Israel expels Human Rights Watch advocacy director

Human rights groups fear that the Israeli government’s reaction to criticism of the occupation has a negative impact on all of Israeli society, and that freedom of speech and thought are no longer a guiding light in the country.

al-monitor Human Rights Watch's Israel and Palestine Director Omar Shakir, a US citizen, sits at his office in Ramallah, West Bank, May 9, 2018. Photo by ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images.
Shlomi Eldar

Shlomi Eldar

@shlomieldar

Topics covered

visa, bds, gilad erdan, human rights activists, aryeh deri, human rights watch, human rights, palestinian-israeli conflict

May 11, 2018

In a joint statement released May 9, 15 human rights organizations denounced Interior Minister Aryeh Deri's decision to order the expulsion of Omar Shakir, the director of Human Rights Watch for Israel and Palestine.

The statement reads that the decision to expel Shakir and Israel’s growing list of people who cannot enter the country because of their criticism of the occupation are “intended to hide the occupation from the world.” They further claim that the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, headed by Gilad Erdan, is putting together “personal files” on foreign human rights activists operating in Israel and that the information collected is being used to hinder their activities.

Shakir, a US citizen with a law degree from Stanford University, received a work visa for Israel about a year ago. Now he is being ordered to leave the country. According to Deri, the decision is based on a position paper prepared by the Ministry for Strategic Affairs that claims that Shakir is a longtime active supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and that he tweets regularly in support of the movement’s goals.

Attorney Sari Bashi, the Israel/Palestine advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, told Al-Monitor that the group does not support BDS. “We believe in adopting nonviolent measures to protest or express political opinions, but we have no official position whatsoever regarding the movement to boycott Israel, and all employees of the organization are required to abide by that.” According to her, Shakir is forbidden from expressing support for or opposition to BDS, “and he has not done so since joining the organization. All the material collected against him dates from when he was a student at Stanford, and even then, it is open to multiple interpretations.”

Shakir began working at Human Rights Watch in October 2016. Before then, he was a Bertha fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, where he focused on US counterterrorism policies, including the legal representation of detainees in Guantanamo. Israel denied him a work visa for six months, forcing him to conduct his work outside the country. Finally, Israel’s Interior Ministry succumbed to US pressure and agreed to grant him a one-year work visa in April 2017. Now he has been ordered to leave the country within 14 days.

The material collected against Shakir contains no evidence that he supports BDS. The only thing that could be used against him is that he called on FIFA to restrict Israeli teams to holding soccer matches only within the internationally recognized borders of Israel and not in West Bank settlements. This statement was made before he began working for Human Rights Watch — and certainly before he obtained his work visa.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Shakir said that his expulsion is the climax of an ongoing campaign to track the activity of Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups in an effort to silence them. “As far back as a year ago, when they were still deciding whether to grant me my work visa, Israel’s official excuse was that Human Rights Watch is not a human rights organization at all, but a group that serves the interests of Palestinian propaganda. It was only after we proved that this is not the case that I finally received the visa. Then the group Shurat HaDin [Israel Law Center] complained about my work visa to the Supreme Court. The Ministry of Strategic Affairs kept searching and searching for reasons to deny it, and now we have their decision.”

In a letter sent to Shakir’s lawyers, Moshe Nakash, the director of visas at the Population Registry, confirmed that no documentation of Shakir participating in activities supportive of BDS since he started working at Human Rights Watch has been found. At the same time, however, Nakash claimed, “It is inconceivable that a BDS activist calling for a boycott of Israel would be allowed to enter the country under the cover of representing some organization or other.”

Israel is not the only country to give Human Rights Watch activists a hard time. The group operates in some 90 countries around the world, and Shakir himself was already forced to leave Egypt for investigating the shooting of demonstrators by the Egyptian army during the mass protests in Cairo.

“We are used to seeing this kind of behavior in countries like Ethiopia, Egypt, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and Russia,” said Bashi. “Does Israel want to join that club?”

According to her, the organization has enjoyed 30 years of professional cooperation with various Israeli ministries and freedom of action in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The current change in policy is not directed against Shakir per se, she explained. “It is another step being taken as part of a larger effort to interfere with the activities of those organizations that document human rights violations. Ever since Erdan’s appointment as minister of strategic affairs, his office has been following, recording and creating detailed files on the various activists. This includes photographs, recordings and the tracking of their social network accounts, all in an attempt to prevent them from entering Israel. The organizations claim that any criticism of Israeli policies can sometimes be interpreted in the most extreme manner or even misinterpreted, in a way that is too often reminiscent of thought police.”

Bashi told of evidence that reached Human Rights Watch that she says underscores how far the collection of “incriminatory materials” has reached and how busy the Ministry of Strategic Affairs has been putting together its “personal files.” In her words: “I spoke with a British philanthropist who donates to the New Israel Fund, among other groups. When he arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, he was asked about his previous visit to the country. When he told them that his visit included a trip to Ramallah, they took out a photo of him at a demonstration in Bil’in and started shouting, ‘Why are you lying? We know everything about you!’”

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