Israel grants work permit to once-banned Human Rights Watch staffer

Acknowledging political differences with Israeli government, HRW says decision is ‘important step’ that shows openness to criticism

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Human Rights Watch Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir (YouTube screenshot)
Human Rights Watch Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir (YouTube screenshot)

The Interior Ministry granted a one-year work visa to an American Human Rights Watch staffer on Wednesday after blocking his previous entry attempts due to his perceived anti-Israel bias.

HRW’s Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir made headlines on February 24 when Israeli authorities refused to grant him a work permit, accusing his organization of engaging in Palestinian “propaganda.”

The decision came six months after the human rights group made the entry request on behalf of Shakir.

The ban on his entry was reversed less than 24 hours later, when Israeli authorities said he could enter the country on a tourist visa and should reapply for a work visa as well.

On March 6, Shakir successfully entered the country and was granted a 10-day tourist visa.

HRW said it received a letter on March 27 granting permission to employ a foreign staffer in Israel. The organization subsequently submitted the necessary paperwork and payment for Shakir’s work visa, which was accepted on April 20. The regional director received the work permit upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday.

“We welcome this opportunity to work in Israel and Palestine alongside vigorous national human rights organizations,” Iain Levine, HRW’s deputy executive director, said in a statement Wednesday welcoming the decision.

“Israeli authorities do not always agree with our findings, but in facilitating the ability of our staff to carry out our research and documentation, they have taken an important step to safeguard the principle of transparency and demonstrate their openness to criticism,” he said.

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.

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, a current member of Knesset.

The decision to allow Shakir’s entry raised eyebrows, as he has campaigned against Israel and is a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Just last month 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.

JTA contributed to this report.

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