08:52, November 25 73 0 theguardian.com

2019-11-25 08:52:05
'Israel is joining an ugly club,' says rights group as director expelled

Israel is to deport the local director of Human Rights Watch for his alleged support for a boycott campaign, a move the advocacy group said placed the country in an “ugly club” of authoritarian regimes.

Omar Shakir, HRW’s Israel and Palestine representative, lost a landmark supreme court case this month that centred on Israel’s ability to expel its critics. The government had refused to renew Shakir’s visa, and Monday is the deadline for him to leave.

At a press conference in Jerusalem hours before his flight, the researcher condemned the decision as an escalating assault on the human rights movement.

“If the Israelis can deport somebody documenting rights abuse without facing consequence, how can we ever stop rights abuse?” said Shakir. Israel argues its objection is to Shakir alone, not human rights campaigners generally.

The expulsion of Shakir, a US citizen, is seen as a test case for a contentious 2017 law that allows the government to deport people who support a boycott of Israel or Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Many of Israel’s critics have been denied entry under the law, but Shakir is the first person already working in the country to be expelled using the legislation.

Kenneth Roth, HRW’s executive director, denied that the New York-based advocacy group, or Shakir as its representative, had supported a boycott against Israel. He said pressing businesses to acknowledge the rights abuses of the Israeli occupation was not the same as a boycott. For example, HRW has pushed Airbnb to remove rentals in settlements.

“It is standard procedure that human rights groups insist that businesses avoid complicity in human rights violations,” said Roth, who travelled to Jerusalem for the press conference. “Omar applied those same principles to ask businesses not to support Israel’s illegal settlements … Human Rights Watch has never urged a boycott of Israel.”

Shakir would continue his role remotely from Amman in neighbouring Jordan, Roth said.

“We’re used to operating in countries that bar our research. We’ve learned the necessity of monitoring human rights abuses from afar in countries like Iran and Egypt and Venezuela, all of which have barred our researchers,” said Roth. “Israel today is joining that ugly club of governments.”

He warned the expulsion would hamper his group’s work, including critical research on rights abuses carried out by Israel’s enemies, including Hamas.

The United Nations and European Union have criticised the decision to deport Shakir and called on Israel to reverse it. The UK government said it urged Israel to allow civil society organisations to operate freely.

Shakir said his being forced to leave was a minor hindrance in comparison to the increasingly suffocating atmosphere for Israeli and Palestinian rights advocates, who had suffered travel bans, arrests and office raids.

Israel passed the 2017 law used against Shakir as a measure to criminalise the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which advocates for broad boycotts. Rights groups say it encodes bars on free speech into law.

In the most high-profile use of the law, Israel blocked in August two highly critical US congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, from a planned trip to Palestine and Jerusalem.

Israel later agreed to a request by Tlaib to visit Palestinian members of her family on the condition that she did not express her views on the boycott. However, Tlaib subsequently rejected the offer, saying the conditions were “oppressive”.

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