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Israel restricts human rights work in its territories

Israel expelled Human Rights Watch Director Omar Shakir from its territories, accusing him of supporting the boycott of Israel, which opened a debate about Israel’s restrictions against rights workers.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel expelled Nov. 25 from its territory the Israel and Palestine director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Omar Shakir, an American-Iraqi human rights lawyer accused of supporting the boycott of Israel.

On Nov. 5, Israel's Supreme Court gave Shakir 20 days to leave the country, under a controversial law enacted in March 2017 that allows the state to expel and deport foreigners supporting the boycott of Israel or the settlements. Shakir was the first person to be deported under this law.

“Today is the culmination of several years of efforts to muzzle HRW and human rights in general,” Shakir said at a press conference in East Jerusalem shortly before his departure.

He pointed out that he will spend the coming days briefing the various European governments on his case, and will return to the region to resume his work and functions from the Jordanian capital Amman.

Forcing him to leave Israel “is a growing attack on the human rights movement,” Shakir added.

HRW posted on its website Nov. 25 that “the deportation reflects the [Israeli] authorities’ intensifying assault on human rights,” stressing that its work on human rights abuses committed by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas will continue under Shakir’s direction.

“Neither Human Rights Watch nor Shakir as its representative has ever called for a boycott of Israel. HRW has urged businesses to stop operating in illegal settlements as part of their global duty to avoid complicity in human rights abuses,” the statement continued.

"The Israeli government offered HRW the opportunity to send someone to replace Shakir,” said Kenneth Roth, HRW executive director, at the same press conference in East Jerusalem. “But since Shakir complied with HRW's policy and did not call for a boycott, replacing him made no sense.”

Roth added, according to The Times of Israel, “So it is not about Shakir himself, it's about HWR. There’s no point in replacing Omar because our next researcher would have the same problem.”

On Nov. 25, The Times of Israel quoted a statement by the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which is tasked with confronting the boycott of Israel, as saying, “Israel has the right to decide who can and cannot enter its borders and obtain work visas.” The website noted that this ministry led the efforts to expel Shakir from Israel.

Israel is strongly confronting the activities of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS), a Palestinian movement with a global reach that calls for the worldwide economic, cultural, scientific and academic boycott of Israel in order to force it to end the occupation and settlements in the Palestinian territories.

“Shakir's expulsion is not surprising, coming from the government of Israel, which believes that through these measures it can hide the reality of what is happening on the ground from reaching the international public opinion,” PLO Executive Committee member Tayseer Khaled told Al-Monitor.

“Israel is greatly disturbed by esteemed human rights organizations, such as HRW, revealing the truth about what is happening on the ground in terms of Israeli violations against Palestinians — most notably, confiscations of Palestinian land, restrictions on rural farmers to push them to voluntarily leave their land, demolition of houses under the pretext of nonlicensing and arbitrary mass arrests,” he added.

Khaled called on the international community “not to treat Israel as an exceptional state above the law that is not held accountable,” noting that the world's silence on Israeli actions against human rights activists “encourages it to keep doing this and commit violations against the Palestinians.”

Hanna Issa, professor of international law at Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, told Al-Monitor that this is not the first time that Israel has committed violations against the staff of international and local human rights organizations.

He explained that the latest of these violations was Israel preventing Muhannad Karajeh, Palestinian human rights lawyer and director of the Palestinian Lawyers for Justice, from traveling from the West Bank to the United Arab Emirates to participate in a human rights conference on Nov. 10 on the pretext of security reasons. In addition, Issa noted, Israel prevented Laith Abu Zeyad, Amnesty International’s campaigner, from traveling from the West Bank to Jordan on Oct. 26, using the same argument.

Amnesty International stated on its website Oct. 31, “The Israeli authorities’ decision to prevent an Amnesty International staff member from traveling abroad for ‘security reasons,’ apparently as a punitive measure against the organization’s human rights work, is another chilling indication of Israel’s growing intolerance of critical voices.”

“In a legal perspective, each state has internal sovereignty that gives it the right to accept or reject the presence of any foreigner on its territory,” Issa said. “But Israel's restrictions on the work of human rights activists will draw the world's attention to what Israel wants to hide by putting an end to the work of human rights activists on its territory.”

Salah Abdel-Ati, director of the International Commission to Support the Palestinian Rights, who lives in the Gaza Strip, told Al-Monitor that Israel’s expulsion of Shakir is yet another Israeli violation against human rights workers. “This shows that Israel does not want human rights activists to be able to document what is happening on the ground against the Palestinians,” he said.

Abdel-Ati said he has traveled to many countries to attend human rights conferences or to talk about the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories, but for years he has been unable to enter the other part of his Palestinian homeland, i.e., the West Bank, because of Israel's refusal to grant entry permits, without justifying why.

Abdel-Ati pointed out that Israeli restrictions against human rights organizations have affected not only local and international institutions but United Nations institutions as well. On Nov. 12, 2014, he noted, Israel prevented the entry of UN Human Rights Council investigation committees into its territory to investigate violations of humanitarian laws during the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip that summer.

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