JERUSALEM — The Israeli government is refusing to allow an American investigator from Human Rights Watch into the country, saying Thursday that the group is “systematically anti-Israel” and works as a tool for pro-Palestinian propaganda.
Officials at Human Rights Watch — one of the most prominent rights monitors in the world — denounced the decision to deny entry to Omar Shakir, its recently named Israel and Palestine country director. Shakir is a U.S. citizen. His parents were from Iraq.
The New York-based group shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 as a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines. One of the top backers of Human Rights Watch is financier and philanthropist George Soros.
“Our staff can’t work in Cuba, Egypt, North Korea, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Venezuela. This is not a club that Israel wants to join,” said Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. Bashi, an Israeli, is based in South Africa.
Authorities in Egypt in 2014 barred two senior executives of Human Rights Watch from entering the country as the pair were about to release a year-long investigation of mass killings of anti-government demonstrators at the hands of security forces.
In a letter dated Monday, Israel’s immigration service, which approves visas for foreign workers, said it based its rejection on an advisory from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which noted that “for some time now, this organization’s public activities and reports have engaged in politics in the service of Palestinian propaganda, while falsely raising the banner of ‘human rights.’ ” It did not cite specifics in the letter.
Emmanuel Nahshon, a top spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, confirmed that Israel rejected the visa request for Shakir, basing its decision not on the individual but on its low opinion of Human Rights Watch.
“We said no. It’s very simple. We consider the group to be biased, systemically hostile toward Israel. In a way, we consider them absolutely hopeless,” Nahshon said.
He said the refusal to allow the Human Rights Watch investigator into the country does not signal a new get-tough policy against nongovernmental organizations, as its critics charge.
“This doesn’t mean that Israel will not allow human rights organizations to work in Israel. On the contrary, we’re keen to work with them,” Nahshon said. He added that decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
“This decision and the spurious rationale should worry anyone concerned about Israel’s commitment to basic democratic values,” Iain Levine, program director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
Bashi said that in the past year, Human Rights Watch has not only reported on alleged violations by the Israeli government but also investigated and condemned the arbitrary detention of journalists and activists by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and executions by Hamas authorities in Gaza. It also probed and denounced a Jerusalem bus bombing claimed by a suspected affiliate of Hamas, the Islamist militant organization that runs the Gaza Strip and has been designated a terrorist group by the United States and Israel.
Homegrown rights groups here, such as B’Tselem and Peace Now, and global organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have long been accused by Israelis of unfair treatment. The Israel-based group NGO Monitor, which provides information to the Israeli government on Palestinian incitement, charges that Human Rights Watch “disproportionately focuses on condemnations of Israel” and “promotes an agenda based solely on the Palestinian narrative of victimization and Israeli aggression.”
On its website, NGO Monitor features a short video clip of Shakir speaking at the University of California at Irvine in 2010 in favor of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which supporters say is designed to force Israel to end its almost 50-year military occupation and practices it compares to “apartheid” against Palestinians. Shakir was not working for Human Rights Watch then.
Israelis say the BDS movement seeks to “delegitimize” Israel. A number of U.S. governors and state houses have come out with executive orders and bills against the boycotts.
Israel’s right-wing government has recently targeted Israeli human rights groups for extra scrutiny and warned European governments to stop funding them. Members of anti-occupation groups, such as Breaking the Silence, which is composed of Israeli army veterans, have been called “traitors.”
The Israeli parliament in July passed a bill to increase transparency for Israeli NGOs that get most of their funding from abroad. Leaders of the nongovernmental organizations, who make up the core of Israel’s “peace camp” and are stalwarts of the dwindling left wing in Israel, said the law was written by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to muzzle opposition to the military occupation of the West Bank.