Israel Vows No More Visas To Human Rights Watch After Years Of Activity

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Israel has denied a work visa to an investigator working for the rights group Human Rights Watch at the recommendation of the Foreign Ministry, which accused the group of “serving Palestinian propaganda.”

<< UPDATE: Israel backtracks, says willing to reexamine Human Rights Watch investigator's work visa request >>

The international organization operating in 90 countries has monitored human rights violations in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza for years. After the researcher who was working in Israel for the past several years had left seven months ago, the group applied for a visa for his replacement, an American of Iraqi origin named Omar Shakir.

The Population and Immigration Authority denied the organization's request this week, citing the organization's work.

“A Foreign Ministry opinion stated that for a long time the public activity and the reports of the organization are engaged in politics in the service of Palestinian propaganda, while raising a false flag of ‘human rights,’ and therefore recommends to deny the request,” wrote Moshe Nakash, director of the Permits Division. He said the recommendation was adopted by the director of the immigration authority.

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon told Haaretz on Wednesday that the decision was due to the “group's extreme, hostile and anti-Israel agenda."

“This organization has put itself at the disposal of Palestinian propaganda [and] is acting clearly and unequivocally against the State of Israel, in a totally biased manner,” Nahshon said. “This is why we have decided that we are no longer willing to turn the other cheek and we will not grant work visas to a person that comes with the clear goal of harming the State of Israel and its good name.”

Nahshon said the decision had been made by the ministry's senior management.

Asked why the ministry has only now changed its policy, Nahshon replied: “We are fed up with them coming here every time and taking advantage of their stay here. They don’t do anything but look for an anti-Israel agenda. When they say they are engaged in human rights they are doing it in a very selective manner and with an attitude and purpose of bashing the State of Israel.”

Human Rights Watch officials rejected the allegations, and said they are in regular contact with Israeli authorities. “A year ago the Foreign Ministry turned to us and asked us to intervene in violations of human rights of Israeli citizens. We agreed,” Sari Bashi, HRW’s Israel-Palestine advocacy director told Haaretz. “We are also in contact with them because we are updating them about this. Just this morning I received a reasoned and detailed reply from the Civil Administration. I met with the Hebron police last time I was in Israel.”

"The reality is that our relationship with the Israeli authorities is okay," she added. "I can't say that we agree on everything… but we are being heard. Also, they raise issues relating with human rights violations of Israelis."

Bashi expressed sorrow over the decision to deny the visa, saying it would "make our work harder." This decision, she said, would only prevent the group from getting to know the Israeli side, noting that "when meeting with [Israeli] officials we also listen, and what they say finds its way into our reports."

The section on the organization's website dealing with Israel and the Palestinian Authority mostly features reports critical of Israel in general and of the settlements in particular. However, it also has critical reports on the Palestinian Authority. One of the recent ones, from last August, deals with the Palestinian Authority's cracking down on freedom of speech.

"The Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza are arresting, abusing, and criminally charging journalists and activists who express peaceful criticism of the authorities," it says.

Referring to the allegation that the organization is serving Palestinian propaganda, Bashi said: "In every country, governments don't like what we publish. Even the Palestinian Authority accused us of distributing Israeli propaganda. So did Hamas. But only in a few places [the governments] are working to prevent us from doing our job. I'm talking about Sudan, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Venezuela. We have registered offices in Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia. It's not that they like what we say about them there, but they agree to let us act."

Nahshon noted that Israel has no intention to prevent other organizations from working in Israel. HRW, he said "is the only one… There is no sweeping attempt to hurt all organizations. When there are human rights groups that are worthy, that act objectively we respect them. In this case, in the guise of a human rights organization is a Palestinian propaganda service."