Israel walks back barring Human Rights Watch worker from country

Israel walks back barring Human Rights Watch worker from country

NGO’s regional director Omar Shakir, who previously campaigned against Israel and led BDS efforts, may now enter on a tourist visa and then seek work visa; 2 US Jewish groups protested earlier ban

Human Rights Watch Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir (screen capture: YouTube)
Human Rights Watch Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir (screen capture: YouTube)

Israel said an American employee of Human Rights Watch may enter the country on a tourist visa and should reapply for a work visa, days after barring his entry for alleged anti-Israel bias.

“This is to clarify that the HRW representative may enter Israel with a tourist visa,” said Itai Bar-Dov, the spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington. “With regard to the working visa, this may be reconsidered if the organization appeals the Ministry of Interior decision.”

The 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.

The decision was Israel’s latest step against human rights groups and other advocacy organizations that it accuses of bias against the Jewish state.

Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch's New York-based Israel and Palestine director. (Human Rights Watch, via AP)
Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s New York-based Israel and Palestine director. (Human Rights Watch, via AP)

In a Jan. 20 letter rejecting Shakir’s visa application, Israel accused the New York-based NGO of “public activities and reports [and being] 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.

Human Rights Watch, which had called the rejection “ominous” for Israel’s democracy, welcomed the statements from Israeli officials saying they would reconsider it.

“I am encouraged by the new and more reconciliatory tone,” Sari Bashi, HRW’s Israel-Palestine advocacy director, told JTA in an email.

“Despite differences of opinion regarding our well-researched findings, we have always had appropriate and professional relationships with the Israeli authorities, including and especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with whom we meet and correspond regularly,” Bashi said. “Just last year the Ministry of Foreign Affairs approached us to request our intervention in an issue involving Israeli victims of rights abuses, which by the way we agreed to do.”

At least two US Jewish groups objected to the refusal of entry.

Daniel Sokatch, New Israel Fund's executive director. (Courtesy of New Israel Fund/JTA)
Daniel Sokatch, New Israel Fund’s executive director. (Courtesy of New Israel Fund/JTA)

“Israel now finds itself in very poor company: Only a government with something to hide would work this hard to keep out human rights workers,” Daniel Sokatch, the CEO of the New Israel Fund, a group that raises funds for Israeli civil society groups – including a number that have also been singled out for attack by Israeli government figures – said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Israeli authorities apologized for detaining for questioning at the airport the New Israel Fund vice president, Jennifer Gorovitz.

Also criticizing the barring of Shakir was T’ruah, a rabbinical human rights group.

“Human rights and civil society groups play a prophetic role, even if their words may not be ones governments want to hear,” the group said in a statement. “The Israeli government should welcome Human Rights Watch and other such groups as voices that will ultimately push us toward justice and life.”

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.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon had earlier defended the decision to bar Shakir, calling 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.

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.

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.

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