Israel refuses visa for Human Rights Watch researcher accused of spreading 'Palestinian propaganda'

Group says move puts Israel in a group with the ‘most repressive states’ it covers

Lizzie Dearden@lizziedearden
Friday 24 February 2017 10:04
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HRW is among the human rights organisations that have been critical of Israel’s response to a wave of Palestinian attacks
HRW is among the human rights organisations that have been critical of Israel’s response to a wave of Palestinian attacks

Israel has denied a visa for a Human Rights Watch researcher while accusing the group of spreading “Palestinian propaganda”.

A work permit request was filed for Omar Shakir, the group’s director for Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in July but the refusal did not come for more than seven months.

A letter from Israel’s immigration authority said the application had been declined following a review, because of a recommendation by the country’s foreign ministry.

Israel has previously refused entry to pro-Palestinian activists and academics

An English translation of the letter seen by The Independent said it “noted that, for some time now, this organisation’s public activities and reports have engaged in politics in the service of Palestinian propaganda, while falsely raising the banner of ’human rights’”.

Mr Shakir, an American citizen, said dismissing HRW’s extensive research “put Israel in a group with the most repressive states” it covers, including North Korea, Sudan, North Korea and Cuba, who have all blocked access.

Emmanuel Nahshon, a spokesperson for the Israeli foreign ministry, called HRW a “blatantly hostile anti-Israeli organisation whose reports have the sole purpose of harming Israel with no consideration whatsoever for the truth or reality”.

“Why should we give working visas to people whose only purpose is to besmirch us and to attack us?” he asked.

“We are not masochists and there is no reason we should keep doing that.”

But Mr Nahshon said the decision was connected solely to the group’s activities and had nothing to do with the ethnicity of Mr Shakir, who is of Iraqi descent.

There were fears the move signalled a wider policy against HRW and other organisations like Amnesty International, who Mr Nahshon said would be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Mr Shakir said the letter was a “shock” as HRW staff have been given regular access to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories for almost three decades and frequently engage with Israeli authorities, including the military, police and foreign ministry.

The Stanford-educated lawyer has also done work on human rights in Egypt, Pakistan and at Guantanamo Bay detention camp, according to his biography.

HRW condemned claims it was “not a real human rights group”, saying the permit denial was the latest move to constrain the work of local and international human rights groups in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

“This decision and the spurious rationale should worry anyone concerned about Israel’s commitment to basic democratic values,” said Iain Levine, the group’s deputy executive director of programme.

“It is disappointing that the Israeli government seems unable or unwilling to distinguish between justified criticisms of its actions and hostile political propaganda.”

Mark Toner, a spokesperson for the US State Department, said American authorities did not agree with Israel’s assessment.

“HRW is a credible human rights organisation and even though we do not agree with all of their assertions or conclusions, given the seriousness of their efforts, we support the importance of the work they do,” he added.

Donald Trump has provoked controversy with his stance towards Israel, vowing to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital, and appointing a pro-settlement ambassador to Israel.

Protesters disrupt hearings for Israeli ambassador nominee

The New York-based group monitors human rights in over 90 countries, including nations throughout the Middle East and vowed to continue its work in Israel.

It has published a series of critical reports on Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which has swung dramatically to the right in recent years with the addition of ultra-nationalists from the pro-settlement Jewish Home party to cabinet.

HRW’s world report accuses Israel of imposing “severe and discriminatory restrictions on Palestinians’ human rights” and facilitating the transfer of Israeli civilians to the occupied West Bank in a possible violation of international law.

It said the response to a wave of Palestinian stabbings, car rammings and shootings, as well as the killing of several demonstrators, constituted the excessive use of force and said Israel committed war crimes while bombing the Gaza Strip during the 2014 war.

But HRW also frequently highlights abuses by Palestinians, accusing internationally backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the rival Hamas militant group in Gaza of arbitrarily detaining journalists and activists and torturing detainees.

It has also criticised executions carried out by Hamas and rocket attacks on Israel by the group and other militant factions.

Israel has long accused the group, as well as other human rights organisations, of focusing excessively and unfairly on it and failing to adequately recognise terrorist threats.

Last year, the government passed a Transparency Law requiring groups that receive more than half their funding from abroad to declare it and Israeli authorities have been accused of doing little to help human rights researchers receiving death threats from nationalists.

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