Despite Initial Ban, Human Rights Watch Investigator Finally Let Into Israel

Omar Shakir's work visa request was previously denied due to 'Palestinian propaganda.' A week later, he tried again, but was still refused. He was finally let in on Tuesday.

A Human Rights Watch researcher to whom Israel initially denied a visa on the Foreign Ministry’s recommendation was finally allowed into the country on Monday.

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To his surprise, Omar Shakir was even met at Ben-Gurion Airport by a Foreign Ministry representative, who rushed him through customs and border control. He was not questioned nor detained at the airport. 

Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch's Israel and Palestine director, in an undated photo provided by the group on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017
Anonymous/AP

For now, Shakir received only a tourist visa, as was promised by the ministry. HRW has asked Israel to reconsider its refusal to give him a work visa, but has received no answer so far.

Shakir is expected to spend about 10 days in Israel and the West Bank, and will meet with Israeli officials, among others.

Shakir, an American citizen of Iraqi background who in the past voiced support for the BDS movement, ironically entered the country on the day the Knesset passed legislation barring people who advocate anti-Israel boycotts, divestment or sanctions.

Two weeks ago, at the Foreign Ministry’s recommendation, the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority denied Shakir a work visa. It said its rejection was unconnected to the identity of the researcher, but was rather based on the ministry’s opinion that HRW’s reports and public advocacy had long been politicized, and were aimed at furthering Palestinian propaganda under the false guise of human rights. HRW rejected this accusation, adding that it was surprised by PIBA’s decision.

Immediately after the decision was reported in the media, however, the government rescinded it. Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said Israel would reconsider HRW’s request if it appealed the initial decision. The Foreign Ministry’s opinion was passed on to PIBA before the ministry had finished its internal consultations, he added, and the ministry would therefore reconsider its stance as well.

A senior Israeli official, who asked to remain anonymous, said the ministry’s U-turn was due to direct orders from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also foreign minister. The U.S. administration also voiced its displeasure and demanded explanations. HRW is based in New York.

Early last week, HRW asked PIBA to confirm that Shakir would be granted a tourist visa while his request for a work visa was being reconsidered. But on Thursday, PIBA responded that Shakir could not even enter as a tourist, once again citing the Foreign Ministry opinion. Both the ministry and PIBA later said that response was a mistake, and that Shakir would be allowed to enter the country.

Shurat HaDin, a right-wing legal advocacy organization, wrote to Interior Minister Arye Dery last week to urge that the ministry stand fast in refusing Shakir a visa.

“Omar Shakir is a radical activist who works against Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and supports the BDS movement,” wrote its director, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, in her letter. “Through his work with HRW, Shakir will continue the organization’s efforts to besmirch Israel and make false accusations of war crimes and international crimes against it and its soldiers.”

She attached links to video clips of Shakir expressing support for BDS. She also noted that more than a decade ago, he had filed lawsuits in the United States against senior Israeli defense officials. Allowing such a “clear, consistent and dangerous” anti-Israel activist into the country “is like letting in a Trojan horse,” she argued.

Sari Bashi, HRW’s Israel/Palestine advocacy director, said these allegations were unfounded. “Like many of the organization’s employees, before beginning his job, Omar had a different career” and was engaged in “political activism,” she said. “Like every employee of the organization, he put this aside when he was chosen for this job. Human Rights Watch takes no position on BDS because it is a political movement. We do call for businesses to refrain from operating in the settlements, because business activity in the settlements contributes to grave violations of human rights.”

On Monday, hours after Shakir landed, the Knesset approved a law that would automatically deny entry to people who knowingly and publicly support boycotts against Israel and territory under its control, or who represent an organization that does so, unless the interior minister chooses to allow them in. Under the old law, BDS supporters were not specifically singled out unless the interior minister chose to prevent their entry into the country.