Citing ‘bias,’ Israel denies visa to Human Rights Watch regional director

Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — Israel is refusing to issue a visa to an American employee of Human Rights Watch over his group’s alleged bias against the Jewish state, the Guardian daily reported.

The Israeli decision on one of the world’s most prominent nongovernmental organizations in its field emerged after Israeli authorities turned down a visa for its new Israel and Palestine director, Omar Shakir, who is a U.S. citizen, The Guardian reported Friday. The rejection had been advised by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according to the report.

In a letter rejecting Shakir’s visa application seen by the Guardian, Israel accused the New York-based group of “public activities and reports [and being] engaged in politics in the service of Palestinian propaganda, while falsely raising the banner of ‘human rights.’ ’’

Human Rights Watch denied this allegation and condemned the move as “ominous turn” adding it “should worry anyone concerned about Israel’s commitment to basic democratic values.” Human Rights Watch has “little relations with governments in North Korea, Sudan, Uzbekistan, Cuba and Venezuela where there is zero appetite for human rights engagement,” Shakir said. “With this decision, Israel is joining the list.”

Israel, its advocates and some of its critics have repeatedly accused Human Rights Watch of pursuing an anti-Israel bias — a criticism which the organization’s founder, Robert L. Bernstein, joined in an unusual op-ed he published in 2009 in The New York Times. Bernstein reiterated his criticism the following year during a lecture at a Nebraska university.

In the letter, he said Human Rights Watch “casts aside its important distinction between open and closed societies,” citing “far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law” by the group “than of any other country in the region.”

He wrote that Human Rights Watch “has lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah,” ignoring their egregious violations. “Yet Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism,” he added.

In September 2009, the group’s former senior military analyst, Marc Garlasco, was revealed to be a collector of Nazi memorabilia. He was suspended and then dismissed.

In 2011, Kathleen Peratis, co-chair of the Advisory Committee of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division, visited Gaza and met with several Hamas officials.

Before joining Human rights Watch in 2016, Shakir was a legal fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, an organization has filed war crimes lawsuits against former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and former director of the Shin Bet security service Avi Dichter. He has praised initiatives to boycott Israel and has equated Zionism to Afrikaner nationalism, which begot apartheid.