When the Israeli government notified Human Rights Watch last November that it was considering not renewing local director Omar Shakir’s work visa, citing alleged activities promoting a boycott of Israel, the veteran rights group asked the Interior Ministry what information it was basing its decision upon.
The answer came in December, in the form of an eight-page dossier on Shakir – a 33-year-old, Stanford-educated American lawyer who previously worked for the organization in both Egypt and Syria.
This week, Shakir had his request for a new work visa rejected and has been given 14 days to leave the country – a decision his organization is planning to contest in court, saying his expulsion is an attempt to muzzle the organization’s work.
The dossier on Shakir, posted online by Human Rights Watch, provides a rare glimpse into the workings of the government’s aggressive battle against permitting individuals whom it regards as BDS activists into the country. (The movement’s supporters call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, which the Israeli government considers a threat to Israel’s legitimacy on the world stage.)
HRW has worked in Israel for 30 years, researching and reporting on violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. It also advocates directly to the authorities to end these abuses against Palestinians and Israelis.
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The dossier lists multiple examples of Shakir’s activism, in what the ministry says is evidence of years of pro-BDS activity – from tweets to campus speaking engagements, some with links to videos and promotional fliers. Much of the evidence, however, dates to his student years, before he started working for Human Rights Watch in October 2016.
Shakir tells Haaretz the dossier “felt like grasping for straws to make some sort of argument to serve as a basis to get me out” of Israel.
“The reality is, I’ve been in this role for many months, producing an extensive body of research and writing,” he continues. “I’ve formed deep relationships with Israelis across the political spectrum, among civil society and government officials. It seemed odd [that] instead of evaluating that, they were looking at websites from when I was a student and cherry-picked tweets and petitions I signed years ago – probably none of which are reference points to understanding my advocacy in this role.”
Shakir believes his expulsion reflects the current mood in Israel. “The decision should shock anyone concerned about Israel’s commitment to basic democratic values, but it is also not unexpected given the climate in the country,” he says.
‘Serving a political agenda’
The two most recent cases of alleged BDS activity in the Shakir dossier involve Human Rights Watch’s global campaign to lobby soccer’s governing body, FIFA, to move all games and activities featuring teams from settlements in the West Bank to inside Israel; and the organization’s work to promote awareness of a database created by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, listing businesses that work inside settlements or do business with them.
Shakir rejects the dossier’s claims. He says his organization’s work lobbying FIFA “does not constitute calling for or advocating a boycott – we have called on FIFA to refrain from holding matches in settlements and keep to the Green Line, in accordance with its own charter and its obligations arising from international law.”
He adds that HRW’s position on the issue was made public prior to his appointment.
Shakir also says HRW called for the publication of the UN database in order to alert businesses to what he describes as the “abuses inherent in settlement activities,” so they can avoid doing business in or with settlements that he says could involve their corporations in rights abuses.
“This grows out of our global approach of urging companies to meet their human responsibilities, and is distinct from a call for consumers or others to boycott those businesses. The Interior Ministry’s acknowledgement that HRW has not been involved in boycott activities during my tenure indicates that it itself does not consider this advocacy to be BDS.”
The dossier declares: “Given the fact that Shakir has actively and consistently been involved in promoting boycotts of Israel, the position of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy is that his work permit should be revoked. While such action would generate criticism of Israel in international media, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs contends, our view is that it is untenable to allow a person who has been consistently involved in activities intended to harm the State of Israel over many years to work in the country as if nothing has happened. If this were not enough, Shakir cynically continues his activities against the State of Israel as expressed in his intensive involvement in the FIFA issue.”
Shakir previously worked for Human Rights Watch in Egypt, where he worked on a report that documented mass killings of protesters by government forces. He says Israel’s treatment of him and his organization’s work reminds him of the dynamics he faced there, where the government was so eager to dismiss their work that it claimed they were supporters of the former Muslim Brotherhood government.
“It was a similar sort of selective rendering of reality to serve a political agenda,” Shakir says. “That is not the tactic I would expect from Israeli government officials,” citing the good working relationship he’s had to date with them, exchanging points of view and information.
“To see a government ministry invest resources in parsing through a human rights defender’s college student groups, websites and speeches given years ago felt unbecoming of a state that professes to be a democracy where free expression and open exchange of ideas are welcome,” says Shakir.
Interior Minister Arye Dery has a different view. In a statement announcing Shakir’s expulsion, he said, “It is inconceivable for a boycott activist to get an Israeli visa so that he can do whatever he can to harm the country. I will take action to remove such individuals from the country with all the means at my disposal, and therefore Omar Shakir will leave Israel.”
The Strategic Affairs Ministry, which oversees BDS issues and compiled the dossier on Shakir, refused to comment on the time frame in which a person’s alleged BDS activities would preclude them from being allowed to enter or remain in Israel. But the ministry did say in a statement, “Mr. Shakir has worked consistently, prominently and continuously to promote boycotts against the State of Israel and international companies investing in Israel.”
That statement seemingly contradicted the letter sent by the Interior Ministry on Monday – when it informed Shakir he would not be receiving a new work visa – when it wrote that “no information has surfaced regarding such [boycott] activities” since Shakir joined Human Rights Watch two years ago.
Fifteen Israeli human rights groups on Wednesday protested Shakir’s expulsion, saying it placed Israel “squarely on a list of disreputable states.”
The groups, including Rabbis for Human Rights and B’Tselem, stated that it was “particularly worrying” that Israeli authorities “compile ‘personal dossiers’ on foreign nationals because of things they have said or for having taken part in legitimate political activities.”
Israel’s decision to expel Shakir appears to be the first time Israel’s recently amended Entry into Israel Law has been used to deport someone who was already residing in Israel. Previously, such deportations occurred when suspected BDS activists arrived at the country’s main port, Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.
Last week, Israel detained two prominent U.S. lawyers for 14 hours after they flew into Israel to lead a delegation of 15 fellow human rights activists touring Israel and the West Bank. After several hours’ questioning, they were put on a flight back to New York.
Israeli security officials accused Columbia University law professor Katharine Franke of lying about her affiliation with pro-BDS group Jewish Voice for Peace. Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, was also questioned and deported.
On Wednesday, 80 faculty members from Israel’s law schools wrote to Dery, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan and Education Minister Naftali Bennett (among others), saying they “strongly protest” the treatment of Franke and Warren.
“We vehemently protest the denial of entry of a researcher [Franke] into Israel on the basis of political opinions,” the letter stated. “Democratic states do not prevent people from entering their territory because of their opinions and do not instruct their border officials to question visitors about their views.
“Preventing a scholar from entering the country due to criticism the scholar emitted is an antidemocratic act that undermines freedom of expression and academic freedom,” the letter added.