelled human rights activists.

The EU also called on the Israeli government to investigate an event last week during which an Arab human rights activist protesting against Israeli actions at the Gaza border was injured, allegedly in police custody.

“Support for human rights defenders is an integral part of the European Union’s policy on human rights. Human rights defenders represent natural and indispensable allies in the promotion of human rights in their respective countries,” EU spokesperson Maja Kocijancic said.

Citing his alleged support for a boycott of Israel, the Interior Ministry earlier this month announced it had revoked the entry permit of Omar Shakir, HRW’s Israel and Palestine director, who is a US citizen, and ordered him to leave the country within 14 days.

Shakir fought the decision, but the Jerusalem District Court turned down his appeal, insisting he leave by May 24.

“The European Union expects the Israeli authorities to reverse their decision, as otherwise Israel would join a very short list of countries which have barred entry to, or expelled, Human Rights Watch staff,” Kocijancic said.

“In addition, it will also be important, as supported by the Israeli government, to conduct a swift investigation into circumstances surrounding events last week in Haifa which appeared to result in serious injury of Jafar Farah, Director of the NGO Mossawa, the Advocacy Centre for Arab Citizens in Israel,” her statement continued.

“The European Union continues to stand for an open and conducive environment for civil society, within Europe, in Israel, the occupied Palestinian territory and around the world.”

Arab-Israeli NGO worker Jafar Farah, who alleges a police officer broke his knee after he was arrested, in court on May 20 (Hadashot screenshot)

Israeli officials have clamped down on groups seen as supporting the global campaign for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions), which aims to pressure Israel over its policies toward Palestinians.

Last year the Knesset passed a law barring boycotters of Israel and West Bank settlements from entering the country. However, the legislation still gives the interior minister leeway in making exceptions.

Israel, its advocates and even some of its critics have repeatedly accused HRW of having an anti-Israel bias — a criticism that 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.

“This is not about Shakir, but rather about muzzling Human Rights Watch and shutting down criticism of Israel’s rights record,” HRW said in a statement following the Interior Ministry’s decision. “Compiling dossiers on and deporting human rights defenders is a page out of the Russian or Egyptian security services’ playbook.”

“Neither Human Rights Watch nor its representative, Shakir, promotes boycotts of Israel,” it added. However, it acknowledged that the group has urged companies to cease operations in West Bank settlements.

Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry’s police internal investigations department this week said it would look into allegations of violence by police officers against demonstrators at a Gaza solidarity protest in Haifa over the weekend.

Twenty-one people were arrested when the demonstration was dispersed, and Farah sustained a broken knee in the aftermath of his arrest.

Arab-Israeli NGO worker Jafar Farah arrested by police at a Haifa demonstration against Israel’s conduct in Gaza on May 18, 2018. (Screen capture/Twitter)

On Monday a Haifa Magistrate’s Court judge ordered all of those still held by police to be released.

Police commissioner Roni Alsheich on Monday said that the protest was illegitimate because violence shown by protesters turned the “sidewalk into a battleground.”

“There was the most violent rioting, chairs were flying, the sidewalk became a battlefield, [with] stones thrown at police officers,” Alsheich said at a police ceremony in Beit Shemesh. “That is not a legitimate protest, even in a democratic and tolerant state.”

Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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