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Israeli NGOs demand government allow UN rights monitors

Prominent rights groups write to Israel's foreign minister following MEE revelation that OHCHR workers had stopped receiving visas
Visitors on a tour held by NGO "Breaking the Silence" walk down Shuhada Street in the West Bank city of Hebron (Reuters)

Major Israeli rights organisations have written to the country’s foreign minister condemning cutting ties with the United Nations’ human rights agency.

Israel has stopped giving visas to foreigners employed by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) after accusing it of bias, Middle East Eye revealed last week.

A letter signed by 17 prominent Israeli rights organisations to Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi on 20 October called on the government to reverse course.

“The severance of ties with OHCHR and the refusal to renew its staff’s visas undermine the UN commissioner’s work in the region and violate Israel’s obligation, under the UN charter, to cooperate with its agencies,” the letter, a copy of which was seen by MEE, said.

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Among the signatories are B'Tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.

“These censorship attempts are bound to fail: they will not succeed in hiding the implications of Israel’s policy and the human rights violations it commits in the occupied Palestinian territories, nor will they silence or hinder us, our work, or that of our colleagues,” the letter read.

The OHCHR writes regular reports highlighting alleged Israeli rights abuses in occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the blockaded Gaza Strip.

In February it released a list of more than 100 companies working in Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law.

The report, which highlighted Tripadvisor, Airbnb and the truck and digger maker JCB, among others, angered right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, which has consistently expanded settlements.

In response, Israel said it would no longer deal with the OHCHR and since June has stopped granting any work visas to its staff.

'What kind of country doesn’t allow access to UN officials? It is not even access to Israel proper - it is access to the occupied Palestinian territories'

- Hagai El-Ad, B'Tselem

Most of the organisation’s foreign staff have now left for fear of being undocumented in Israel and the Palestinian territories, including country director James Heenan.

The move followed the expulsion in 2019 of Human Rights Watch's country director Omar Shakir after Israel accused him of supporting a boycott of Israel, a claim he denied.

The NGOs’ letter called on Netanyahu and his allies to cease attacks on human rights workers.

The government, it said, had been “conducting a targeted campaign - both overt and covert - of defamation, denunciation, and expulsion against Palestinian, Israeli, and international organisations and activists working to expose the truth about Israel’s policy in the occupied Palestinian territories."

Hagai El-Ad, director general of B'Tselem, said they decided to write the letter to “stand up to the government when it is attacking our colleagues”.

"What kind of country doesn’t allow access to UN officials? It is not even access to Israel proper - it is access to the occupied Palestinian territories. The only reason Israel gets to decide is because Israel has full control of the territories," he told MEE.

He pointed to Shakir's case, saying the lack of international condemnation emboldened Israel's government.

"Every time this happens it sends a green light to the authorities here that there is no reason to stop."