Human Rights Watch researcher deported by Israel vows to continue work

Israel revoked the visa of Omar Shakir, a U.S. citizen, under a law barring entry to foreigners who have called for boycotts of Israel or its settlements.
Image: Kenneth Roth and Omar Shakir
Kenneth Roth, left, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, and Omar Shakir, the director for Israel and the Palestinian territories, speak during an interview at an east Jerusalem hotel Sunday.Ahmad Gharabli / AFP - Getty Images

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By Associated Press

JERUSALEM — A human rights researcher who is being deported Monday from Israel over his alleged boycott advocacy has said he will remain in his position and continue doing the “important, urgent work” of documenting violations in Israel and the Palestinian territories from abroad.

Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine Director for Human Rights Watch since October 2016, must leave the country after the Supreme Court upheld a deportation order earlier this month following a long legal battle.

“We’re talking about a half-century-long occupation defined by systematic repression and institutional discrimination,” Shakir told The Associated Press on Sunday. “That requires important, urgent work, and it’s unfortunate that I won’t be able to do it on the ground, but we won’t stop doing it.”

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said Israel was joining a “fairly ugly group of governments,” including Iran, Egypt and Venezuela, that have barred its researchers.

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“They all thought that if you can somehow silence the messenger, you can then silence Human Rights Watch. It didn’t work out. We find ways to cover these countries even if our researcher is not able to be on the ground, and we’ll do the same thing with Israel,” he said.

Israel revoked the work visa of Shakir, a U.S. citizen, under a 2017 law that bars entry to foreigners who have called for economic boycotts of Israel or its settlements in occupied territory. Authorities cited statements and social media posts by Shakir from before he joined Human Rights Watch, some going back to his student days nearly a decade ago, that they said amounted to boycott activism.

Israel said Shakir had continued to facilitate boycotts through his work at Human Rights Watch. The group does not call for boycotting Israel but urges companies to avoid doing business in West Bank settlements, saying it makes them complicit in human rights abuses.

“The Israeli government was never been able to come up with a single case where Omar deviated from the Human Rights Watch position with respect to BDS,” Roth said, referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. “What they instead tried to do is to mischaracterize our work.”

Israel seized east Jerusalem and the West Bank, territories the Palestinians want for their future state, in the 1967 Mideast war. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live and work in settlements considered illegal by almost the entire international community.

The 2017 law is part of Israel’s increasingly aggressive efforts to combat the Palestinian-led BDS movement.

BDS supporters say the boycott call is a peaceful way of advocating for Palestinian rights modeled on the campaign against apartheid South Africa. Israel says the nonviolent message is meant to mask a deeper aim of delegitimizing Israel and eventually erasing it from the map.

“Shakir’s career, including at HRW, has been devoted to uniquely and intensely targeting Israel,” said Daniel Laufer, a spokesman for NGO Monitor, a pro-Israel group that filed an amicus brief in the government’s case against Shakir.

“His personal involvement in campaigns concerning Israeli banks, Airbnb, and FIFA membership was meant to trigger far-reaching boycotts, divestment, and sanctions,” he said.

Shakir said he was “an activist on many issues” prior to joining Human Rights Watch. Roth said Shakir has fully adhered to Human Rights Watch’s positions since joining the group, and that his prior political activities are irrelevant.

“We have never issued an appeal to consumers, we’ve not urged a boycott at all,” Roth said. “We’ve asked businesses to live up to their corporate responsibility.”