High Court changes tune about quick hearing to expel HRW official

Omar Shakir has been fighting government efforts to expel him for his alleged support of boycotting Israel for over 14 months.

Human Rights Watch representative Omar Shakir (photo credit: HILLEL MAEIR/TPS)
Human Rights Watch representative Omar Shakir
(photo credit: HILLEL MAEIR/TPS)
In a surprise move, the High Court of Justice postponed Thursday’s hearing on whether the Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch could be deported for calls he made to boycott Israel. After the court had earlier fasttracked the case, the postponement left many scratching their heads.
Omar Shakir, the HRW official, has been fighting government efforts to use a 2017 law to expel him for his alleged support of boycotting Israel for 14 months. Shakir denies the charge, saying that he criticizes Israel in an attempt to improve its human rights record just as the HRW criticizes other countries.
Following a long battle before the Jerusalem District Court in which the government and a range of outside groups, such as NGO Monitor, obtained an order to expel him, Shakir appealed to the High Court. Monitor is neutral on whether he must be expelled, but wants him to “own” his outlook.
The High Court appeared to side with Shakir by freezing the order to expel him, and pushing off the hearing until November. However, following additional efforts by the state and some of right-wing NGOs, the court was convinced to move up the date by nearly four months to July 25.
This decision itself was highly unusual, as the court typically delays cases and rarely expedites them. This makes the latest decision on Wednesday even rarer.
While the High Court said it was postponing the case due to procedural issues relating to NGOs on the Left – such as Amnesty International – wanting to participate in the hearing, significant global media attention on the upcoming Israeli election plays a role as well.
HRW global chief Ken Roth came to Israel to personally campaign against the expulsion order. A media circus was expected around the hearing, which could paint Israel in a negative light during the sensitive election period.
Curiously, the court did not return to the old November date, but postponed the hearing to September, likely after the election has already taken place.
Although the High Court does not officially take a political stance, it is still reeling from the criticism over disqualifying Otzma Yehudit candidate Michael Ben-Ari in the April election.
A number of major issues such as integrating haredim (ultra-Orthodox) into the IDF, a petition to strike the Settlements Regulations Law, and others have been sitting on the court’s shelf for an extended period with no decision.
While criticism of the court is generally cyclical, many consider the High Court to be under more fire now than in the past as acting Justice Minister Amir Ohana and others have been calling for overhauling the court and the legal establishment.
Besides avoiding a decision before the election, the changed date could also result in a change to the panel of justices hearing the case. It already changed once from a more left-leaning panel to a more right-leaning panel; now it may change back.
Although the High Court phrased the justification for delaying the hearing in procedural terms, at the heart of whether Amnesty and other groups on the Left join the hearing depends on whether the issues are presented to the court as a fundamental choice about the place of human rights in Israel, or a narrower focus on Shakir.
While the government and groups on the Right want to focus in on Shakir, HRW and groups on the Left want as many of them present as possible to present it as a broader constitutional question.
In June 2018, the district court heard HRW lawyer Michael Sfard argue that the deportation was obfuscating that the government was not really after “the ‘little Satan,’” Shakir, “but the ‘big Satan,’ Human Rights Watch.”
When confronted with tweets by Shakir calling for boycotts of Israel, Sfard responded by calling into question the future of Israeli democracy if the government followed human rights critics to that extent, including on social media.
Sfard has also pointed out that at various points, Israel rejected Shakir’s visa extension and then reversed it as different ministries took different positions. He has said that Shakir cannot be such a big threat if the state has waffled so much on the issue.
“Always happy to be the martyr, HRW’s Omar Shakir has done a masterful job playing the Israeli justice system to garner massive PR for himself,” said Anne Herzberg, NGO Monitor’s legal adviser.