First International Human Rights Observer Expelled Under BDS Law Leaves Israel

Human Rights Watch's Omar Shakir, the first representative ever expelled for promoting anti-Israel boycotts, will operate from a neighboring country

Omar Shakir (C) addresses the media at Ben Gurion airport, Israel, November 25, 2019. To his right, HRW's Executive Director, Kenneth Roth.
Tomer Appelbaum

Omar Shakir will remain in his job as Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director even after he was expelled from Israel, but will continue doing his work from a neighboring country, the organization has decided.

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Shakir left Israel on Monday, about a year and a half after deportation proceedings against him began. He will be the first human rights representative ever expelled from Israel for promoting anti-Israel boycotts.

The Supreme Court recently upheld the government’s decision not to renew Shakir's work visa because of his support for such boycotts, and rejected his request to stall his expulsion until the court rules whether a hearing with an expanded panel of judges is held.

Nevertheless, HRW has decided to keep Shakir in his job, which involves monitoring human rights violations in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Thus the procedure won’t prevent him from continuing to file reports on behalf of one of the world’s largest and most influential human rights organizations. He will be based in another HRW office in the region, most likely in Jordan.

"There's no point in replacing Omar because our next researcher would have the same problem," HRW's Executive Director Kenneth Roth said at a press conferenc in Jerusalem before Shakir headed to the airport.

Omar Shakir waves as he makes his way to departures at Ben Gurion airport, Lod, Israel, November 25, 2019
Tomer Appelbaum

"If Israel can pick our researcher, Israel can preclude certain topics," Roth added. "Imagine what other governments will do. China will say we cannot monitor Xinjiang (detention camps). Saudi Arabia will say that we leave Yemen alone," he said.

In the 10 days following Shakir’s departure, he is also set to brief the European Parliament in Brussels and meeting Swedish, Dutch, British and German government officials.

The Interior Ministry declined to renew Shakir’s work visa in May 2018 at the recommendation of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, on the grounds that “he frequently retweets and shares material about BDS.” The decision was made under a new law that allows prominent advocates of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement to be denied entry to Israel.

However, the Foreign Ministry initially opposed the decision. It argued that Shakir, a U.S. citizen, should be granted a visa, out of fear that doing otherwise would undermine Israel’s foreign relations and its public diplomacy, especially given HRW’s prominence.

Haaretz obtained details of the file the Strategic Affairs Ministry compiled against Shakir at the time, which examined his involvement in BDS from 2010 to 2017. It noted his efforts to get Israel suspended from FIFA, the international soccer association; his efforts to found an organization that called for the boycott of Israel while he was a student at Stanford University; and his “consistent calls for BDS at conferences, meetings and on social media over the years.” It also cited his signing a petition to dissuade a Muslim delegation from visiting Israel in 2015.

“It’s clear that Shakir continued encouraging activities to promote boycotts against Israel even after obtaining a work visa,” the document continued. It cited various statements urging the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to promptly publish a UN database containing the names of international and Israeli companies operating in the territories, adding that he “effectively supported a blacklist” of these companies. It also cited tweets promoting an HRW report on Israeli banking operations in the West Bank.

After the Interior Ministry announced its decision, HRW said that Shakir neither supports nor opposes BDS. The organization does not support boycotts of Israel, but does defend the right of activists to engage in such non-violent protests. It added that it's frightening that a government office in a democratic country is monitoring a foreign national who is legally staying in Israel.

Shakir challenged the refusal to renew his visa in court, but in April, the Jerusalem District Court upheld the Interior Ministry’s decision. Shakir then appealed, but the Supreme Court rejected his appeal earlier this month. Justices Neal Hendel, Noam Sohlberg and Yael Willner said they saw no legal problem with the ministry’s decision not to renew his visa.

This is the first time since the law allowing prominent BDS advocates to be deported was passed that the Supreme Court has approved such a decision.

Even though Shakir was forced to leave on Monday, his request for another hearing before an expanded panel of justices is still pending. Shakir's attorneys Michael Sfard, Emily Schaeffer Omer-Man and Alon Sapir wrote in a joint statement that "the decision, if it stays unchanged, would unprecedentedly harm the ability of human rights organizations and human rights defenders to do their work in Israel and the occupied territories in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Omar Shakir looks up before his Supreme Court hearing, Jerusalem, September 24, 2019
AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

They also argued that the decision would have “dramatic implications for Israel’s foreign relations, for the freedom of political expression of Israeli and foreign human rights organizations, and for political equality.”

In response to news of Shakir's expulsion, Former Labor Knesset member Merav Michaeli wrote on Twitter, "In the 20th Knesset I waged a long and uncompromising battle against this damaging law that deeply hurts the name of the State of Israel and our democracy. Another law that we will have to cancel of when we change this malicious right wing government."

Joint List lawmaker Ofer Cassif said on Monday this was "an official stamp by the State of Israel [confirming] the painfully accurate reports by human rights organizations on the terror of the occupation and silencing those who criticize it.”

“I congratulate the government for unveiling the occupation’s ugly face to the entire world,” Cassif added in a tweet.

Tourist photographs a sign painted on a wall in Bethlehem, West Bank, June 5, 2015
AFP

Because of its precedent-setting nature, Shakir’s case sparked great interest among nongovernmental organizations both in Israel and abroad. The district court allowed three right-wing organizations – Shurat HaDin, NGO Monitor and the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel – to join the case on the government’s side as amici curiae. Later, Amnesty International and a group of former Israeli diplomats headed by Ilan Baruch and Alon Liel joined the case on Shakir’s side, despite the state’s objections.

Kenneth Roth, HRW’s executive director, told Haaretz while the case was still in deliberations that if Israel deports Shakir, it would join countries like North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Sudan and Iran, who have also deported HRW officials. This isn’t a club Israel should be eager to join, he added.

He also accused the Israeli government of launching a campaign whose goal is not only to silence HRW and Israeli human rights organizations, but also to deprive Israelis of information about what’s happening in their country.