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HRW chief says Israel adopting Iran-like policies in treatment of NGOs

Supreme Court postpones ruling on deportation of the organization’s Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, speaks during the annual press conference of the non governmental organization in Berlin, Germany, January 21, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, speaks during the annual press conference of the non governmental organization in Berlin, Germany, January 21, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

The executive director of Human Rights Watch accused Israel this week of mounting a campaign “not only to shut down human rights activity, including by our Israeli partners, but also to deprive Israelis of information about what is happening around them.”

Kenneth Roth told Haaretz that if Israel’s Supreme Court decides to allow the government to go through with its decision to expel HRW local director Omar Shakir, it would “join the likes of North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Sudan, and Iran, which also exclude our representatives.”

“That is not a club that Israel should be eager to join,” Roth said.

The Supreme Court was due to hear arguments in Shakir’s case on Thursday but suddenly postponed the hearing on Wednesday afternoon, Haaretz reported. The court will not pick up the case again until September in order to give time to the government to respond to new friend of the court briefs by Amnesty International and a group of retired Israeli diplomats.

A lower court in April upheld Shakir’s deportation by the Interior Ministry, saying his activities against West Bank settlements amounted to a boycott of the country. Israeli law bars entry to those who have publicly supported a boycott of Israel or its settlements. The Interior Ministry’s May 2018 decision to deny Shakir his work and residency permits was due to his alleged support of a boycott of Israel over its policies toward Palestinians. According to the Strategic Affairs Ministry, Shakir “frequently re-tweets and shares content on the subject of BDS against Israel.”

A controversial bill passed by the Knesset in 2017 allows the state to bar supporters of the BDS movement, which encourages boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Last August, the attorney general’s office announced that it would investigate security services’ interrogations of liberal activists entering the country.

HRW rejects allegations that it has advocated BDS.

“Neither Human Rights Watch nor Shakir as its representative has ever called for a boycott of Israel, as the Israeli government itself has acknowledged,” the group said in a statement on Wednesday. “As part of its global campaign to ensure businesses uphold their human rights responsibilities and do not contribute to abuses, Human Rights Watch calls on companies to stop working in or with settlements in the West Bank, which are illegal under international law. It has not called for a consumer boycott of those companies.”

Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 9, 2018. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)

Even if Shakir is expelled, Roth promised that HRW would “continue to report objectively on human rights violations here and elsewhere.”

Roth’s approach to the region has come under fire from some supporters of Israel, who have alleged that he has exhibited a bias against the Jewish state.

HRW founder Bob Bernstein, who died at the age of 96 earlier this year, was a frequent critic of Roth. He wrote that the group had condemned “far more” human rights abuses in Israel than in other countries in the Middle East ruled by “authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records.”

In 2017, Roth tweeted a link to an article asserting that “white supremacy and Zionism are two of a kind,” leading Anti-Defamation League Jonathan Greenblatt to condemn his “misguided focus on Israel.”

“Many rights activists condemn Israeli abuse & anti-Semitism,” Roth tweeted. “Some white supremacists embrace Israel & anti-Semitism.”

Human rights organizations have been critical of the government’s move against HRW.

In a 2009 oped for The New York Times, Robert Bernstein publicly broke from Human Rights Watch, the organization he helped found and long oversaw. (Elisabeth Bernstein)

In April, top United Nations rights officials urged Israel to overturn its decision to deport Shakir, warning the decision “threatens advocacy, research and free expression for all and reflects a troubling resistance to open debate.”

Last week, Amnesty International issued a statement asserting that “Israeli authorities’ decision to deport Omar Shakir is a crushing blow to freedom of expression in the country and sends an alarming signal to human rights activists and civil society in general of the extent they are willing to go in their attempt to silence those who defend human rights.”

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