Lifting ban, Israel lets Human Rights Watch staffer in

Lifting ban, Israel lets Human Rights Watch staffer in

Foreign Ministry says it reconsidered decision to bar Omar Shakir, but still has misgivings about BDS supporter’s alleged anti-Israel bias

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

An American employee of Human Rights Watch was granted entry into Israel Monday evening, after authorities blocked his previous attempts to enter the country over his alleged anti-Israel bias.

Omar Shakir, HRW’s Israel and Palestine director, entered Ben-Gurion International Airport on a tourist visa for a 10-day visit.

“Landed safely in Ben Gurion-@IsraelMFA awaited w a sign, secured tourist visa & escorted me thru in >5 mins.Thanks to them/y’all for support,” he wrote on Twitter, thanking the Foreign Ministry for facilitating his quick entry.

“At first we decided not to let him enter the country. But we reconsidered,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon told The Times of Israel on Tuesday morning. “That doesn’t mean that we do not have serious misgivings with regards to the organization and the purposes in coming here to Israel.”

Shakir was not given “VIP treatment” but the Foreign Ministry, which has a permanent representative at Ben-Gurion Airport, wanted to avoid any problems with his entry and decided to escort him, Nahshon said.

Shakir was denied a entry to Israel last month after his work visa had been rejected over what the Foreign Ministry claimed was HRW’s penchant for “Palestinian propaganda.”

The Israeli Embassy in Washington then suggested Shakir be allowed to enter the country on a tourist visa.

But last Thursday, that too was denied by the Border Control Department, a branch of the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority.

In explaining its decision to bar Shakir’s entry into the country, the department cited what it claimed was HRW’s “focus on politics in the service of Palestinian propaganda while falsely raising the banner of ‘human rights.’”

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

“We were shocked they (Israeli authorities) were not able to distinguish between genuine criticism and propaganda,” Shakir said in an email last week.

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.

In defending the initial decision to bar Shakir, Nahshon had called 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.”

HRW, he argued at the time, has “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.

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.

A Stanford-educated lawyer, Shakir has also done work on human rights in Egypt, Pakistan and at the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, according to his biography.

He has campaigned against Israel and is a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. He has compared Israel to apartheid South Africa and equated Zionism to Afrikaner nationalism, which begat apartheid.

According to a law passed hours after Shakir entered the country, Israel can refuse entry to anyone who supports a boycott on Israel or West Bank settlements.

HRW 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.

Israel, its advocates and some of its critics have repeatedly accused the group 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.

Human Rights Watch has published a series of reports that were highly critical of Israel, especially after wars or periods of heightened violence. 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.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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