Israeli authorities denied Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Israel and Palestine director a work visa, the group announced in a statement on Friday. The group said Israel’s Interior Ministry accused HRW of “Palestinian propaganda” and not being a “real human rights group.”
Omar Shakir was informed that he would be unable to obtain his visa, on Feb. 20, though the information was not public until Friday.
The Interior Ministry reportedly cited an opinion received from Israel’s Foreign Ministry, which stated that HRW’s “public activities and reports have engaged in politics in the service of Palestinian propaganda, while falsely raising the banner of ‘human rights.”
HRW, a well-known nonprofit, nongovernmental human rights organization made up of roughly 400 staff members around the globe, has a history of being critical of Israel’s many human rights violations, labeled so according to international law and conventions.
Shakir responded to the denial on social media, slamming the Interior Ministry’s decision.
“The Israeli government is hardly the only one among the 90+ countries we cover to disagree with our findings, but branding us propagandists and fake human rights advocates puts Israel in the company of states like Egypt, North Korea and Sudan who have blocked access for our staff members,” Shakir said. “Israel claims to be only democracy in the Middle East, but is barring us at a time when our staff is based in and freely operates in several other countries in the region.”
“While the denial comes as a surprise (we have had regular access to Israel/West Bank, though not Gaza for three decades), it comes amid increasing pressure on Israeli and Palestinian rights groups and a wide-ranging assault on basic democratic values. Blocking our access will not silence us,” he added, “We will continue to scrupulously investigate abuses, expose the facts and struggle every day to defend the inherent human dignity of all.”
Iain Levine, deputy executive director of programs at Human Rights Watch said the decision and the “spurious rationale” behind it “should worry anyone concerned about Israel’s commitment to basic democratic values.”
“It is disappointing that the Israeli government seems unable or unwilling to distinguish between justified criticisms of its actions and hostile political propaganda,” Levine said.
On Friday afternoon, Emanuel Nahshon, a spokesperson for Israel’s Interior Ministry told Mondoweiss that Shakir “may enter Israel with a tourist visa” adding that “with regard to the work visa, this may be reconsidered if the organization appeals the Ministry of Interior decision.”
A group of 17 Israeli human rights organization condemned the Interior Ministry’s actions, calling the visa denial a “cause of grave concern.”
“Israel seeks to portray itself as a card-carrying member of the club of democratic countries,” the joint statement said, “Yet what is democracy without free speech, robust public debate and open criticism? A state that defines itself as democratic cannot turn its border control into a thought police.”
The organizations that signed the document were listed as: Adalah Center, Akevot, Amnesty, International Israel, Bimkom, Breaking the Silence. B’Tselem. Coalition of Women for Peace, Emek Shaveh, Gisha, Hamoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual, Haqel-Jews and Arabs in Defense of Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders Fund, Machsom Watch, Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, Physicians for Human Rights Israel, The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel and Yesh Din.
“Neither closing Israel’s borders to human rights organizations and activists nor other measures by the Israeli government against organizations that criticize the occupation will deter us from continuing to report human rights violations in the territories controlled by Israel,” the groups added. “Attempts to silence the messenger will not suppress our message.”