“Space for dissent has shrunk in Israel,” says HRW director

“The space for dissenting and defending human rights has shrunk in Israel,” says Human Rights Watch (HRW) regional director Omar Shakir, as he tries to prevent his imminent deportation on charges of boycotting the country.

Shakir says in an interview with Efe that he continues to work normally while waiting for Israel’s Supreme Court to decide on his forced expulsion set for May 1 and is hopeful as an “optimistic person by nature,” a condition he says human rights workers in this region should have.

“The role of HRW will not change if I am deported. We will continue to do our work whether we are here or not,” he says of the organization, with which he settled in Jerusalem in July 2017, although he already worked with her in Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, from which he was also expelled in 2014.

Shakir’s struggle with the Israeli authorities is long overdue. Israel denied him an entry visa in February 2017, considering that HRW was “propaganda” in favour of the Palestinians, although two months later it ended up granting him a residence and work permit.

However, the Interior Ministry ordered the cancellation of his visa a year ago when it accused him of supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS, which protests the Israeli occupation) movement, an order that HRW managed to temporarily block by filing an appeal with the Jerusalem District Court, the same court that revived the process last week.

Shakir claims that, if deported, he would be the first foreigner to have his work visa revoked by Israel for this reason, as the court has ruled in favor of the government in implementing for the first time the reform of the 2017 Immigration Law that allows people to refuse entry to boycott the country.

Of U.S. nationality and Iraqi origin, Shakir believes that the order to leave the country “shows a new facet that sets a very dangerous precedent” against humanitarian organizations working on the ground.

“The Israeli government’s repression of human rights defenders reflects the reality of an executive that appears not to be bound by the most basic international norms and applies an occupation” in the Palestinian territories “defined by institutional discrimination and the routine of serious abuses of the rights” of its population, he values.

In addition, he stresses that this accusation includes the work of the NGO, which recently published a report denouncing tourist businesses in Israeli colonies in the occupied West Bank, and asking companies such as Airbnb or Booking to withdraw Israeli offers of accommodation in the Palestinian territories.

The Israeli Ministries of the Interior and Strategic Affairs have expressed their satisfaction at the reactivation of Shakir’s expulsion order.

“There is a price to pay for encouraging a boycott against Israel and its citizens,” said Strategic Affairs Minister Guilad Erdan, who said Shakir “disguises himself as a ‘human rights activist,’ but an important part of his activities are dedicated to the boycott.

The director of HRW in Israel and Palestine insists that neither he nor his organization “defend or stop defending the boycott,” and that his work focuses on “documenting and denouncing human rights violations” committed by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

“I hope I will be allowed to stay, but my possible expulsion is a minor matter compared to the abuses of rights against Israelis and Palestinians,” such as the “forced displacements” suffered by the Palestinian population in the occupied West Bank or the “blockade in a cage of the people of Gaza, who cannot travel freely,” he denounces.

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