A group of 17 Democratic lawmakers wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week to ask his government to stop the planned deportation of Omar Shakir, a U.S. citizen and director of the Human Rights Watch office for Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“To carry out our own human rights work and responsibilities in the U.S. House of Representatives, we rely on the reports of Human Rights Watch for balanced accounts of human rights violations wherever they may occur, including here in the United States,” the letter read, adding that deporting Shakir would “reinforce the impression that Israel is increasingly hostile to human rights defenders.”
The letter was sent just days before a dramatic exchange of rockets and airstrikes left four Israelis and 25 Palestinians in Gaza dead. In a phone call Monday, Rep Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), one of the authors of the letter, said that the letter was not related, but he viewed it as part of a broader issue.
“One of the world’s most reputable human rights organizations is having one of their workers expelled from a country because of his human rights work,” McGovern said, noting that Human Rights Watch recently published a critical report on Hamas and the Palestinian Authority’s use of torture.
Despite criticism of the planned deportation from other human rights groups and governments, senior officials in the Trump administration, an ally of Netanyahu’s government, have refrained from publicly commenting on Shakir’s case.
Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said that while some Israeli officials had been helpful at the working level, her organization has had little success engaging more senior officials or political appointees on the issue.
“Taking a stronger or more vocal stance on Omar’s likely deportation would run up against their policy of having no daylight between the Trump administration and prime minister Netanyahu,” Margon said. “It’s unfortunate because in doing that, they are really allowing the growing democratic deficit to go forward without comment.”
The State Department was aware of Shakir’s case, spokesman Noel Clay said in an email, but had no further comment due to privacy concerns.
“As a general principle, we value freedom of expression, even in cases where we do not agree with the political views espoused,” Clay added.
Shakir had his work permit revoked in 2018 because of an amendment to the country’s immigration laws made the year before, that was aimed at fighting supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Shakir’s case was the first time Israel applied the law to a person already inside the country.
BDS is fiercely controversial — not only within Israel but also in the United States. Earlier this month, the Trump administration’s envoy to combat anti-Semitism said that the campaign was anti-Semitic. “If there is an organized movement to economically strangle the state of Israel, that is anti-Semitic,” Elan Carr told reporters.
No Republican lawmakers signed the letter in support of Shakir, though McGovern said this was a reflection of the tight turnaround. The letter was signed by a number of lawmakers who have taken a stance on issues related to Israel before, including Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). In March, Netanyahu and Omar sparred publicly over the alleged influence of Israeli money in U.S. politics.
McGovern said the Trump administration should speak to Netanyahu directly to urge Israel to reconsider Shakir’s case, though he didn’t express confidence that this would happen. “I’ve been very disappointed in this administration when it comes to human rights,” McGovern said. “They’ve very rarely mentioned the word. It doesn’t seem to be a priority.”
Shakir has said that the allegations against him relate to his “long-past student-activist days” and that he has not promoted boycotts of Israel at any point during his work with Human Rights Watch. While the organization has recommended businesses such as Airbnb cease operations in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, it says that these did not target Israel as a country.
After a lengthy legal battle, the Jerusalem District Court upheld the revocation of Shakir’s work visa last month and gave him until May 1 to leave the country. But last week, Israel’s Supreme Court stepped in to issue an injunction that would allow him to stay until May 7. It is unclear whether he will be allowed to remain in the country during his remaining appeal process.
The move to deport Shakir has drawn criticism from human rights groups and governments. On April 30 at the United Nations Security Council, 27 European countries issued a joint statement that urged “Israel to allow Mr. Shakir and Human Rights Watch to continue their human rights advocacy work unimpeded."
In remarks Friday, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said that his office was concerned about the “shrinking space for human rights defenders to operate in the occupied Palestinian territory,” adding that “Israel must allow them to carry out their work without threat or intimidation.”
Human Rights Watch faces restrictions on its work in a variety of countries around the world. In recent op-ed for The Washington Post, Shakir said that this was not the first time he has been denied a visa for his work, noting that he has been denied visas in Syria and Bahrain and was forced to leave Egypt after documenting a massacre in Cairo in 2014.
The United States has criticized other foreign governments for blocking the work of Human Rights Watch. In 2016, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said that the “forced departure” of researcher Ida Sawyer from Congo after her visa renewal was blocked was “incompatible with efforts to support greater transparency, accountability and democracy.”
McGovern said that he had not yet received a response from Netanyahu’s office. “My hope is that he is taking a good look at it,” he said.