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Israel first democracy to expel Human Rights Watch staffer, director says

HRW's supervisor for Israel and Palestinian territories is to be deported from Israel on Monday over alleged support of BDS movement
Ken Roth, left, executive director of HRW, and Omar Shakir, director for Israel and Palestinian Territories, in Jerusalem on Sunday (AFP)

Israel is set to expel a Human Rights Watch employee, its executive director Ken Roth said on Sunday, denouncing the forthcoming deportation of one of his staffers.

US citizen Omar Shakir, the New York-based rights group's director for Israel and the Palestinian territories, is to be deported from Israel on Monday over his alleged support of a boycott of the country, AFP said.

Israel accuses him of being a supporter of the banned Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for a broad-ranging boycott to pressure Israel to end its rights abuses against Palestinians.

The expulsion, upheld by Israel’s supreme court, would make Shakir the first HRW official to be expelled from the country under a controversial 2017 law allowing the deportation of foreigners who support the boycott, according to authorities.

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Shakir told the Associated Press on Sunday that he will remain in his position and continue doing the “important, urgent work” of documenting violations in Israel and the Palestinian territories from abroad.

“We’re talking about a half-century-long occupation defined by systematic repression and institutional discrimination,” Shakir told the AP. “That requires important, urgent work, and it’s unfortunate that I won’t be able to do it on the ground, but we won’t stop doing it.”

HRW denies Shakir supports the BDS movement and accuses Israel of seeking to suppress criticism of policies towards Palestinians.

"I cannot think of another democracy that has barred a Human Rights Watch researcher," Roth told AFP in Jerusalem.

Roth said countries including North Korea, Venezuela and Iran have expelled HRW researchers, but that no functioning democracy had taken such action.

"I think it demonstrates the increasingly constrained nature of Israeli democracy," Roth added.

He said Israel, despite having elections and a free press, tries "as much as it can" to silence efforts "spotlighting the human rights violations at the heart of the oppressive, discriminatory occupation (of Palestinian land).

Shakir has been fighting a lengthy legal campaign against expulsion, but earlier this month Israel's supreme court upheld the government's decision to deport him.

Israel sees the BDS movement as a strategic threat and accuses it of antisemitism - a claim activists strongly deny.

Supporters compare it with the economic isolation that helped bring down apartheid South Africa.

Critical of settlements

"All those who work against Israel must know that we will not let them live or work here," Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said earlier this month.

The case against Shakir was initially based on statements he made in support of a boycott before taking up his post with HRW.

The government case also highlighted work he has done since joining HRW, including criticising Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

"Neither Human Rights Watch nor I as its representative have ever called for a boycott of Israel," Shakir told AFP.

Still, he said that the organisation did not restrict free speech, including the right to call for a boycott.

"It is undeniable that boycotts around the world have led to changing unjust systems, but Human Rights Watch doesn't take a position on them," he added.