The Israel and Palestine Director of Human Rights Watch is accused of promoting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, but critics say the case is about trying to deter peaceful advocacy.
An Israeli court has backed the state’s decision to deport Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), on the grounds that he supported the international boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Shakir’s work permit was revoked by the Israeli government in May 2018 after Israel’s Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy Ministry compiled a dossier on his ‘boycott-promoting activities’.
Shakir said the decision by the court was “shocking” and part of a wider campaign to stifle criticism of the country over its illegal occupation of Palestinian land.
“When Israeli government originally ordered me to deport over my peaceful advocacy, it was disappointing. But it was a larger pattern that included denying entry of other international rights activists and squeezing Israeli right defenders accusing them slander, discrediting state and army,” he said.
Israel is also “subjecting Palestinian rights defenders to criminal charges and arrest”, he added.
Shakir, an American citizen, was the group’s director in the region.
The decision will be welcomed by Israel’s hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had upped the ante against human rights groups ahead of his general election win last week.
Under a controversial 2017 law, Israel banned the entry of BDS activists into Israel. According to Israeli law, if an individual promotes any kind of boycott against the Israeli government and its illegal settlements, he or she can be subjected to deportation from the country.
HRW has recommended that companies like Airbnb and Booking.com cease their operations in the illegal West Bank settlements.
The rights group has challenged both the government’s decision to revoke Shakir’s work permit and the constitutional legality of the 2017 law. But Israeli courts have refused to hear the objections, signalling their support for Netanyahu’s hardline tactics against human rights groups.
“Israel portrays itself as the region’s only democracy, but is set to deport a rights defender over his peaceful advocacy,” said Tom Porteous, one of the top officials at HRW.
“The decision sends the chilling message that those who criticise the involvement of businesses in serious abuses in Israeli settlements risk being barred from Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank,” Porteous said.
HRW will now go to the Supreme Court to appeal the lower Israeli court’s decision, which set he date for the Shakir’s deportation as May 1.
If the HRW’s appeal were to be rejected by the Supreme Court, Shakir would be the first person, to be deported under the 2017 law, and would also be the first member of HRW’s staff to be ordered to leave Israel and Palestine during the group’s three-decades’ long work in the area.
The decision came despite the fact that Israel’s interior minister had conceded in a letter that “no information” had surfaced to prove Shakir promoted boycotts during his tenure at the HRW.
But the Israeli government submitted a report with more than 100 pages to the court, providing Shakir’s tweets, which illustrated HRW’s “research recommendations regarding Airbnb’s and Booking.com’s rental listings in settlements”.
“For the court to come and to say that this decision is the result of HRW’s research and advocacy, calling on businesses to stop facilitating abuses in the settlements is truly chilling,” Shakir said.
Israel has a history of similar anti-human rights measures despite widespread condemnation by the international community.
The Israeli government also recently removed another international monitoring group, the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), which was a UN-sanctioned independent observer group from the Palestinian city of Hebron.
The TIPH was established by the UN in 1994, after an American Israeli settler killed 29 Palestinians during morning prayers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, a religious site sacred to both Muslims and Jews in occupied Palestine.