Omar Shakir is the Israel and Palestine director of Human Rights Watch.
An Israeli judge asked me in court last month if I would vow not to promote “boycotts,” defined under Israeli law to include calls on companies to stop doing business in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. In light of the human rights impact of those activities, I refused.
This week, the court upheld a government deportation order against me, citing that refusal. The court gave me two weeks to leave the country.
Israeli authorities say they’re deporting me because I promote boycotts of Israel. Setting aside the paradox of the region’s self-proclaimed “only democracy” deporting a rights defender over peaceful expression, the claim isn’t true.
Human Rights Watch neither supports nor opposes boycotts of Israel, a fact that Israel’s Ministry of Interior acknowledged last year. Rather, we document the practices of businesses in settlements as part of our global efforts to urge companies, governments and other actors to meet their human rights responsibilities. We also defend the right of individuals to support or oppose boycotts peacefully, as a matter of freedom of speech and conscience.
Initially, the Israeli government said it revoked my work visa based on a dossier it compiled on my long-past student-activist days, before I became the Human Rights Watch Israel-Palestine director in October 2016. When we challenged the deportation in court, noting that the Interior Ministry’s own guidelines require support for a boycott to be “active and continuous,” they shifted to highlight Human Rights Watch research on the activities of businesses such as Airbnb and our recommendation that they cease operating in settlements.
This isn’t the first time a Middle Eastern country has sought to bar me. In 2009, Syria denied me a visa after a government official said my writings “reflected poorly on the Syrian government.” In 2014, I was forced to leave Egypt after I wrote a report for Human Rights Watch documenting the Rab’a Massacre, one of the largest single-day killings of protesters. In 2017, Bahrain denied me entry after I identified myself as a Human Rights Watch researcher.
This isn’t new territory for the Israeli government either. Over the past decade, authorities have barred from entry MIT professor Noam Chomsky, U.N. special rapporteurs Richard Falk and Michael Lynk, Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire, U.S. human rights lawyers Vincent Warren and Katherine Franke, a delegation of European Parliament members, and leaders of 20 advocacy groups, among others, all over their advocacy around Israeli rights abuses. Israeli and Palestinian rights defenders have not been spared. Israeli officials have smeared, obstructed and sometimes even brought criminal charges against them.
What is new, though, is an Israeli court endorsing the government’s efforts to expel a human rights worker for calling on businesses to uphold their human rights’ responsibilities by cutting settlement ties. Israeli courts have often found justifications for the systematic rights abuses and entrenched discrimination that characterize Israel’s half-century occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But siding with the government in directly targeting advocates challenging these abuses signals a potentially new and dangerous phase.
The court ruled that Human Rights Watch’s research and advocacy on settlement businesses constitute a “boycott” under Israeli law. The decision effectively means that, if you call on companies to do the right thing and stop contributing to human rights abuses and discrimination by doing business in settlements, you risk being barred from Israel and the West Bank.
This ruling comes at a time when the Trump administration has embraced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uncritically and made no visible effort to restrain Israeli abuses of Palestinian rights.
We will appeal this week’s ruling to Israel’s Supreme Court. The stakes are high. The case has become about more than just Israel curtailing Human Rights Watch access to Israel and the West Bank for the first time since we began monitoring events three decades ago.
This case raises the question of whether today’s Israel will tolerate those who criticize its conduct during more than a half-century of occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip, depriving Palestinians there of their most basic rights and treating them separately and unequally.
If Israel succeeds in deporting a researcher for calling for respecting rights, what hope is there that it will ever be willing to acknowledge, investigate and end its own human rights abuses?