To deport Human Rights Watch official? Court wrestles with Boycott debate

HRW lawyer: Government not really after “the ‘little Satan,’” HRW official Omar Shakir, “but the ‘big Satan,’ Human Rights Watch.”

Omar Shakir from Human Rights Watch (photo credit: YONAH JEREMY BOB)
Omar Shakir from Human Rights Watch
(photo credit: YONAH JEREMY BOB)
The Jerusalem District Court heard on Wednesday an intense legal battle pitting Human Rights Watch against the government and a group of anti-BDS NGOs over whether the state can be deport HRW’s representative for Israel and the Palestinian areas.
During the hearing, HRW lawyer Michael Sfard said that the deportation was obfuscating the fact that the government was not really after “the ‘little Satan,’” HRW official Omar Shakir, “but the ‘big Satan,’ Human Rights Watch.”
Pushing back, NGO Monitor said that HRW and Shakir themselves were playing coy with their support for boycotting Israel by repackaging that message and that they should just come out and admit their true views.
The case is the first legal challenge to Israel’s use of a new law to expel a foreign national on allegations of supporting boycotts of Israel.
Filed by Sfard on behalf of Shakir, the suit seeks to block his deportation. HRW contends that the government went beyond the law by ordering the deportation of someone already in the country with valid status.
The ministry’s implementation criteria allow authorities to target people whose support for boycotts is “continuous” and “active.”
However, HRW contends in its suit that the ministry has acknowledged having “no information” about calls for boycotts by HRW or Shakir while serving as its representative. In its decision to deport Shakir, HRW said, the Interior Ministry cited only statements made by Shakir before he joined HRW.
Currently, Sfard said that Shakir and HRW warn businesses about investments in the West Bank that might violate international law, but do not call for a blanket boycott of Israel.
In contrast, on Wednesday, the government and NGO Monitor provided more recent examples of statements and activities that they said showed Shakir continued to support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.
This included what it said was an attempt by Shakir to attend a 2017 FIFA meeting in Bahrain as part of an HRW effort to sanction Israel’s soccer program.
Sfard responded by asking what would be the future of Israeli democracy when the government started following human rights critics to that extent, including on social media.
One of the most peculiar aspects of the hearing was that the government refuses to share the Foreign Ministry’s view of the case.
Sfard requested that the court order the government to share the Foreign Ministry’s view, or that at least the court should review the Foreign Ministry’s opinion and take it into account.
HRW has previously indicated that though it does not have a copy of the Foreign Ministry’s full opinion, it has information indicating that the ministry recommended permitting Shakir to stay in the country.
It appears that despite that recommendation, the Strategic Affairs and Interior ministries are dictating policy on the issue and still seeking Shakir’s deportation.
A government lawyer told the court that approving Shakir’s entry was an error that the state had a right to correct, and that initial approval did not block ministers from later canceling approval.
The Jerusalem District Court has issued multiple prior orders. On May 23, it issued an interim order blocking the deportation until the issue could be argued comprehensively. Earlier in May, the same court denied Shakir’s request to block the deportation order.
However, following an appeal by Shakir to the Supreme Court, which ordered the district court to consider legal issues that it had not reviewed, including arguments about the Foreign Ministry’s position and the full history of the state’s handling of Shakir, the court reversed itself.
The Interior Ministry has previously said that Interior Minister Deri had acted on the recommendation of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, which said it had gathered data that show Shakir “is an active and consistent supporter of boycotting Israel.”
Shakir, a lawyer and a US citizen, had denied the allegation, contending that neither he nor HRW promote boycotting Israel.
Israel last year initially denied Shakir a work permit, in a move criticized by the United States. The country later granted him a one-year work visa, a point that Sfard honed in on as if to say that once Israel dropped its formal fight against HRW, it should not pick on Shakir.
HRW frequently issues reports critical of Israeli policies related to the West Bank and Gaza, including those that pertain to settlements.
In a report published in January 2016, the organization called on businesses to cease all activities that benefit settlements.