An EL AL Airlines aircraft taxies at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on July 14, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

(Jerusalem) – Israeli authorities on April 26, 2017, granted a work visa to Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, Human Rights Watch said today.

The approval of a one-year work visa reverses a February 20 Interior Ministry decision to deny a work permit to Human Rights Watch.

“We welcome this opportunity to work in Israel and Palestine alongside vigorous national human rights organizations,” said Iain Levine, executive deputy director for program at Human Rights Watch. “Israeli authorities do not always agree with our findings, but, in facilitating the ability of our staff to carry out our research and documentation, they have taken an important step to safeguard the principle of transparency and demonstrate their openness to criticism.”

Human Rights Watch applied to the Israeli Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority on July 14, 2016, for a work permit on behalf of Shakir, a United States citizen who is a lawyer by training. The Interior Ministry initially denied the work permit for Shakir, but allowed him to enter the country on tourist visa on March 6, 2017, for a 10-day visit.

In a March 12 letter, which Human Rights Watch received on March 27, the Interior Ministry notified Human Rights Watch that it had granted it permission to employ a foreign expert in Israel. The Interior Ministry accepted the paperwork and payment for Shakir’s work visa under the organization’s work permit on April 20, and Shakir received the visa upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport on April 26.

Human Rights Watch has had regular access to Israel and the West Bank for nearly three decades, with staff and offices in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Gaza for much of this period. Human Rights Watch staff have regularly met and corresponded with Israeli government officials. Since 2008, Israel has refused Human Rights Watch access to Gaza, except for one visit in 2016.

Human Rights Watch is an independent, international, nongovernmental organization that promotes respect for human rights and international law. It monitors rights violations in more than 90 counties across the world. To carry out its work, Human Rights Watch relies on rigorous research from professional researchers on the ground and regular engagement with government officials, as well as others with first-hand information.

Israeli authorities have in recent years limited the space for local and international human rights defenders operating in Israel and Palestine. A law passed by the Knesset in July requires Israeli nonprofit groups that receive more than half their funding, indirectly or directly, from foreign governments to note that information in communications with the public and with government officials. Data from the Population and Immigration Authority obtained by Haaretz via a Freedom of Information Law in February 2017 indicates a ninefold increase in the number of visitors to Israel denied entry over the past five years. In March, the Knesset passed a law barring entry to those who call for or support a boycott of Israel or Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

“Having our country director based in Israel and Palestine will allow us to closely engage Israeli and Palestinian officials, partners, and those directly affected by human rights abuses,” Levine said. “We hope that this decision reflects a larger recommitment by the Israeli government to allow international and domestic rights groups to work freely and to improve access to and from Gaza, in particular for human rights workers.”