Israel backtracks on barring Human Rights Watch reporter

Ron Kampeas

(JTA) — Israel said an American employee of Human Rights Watch may enter the country on a tourist visa and should reapply for a work visa, days after barring his entry for alleged anti-Israel bias.

“This is to clarify that the HRW representative may enter Israel with a tourist visa,” Itai Bar-Dov, the spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington, told JTA. “With regard to the working visa, this may be reconsidered if the organization appeals the Ministry of Interior decision.”

Earlier Friday, The Guardian had reported that Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs advised against granting a visa to Omar Shakir, the new Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch, a leading nongovernmental organization in its field. Shakir is a U.S. citizen.

In a Jan. 20 letter rejecting Shakir’s visa application that the human rights watchdog shared with JTA, Israel accused the New York-based NGO of “public activities and reports [and being] engaged in politics in the service of Palestinian propaganda, while falsely raising the banner of ‘human rights.’’’

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Human Rights Watch, which had called the rejection “ominous” for Israel’s democracy, welcomed the statements from Israeli officials saying they would reconsider it.

“I am encouraged by the new and more reconciliatory tone,” Sari Bashi, HRW’s Israel-Palestine advocacy director, told JTA in an email.

“Despite differences of opinion regarding our well-researched findings, we have always had appropriate and professional relationships with the Israeli authorities, including and especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with whom we meet and correspond regularly,” Bashi said. “Just last year the Ministry of Foreign Affairs approached us to request our intervention in an issue involving Israeli victims of rights abuses, which by the way we agreed to do.”

At least two U.S. Jewish groups objected to the refusal of entry.

“Israel now finds itself in very poor company: Only a government with something to hide would work this hard to keep out human rights workers,” Daniel Sokatch, the CEO of the New Israel Fund, a group that raises funds for Israeli civil society groups – including a number that have also been singled out for attack by Israeli government figures – said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Israeli authorities apologized for detaining for questioning at the airport the New Israel Fund vice president, Jennifer Gorovitz.

Also criticizing the barring of Shakir was T’ruah, a rabbinical human rights group.

“Human rights and civil society groups play a prophetic role, even if their words may not be ones governments want to hear,” the group said in a statement. “The Israeli government should welcome Human Rights Watch and other such groups as voices that will ultimately push us toward justice and life.”

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