An Israeli court upheld a ruling to deport Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir on Tuesday over his advocacy calling on online booking agents to cease providing platforms for rentals in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The decision marks the first time Israel has taken steps to ban staff for Human Rights Watch from operating in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in more than three decades of monitoring work.
The Jerusalem District court said it agreed with a decision from 2018 where the Israeli government ordered to revoke Shakir’s work visa over alleged violations of a 2017 law that bans foreign nationals who support boycotts against Israel and the settlements. The measure was deeply contested at the time, passing with 46 votes in favor and 28 against. The main opponents were legislatures who take part in a boycott of settlement products and panned the law’s lack of distinction between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
In the court proceedings, state attorneys raised Shakir’s past activism dating back to when he was a college student who endorse boycotts of Israel, yet acknowledged he had not done so in his capacity as staff for Human Rights Watch. Instead, judges ruled his work on a 2018 report that asked American-owned travel websites Airbnb and Bookings.com not to host listings for properties in the West Bank, constituted a violation of the anti-boycott law. In November that same year Airbnb said it will not longer allow post rentals in West Bank settlements. Yet that decision was reversed on April 9, and Airbnb said it will no longer profit for those rentals.
In a statement released shorting after the decision Human Rights Watch said the court had taken “a new and dangerous interpretation of the law.”
Shakir posted to social media he will be appealing the decision in Israel’s high court, “An Israeli court has reinstated my deportation, saying that Human Rights Watch‘s work calling on companies to stop facilitating abuses in settlements constitutes boycott (which violates Israeli law). The court has given me until May 1 to leave Israel, but we will appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court. This isn’t over.”
“Israel portrays itself as the region’s only democracy, but is set to deport a rights defender over his peaceful advocacy,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “The decision sends the chilling message that those who criticize the involvement of businesses in serious abuses in Israeli settlements risk being barred from Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.”
Eric Goldstein, the deputy director of the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch said the organization can continue its work in the region as the ban is for Shakir, the lone international employee requiring a work visa.
Yet, “when a government wants to kick an organization out they very frequently resort to saying they have a problem with this particular researcher and not the organization a whole,” Goldstein said, “It is one of the most tired and familiar arguments that governments use then they want to shut down our work.”
Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, who heads government backed anti-boycott campaigns, told the Associated Press, “Boycott activists need to understand that what was will no longer be.”
Erdan’s ministry released an 80-page report earlier this year titled “Terrorist in Suits,” claiming Palestinian-led boycott organizations have been “infiltrated” by supporters with ties to terrorist organizations.
The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said in a statement, “the court ruling shines a spotlight on the place Israel holds in the infamous club of countries that restrict the activities of human rights organizations.”
Israel now joins a list of countries that have forbidden the entry of, or deported, Human Rights Watch staff including Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela Iran and Sudan. In 2017 Shakir was denied entry into Bahrain when traveling for a FIFA Congress. In 2014 Egypt’s government under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi banned the entry of a Human Rights Watch delegation and later blocked access to its website.