Omar Shakir's lawyer: Let new Israeli gov't make deportation decision

Case pits protecting free speech-vs-combating BDS

Omar Shakir from Human Rights Watch (photo credit: YONAH JEREMY BOB)
Omar Shakir from Human Rights Watch
(photo credit: YONAH JEREMY BOB)
A lawyer for Omar Shakir requested on Tuesday that the High Court of Justice delay its decision regarding the Human Rights Watch official’s deportation until a new government is sworn in, which may allow him to stay.
The case is one of the most high profile of the year as it highlights Israel’s struggle to balance a commitment to preserving critics’ free speech rights with the state’s desire to deter systematic boycotts meant to harm the country’s economy.
Lawyer Michael Sfard’s suggestion came after more than an hour of battling three High Court justices over the legalities of deporting the head of HRW’s Israel-Palestine operations.
Though Justice Noam Sohlberg’s questions indicated that he was relatively deadset against HRW and in favor of the government’s deportation order, Justices Neal Hendel and Yael Wilner, considered moderate conservatives, appeared to consider the suggestion.
Hendel and Wilner did not accept many of Sfard’s arguments, but they did appear more ready than Sohlberg to engage his legal claims, and might want to avoid the global outcry that their support for a deportation order would be sure to raise.
In that vein, passing the ball back to a less right-wing potential Blue and White-run government, which might drop the deportation order, could be a way out of deciding.
On April 16, the Jerusalem District Court endorsed the government’s order to deport Shakir after an approximate year-and-a-half legal battle.
Shakir has been fighting government efforts to use a 2017 law to expel him for his alleged support of boycotting Israel.
He has denied the charge, saying that he criticizes Israel in an attempt to improve its human rights record just as the HRW criticizes other countries.
Besides the government and HRW, NGO Monitor, Shurat Hadin, Amnesty International and a number of diplomats have weighed in on opposite sides of the case.
NGO Monitor is neutral on whether he must be expelled, but wants him to “own” his outlook.
The High Court had appeared to side with Shakir by initially freezing the order to expel him, but Tuesday’s hearing indicated that the justices accept the government’s basic framing of the case as implicating boycotts only, but not infringing on free speech.
At earlier points in the case, Sfard had tried to focus on either the fact that the Foreign Ministry had opposed deporting Shakir or on the High Court’s ruling canceling a deportation order against student-activist Lara al-Qasem relating to alleged BDS activity.
However, on Tuesday, Sfard had three other strategies.
FIRST, he tried to convince the court that Shakir’s criticism of Israel, only related to the West Bank and was strictly part of his work at HRW, a group which criticizes human rights violations around the world, and is not solely focused on boycotting Israel.
He even explained that neither Shakir nor HRW called for boycotting Israel per se as much as they might support boycotting specific activities in the West Bank.
Next, he went big picture, asking the justices whether they wanted to live in a society where there could be no criticism of human rights violations without deportation – something which would put Israel in the company of dictatorships like Iran, North Korea and Syria.
Finally, he tried to delay the decision so that a new government could cancel the deportation.
The government struck back, saying that a boycott was a boycott and that Shakir was personally responsible for his personal Twitter account and calling for boycotts against Israel by Airbnb and others.
Furthermore, the government said that free speech is still protected as long as the criticism is in the realm of ideological debate, and does not deteriorate into calling for concrete calls to harm Israel’s economy.
NGO Monitor lawyer Maurice Hirsch responded after the hearing that: “The systematic research of NGO Monitor shows unequivocally that Omar Shakir is a BDS activist. The legal system… has extensively allowed him to contest that conclusion.”
Hirsch continued: “However, the facts speak for themselves... Israel is not renewing Shakir’s visa as a direct result of his BDS activities. Any other claim is baseless.”
In a poignant moment which showed the divide between Sfard and Shakir on one side and the justices on another, Wilner lectured Sfard that he kept making side arguments without addressing the black-and-white language of the law authorizing the state to deport BDS activists.
Sfard responded that he had addressed the law head-on with many arguments, but that it seemed that Wilner did not accept his arguments.