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Israel Supreme Court allows expulsion of human rights activist

Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch Israel and Palestine director, before his hearing at Israel's Supreme Court in Jerusalem on Sept. 24. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

JERUSALEM — Israel’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the government could expel the head of Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine office after accusing him of supporting boycotts against the country.

The ruling represents the likely culmination of the protracted effort to remove Omar Shakir, a U.S. citizen, and marks an escalation in Israel’s determination to prevent critics from operating in the country under new laws that equate support for the boycotts, divestments and sanctions movement (BDS) with challenging Israel’s right to exist.

Others have been denied entry visas under the laws, including two U.S. congresswomen in August, but Shakir, who first had his work permit revoked in May 2018, would be the first to be expelled. He has 20 days to leave the country.

“Omar Shakir is a BDS activist who took advantage of his stay in Israel to harm it, something that no sane country would allow,” said Minister for Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan, a leader of Israel’s campaign to push back on the international boycott campaign it sees as a growing threat. He applauded the ruling, which was decided unanimously by three Supreme Court justices.

Shakir told The Washington Post the government had mined social media posts from his days at Stanford University to portray him as a BDS activist. In his four years as an employee of Human Rights Watch, he said neither he nor the organization have advocated for boycotts against Israel or companies doing business here. They do call on companies, including Airbnb, not to operate in Israeli settlements, which they characterize as violating international humanitarian law.

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Previously, the 35-year-old California native had been forced to leave Egypt and Syria over his human rights work and was denied an entry visa to Bahrain.

I think anyone who values Israel’s commitment to basic democratic values should ask if that’s a club they want to join,” he said.

Israel has said its actions were limited to Shakir, whom Interior Minister Aryeh Deri characterized in a tweet Tuesday as a “one of the leaders of the BDS movement,” and that Human Rights Watch was welcome to appoint a replacement.

But Human Rights Watch slammed the ruling in a statement.

“The Supreme Court has effectively declared that free expression in Israel does not include completely mainstream advocacy for Palestinian rights,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director. “If the government now deports Human Rights Watch’s researcher for asking businesses to respect rights as we do across the world, there’s no telling whom it will throw out next.”

Michael Sfard, Shakir’s attorney, said the court’s ruling was expected but still “very frightening.” He had argued that Shakir had not advocated for boycotts against Israel after joining Human Rights Watch, and that the law itself violates the country’s basic guarantees of free speech by calling out Israel’s critics.

“We have a law that makes it impossible for human rights advocates and authors and even politicians to come here and have direct contact with Israelis and Palestinians who share their positions,” Sfard said.

The court, in ruling that Shakir had violated the law, declined to address the constitutional arguments against it.

The government’s real motivation, Sfard said, was to hamper Human Rights Watch activities in the country. He noted that the Interior Ministry’s rejection of Shakir’s application for a work permit in 2017 accused the organization of engaging “in politics in the service of Palestinian propaganda, while falsely raising the banner of ‘human rights.’ ”

The ministry denied the renewal request but, following an outcry, relented and gave Shakir a one-year work visa.

“Originally, the idea was to curb the work of Human Rights Watch in this region,” Sfard said. “Only after that failed did they turn their attention to the particular employee.”

Arab lawmakers condemned the court’s ruling. Heba Yazbak, an Arab Israeli member of the Knesset, said in a tweet that the move was intended to “repress and silence organizations that are defending Palestinian human rights and acting against the occupation. Only a state that has something to hide will act to deport human rights activists.”

But supporters said Israel’s moves were well within the bounds of other democracies that claim the right to bar those they deem hostile to national interests.

“In America, membership in a foreign communist organization can get you excluded,” said Eugene Kontorovich, an international law expert and director of Jerusalem’s Kohelet Policy Forum. “People with far-right affiliations are routinely denied visas in the U.K.”

Kontorovich, who originally immigrated as a child to the United States as a refugee from the former Soviet Union, said he had firsthand experience with the screening that can entail.

“I know my parents had to fill out an extensive questionnaire,” he said. “There’s nothing inherently undemocratic about Israel not giving visas to someone who promotes views that call for the end of it as we know it.”

Human Rights Watch, he noted, was free to replace Shakir, although he characterized the organization as “overwhelmingly biased against Israel.”

Officials say the boycott campaign actively promotes Israel’s demise and denies the country's basic right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. Those who advocate BDS say their goal is to pressure Israel into complying with international law in its policies toward Palestinians. The movement discourages the purchase of Israeli goods, pressures international companies not to conduct business in Israel, and urges celebrities not to visit or perform in the country.

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