Israel has refused to grant a work permit to a staff member of Human Rights Watch.
In a letter, Israel’s interior ministry alleged that Human Rights Watch works in the “service of Palestinian propaganda, while falsely raising the banner of ‘human rights.’”
The allegation, the letter added, had been made by Israel’s foreign ministry, which had recommended denying an application for a work permit made on behalf of Omar Shakir. He had been appointed the Human Rights Watch director for Palestine.
The letter, sent earlier this week, does not go into any further details.
Human Rights Watch has described the decision as “an ominous turn.”
“It is disappointing that the Israeli government seems unable or unwilling to distinguish between justified criticisms of its actions and hostile political propaganda,” Iain Levine, a Human Rights Watch representative, said.
The group stated that it had “regular access without impediments” to the occupied West Bank and present-day Israel for almost three decades. However, it noted that Israel has been blocking it from entering Gaza since 2010 – except for one visit last year.
Human Rights Watch says its team has worked with many arms of the Israeli state, including the police and military, and had even been called upon by the foreign ministry to intervene in a case where Israelis were victims of human rights abuses.
Human Rights Watch asked the Israeli authorities that Omar Shakir, a US citizen, be granted a work permit in July last year.
Israel’s interior ministry regulations state that a decision on work permit applications should take up to 60 days. In Shakir’s case, it took seven months.
Shakir told The Electronic Intifada that he has been waiting in limbo in New York until he was given a guarantee of entry by Israel.
“It has certainly impeded our work,” Shakir told The Electronic Intifada, explaining that he was scheduled to meet with Israeli officials last December regarding human rights abuses of Israeli citizens. He was unable to attend that meeting because of the delay in processing his application.
Human Rights Watch has retained local counsel and will challenge the decision.
“In the meantime,” Shakir said, “we will continue to do our research and documentation.”
“With this decision, Israel puts itself in the same group as Sudan, Uzbekistan, North Korea and Egypt, all of which have barred Human Rights Watch from entering,” he added. “But we still monitor those countries, and we will continue to monitor abuses in Israel and Palestine.”
Ban on BDS activists?
Shakir said the last time the group needed to apply for an Israeli work permit was in 2011. On that occasion, it was granted a permit, without encountering any difficulties.
But Shakir explained that the denial was not about him. Foreign organizations in Israel must go through a two-step process to hire foreign nationals.
The interior ministry assesses the organization first and then investigates the individual who is seeking a permit.
Human Rights Watch did not get past the first step, Shakir said.
Human Rights Watch has noted that the rejection of its application came amid “increasing pressure” against those who monitor Israel’s activities.
In December, Israel detained, interrogated and deported Isabel Apawo Phiri, associate director of the World Council of Churches, claiming that she was affiliated with the BDS movement.
Refusing the visa for a Human Rights Watch worker will further mar Israel’s already tarnished reputation over its human rights record. Israel is reportedly re-examining the decision on orders from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after the US administration “voiced discontent,” the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz reported on Friday.
Human Rights Watch does not take a position on BDS but it did publish a report in January 2016 that called on businesses to halt their work in the settlements that Israel has built in the occupied West Bank.