HRW's Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir in Ramallah, May 2018.

© 2018 AFP
(Jerusalem) – The Israeli Supreme Court on November 5, 2019 upheld the Israeli government’s authority to deport Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director of Human Rights Watch. The decision now shifts back to the Israeli government; if it proceeds with deportation, Shakir will have to leave Israel by November 25.

Human Rights Watch has been calling on businesses to stop operating in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as part of their duty to avoid complicity in human rights abuses. However, even though Human Rights Watch calls on businesses to comply with this duty in many other countries as well, the court found that applying this principle to ensure respect for Palestinians’ rights constitutes a call for boycott, based on a broad reading of a 2017 law that bars entry to people who advocate a boycott of Israel or its West Bank settlements.  

“The Supreme Court has effectively declared that free expression in Israel does not include completely mainstream advocacy for Palestinian rights,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “If the government now deports Human Rights Watch’s researcher for asking businesses to respect rights as we do across the world, there’s no telling whom it will throw out next.”

The ruling exhausts the ordinary legal appeals available to Human Rights Watch. However, given the ruling’s far-ranging implications for freedom of expression and for the ability of other advocacy organizations to work in Israel, Human Rights Watch may seek a hearing before an expanded panel of Supreme Court judges. Regardless of the court’s ruling, the decision whether to actually force Shakir to leave the country rests with the Israeli government.

The court based its ruling on a determination that Shakir had advocated a boycott of Israel not only in the distant past but also after he joined Human Rights Watch, which the organization vigorously contested. While employed by Human Rights Watch, Shakir never deviated from the policies and positions of the organization, which does not advocate a boycott of Israel but urges businesses to fulfill their human rights responsibilities by ending ties with illegal West Bank settlements.

According to the court, the Israeli government may, under the law, ban entry to those who call for boycotting West Bank settlements because such a call entails opposition to a general policy of the government of Israel regarding an area under its control and thus, the court held, “expresses negation of the legitimacy of the state” – even if settlements are widely viewed as illegal under international law.

The court also held that a call on businesses to refrain from activities in settlements constitutes a call for boycott under the law even if it is motivated by respect for international human rights and humanitarian law.

The court distinguished Human Rights Watch from Shakir by noting that the organization devoted only a small percentage of its time to Israel, while Shakir devoted all of his time to Israel and Palestine. By that logic, any foreign national whose professional role was to urge businesses to avoid complicity in human rights violations by ending ties with settlements would run afoul of the court’s ruling.

The court did not address Human Rights Watch’s challenge to the constitutionality of the 2017 amendment.

The court also rejected a request to pause proceedings until a new Israeli government has been formed following the September 17,2019 elections and could consider whether to proceed with seeking deportation.

Former senior Israeli diplomats had joined Human Rights Watch’s appeal, as did Amnesty International, which raised concern about the “wider chilling effect” on other human rights groups and the “increasing risk to their ability to continue operating in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Many others have criticized the deportation order, including 27 European states in a joint statement17 members of the United States Congress, the United Nations secretary general3 UN human rights special rapporteurs, and numerous independent groups and academic associations.

Neither Human Rights Watch nor Shakir as its representative has ever called for a boycott of Israel. As part of its global campaign to ensure that businesses uphold their human rights responsibilities to avoid contributing to abuses, Human Rights Watch has urged companies to stop working in or with settlements in the West Bank, which are illegal under international humanitarian law. The organization has never called for a consumer boycott of those companies.

Recently, Israeli authorities have denied entry to a number of other international rights advocates, maligned Israeli rights advocates, imposed burdensome financial reporting requirements on them, and raided the offices of, and arrested, Palestinian rights defenders. In October, Israeli authorities prevented an Amnesty International staff member from traveling out of the Occupied West Bank for undisclosed “security reasons.”

The Supreme Court ruling upholds an April Jerusalem District Court decision that found legally valid the May 7, 2018 explusion order by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri against Shakir. This is the first time the government has used the 2017 law to try to deport someone who is lawfully inside the country and the first time Israel has ordered a Human Rights Watch staff member to leave Israel since the organization began monitoring events on the ground three decades ago.

Deri said in his May 2018 order that the decision “does not constitute a principled or sweeping refusal for the organization to employ a foreign expert,” and noted that “no information has surfaced” regarding Shakir promoting boycotts during his time at Human Rights Watch. Yet in court, the government stated that it considers the work of Human Rights Watch itself to constitute boycott activity.

Human Rights Watch is an independent, international, nongovernmental organization that promotes respect for international human rights and humanitarian law. It monitors rights violations in 100 counties across the world, including all 19 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Headquartered in New York City, Human Rights Watch has registered offices in 24 countries around the world, including Lebanon, Jordan, and Tunisia in the region. Human Rights Watch shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 as a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

To accomplish its mission, Human Rights Watch relies on professional researchers on the ground. They regularly engage with government officials as well as with others with first-hand information. Human Rights Watch maintains direct access to the vast majority of countries it reports on. Cuba, EgyptNorth KoreaSudan, and Venezuela are among the handful of countries that have blocked access for Human Rights Watch staff members.

As part of its mandate, Human Rights Watch conducts research and advocacy that exposes and challenges violations by all actors in the region, including the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas authorities in Gaza. In 2019, in addition to documenting abuses by Israeli forces, Human Rights Watch published research on systematic arbitrary arrests and torture of critics and opponents by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and on unlawful rocket attacks by armed Palestinian groups.

The Israeli court’s decision marks the culmination of a multi-year effort to muzzle Human Rights Watch. In February 2017, the Interior Ministry denied Human Rights Watch a permit to hire a foreign employee, before reversing course and issuing the permit two months later. Shakir obtained his work visa under this permit in April 2017, but the government revoked it in May 2018 and ordered Shakir deported. Human Rights Watch filed suit that month to challenge that order.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision puts the imprimatur of Israeli law on the Netanyahu government’s efforts to censor mainstream, legitimate human rights advocacy,” Roth said. “Despite the Israeli government’s effort to silence the messenger rather than change its illegal conduct, Human Rights Watch will continue to document human rights abuses by all parties in Israel and Palestine.”