Israel Backtracks on Human Rights Watch: Willing to Reexamine Work Visa Request

Flip flop follows orders from Netanyahu, source says; investigator's work visa request was initially denied 'due the NGO's extreme, hostile and anti-Israel agenda.'

Less than a day after Haaretz first reported that Israel has refused to grant a work visa for a Human Rights Watch investigator, the government has backtracked on the Foreign Ministry and Population and Immigration Authority's decision.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Emanuel Nahshon said Saturday that the opinion of the Foreign Ministry was handed down to the Interior Ministry before the internal consultation procedure was completed and the Foreign Ministry therefore intends to reexamine it. He added that the ministry takes responsibility for the mishap and will act to correct it.

Nahshon said Friday that Israel is willing to reexamine the organization's request if the rights group appeals the original decision.

"Human Rights Watch representatives can of course enter Israel with tourists' visas," Nahshon said. "Regarding work visas, the issue will be reexamined by the relevant authorities if the original decision will be appealed."

A senior Israeli official, who requested to stay anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue, said that Foreign Ministry's U-turn came in wake of a directive from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister.

According to the official, Netanyahu, who is currently in Australia, was unaware of the decision to refuse the work visa for HRW and first learned of it through media reports.

Meanwhile, the U.S. administration reached out to Israel for clarifications, as Human Rights Watch is a non-governmental organization founded in the U.S. and whose headquarters are based in New York. The senior official noted that the American government voiced discontent at Israel's decision.

The decision by the Interior Ministry's Population and Immigration Authority to refuse the group's request for a work visa was based on the professional opinion of the Foreign Ministry's international NGO division. The opinion inspired controversy within the ministry, with the public diplomacy and civil society divisions active in countering the BDS movement warning against it, claiming that refusing a work visa for Human Rights Watch would cause Israel more international damage.

'Palestinian propaganda'

The international organization operating in 90 countries has monitored human rights violations in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza for years. After the researcher who was working in Israel for the past several years had left seven months ago, the group applied for a visa for his replacement, an American of Iraqi origin named Omar Shakir.

Nahshon told Haaretz on Wednesday that the decision was due to the “group's extreme, hostile and anti-Israel agenda."

Asked why the ministry has only now changed its policy, Nahshon replied: “We are fed up with them coming here every time and taking advantage of their stay here. They don’t do anything but look for an anti-Israel agenda."

HRW said it had been granted unimpeded access to Israel and the West Bank for three decades and it was "disappointing that the Israeli government seems unable or unwilling to distinguish between justified criticisms of its actions and hostile political propaganda."