Israel’s souring relations with nongovernmental organizations reached a new low late last week after the country denied a work permit to the Israel and Palestine director of Human Rights Watch and accused the New York–based organization of being “in the service of Palestinian propaganda” and “systematically hostile toward Israel.”
HRW vociferously rejected Israel’s accusations and turned the international spotlight back on the Jewish state, paying special attention to the country’s hostile attitude toward rights groups in recent years and likening the country’s controversial decision to moves characteristic of countries like Venezuela and North Korea.
Facing international outrage, Israel soon backtracked. Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon told VICE News that while Israel is “not happy with Human Rights Watch, and we are not happy with [their] reports,” authorities in the country “thought again about the whole thing.”
Though Israel’s government ultimately decided that Omar Shakir, the blocked HRW researcher, would be welcome on a tourist visa, the dust-up returned the world’s attention to Israel’s fractious relationship with NGOs.
“This decision is an ominous turn,” Shakir said. “We hope it’s not an indication of where the Israeli government, emboldened by changes in government in Washington and London regarding pressure on human rights issues, may be going.”
It was the first time Israel has denied a work visa to an HRW researcher, the group said. But HRW is hardly the first organization to face trouble in Israel; the country’s relationship with civil society groups has grown increasingly fraught in recent years. The Israeli Knesset last year passed a controversial financial disclosure bill targeting left-wing groups that receive foreign funding, and Israeli officials have criticized human rights groups and pressured European authorities to cancel events put on by an Israeli group that opposes the occupation of Palestinian territories.
For decades, groups like HRW and Amnesty International have called out Israel for alleged war crimes in Gaza and Lebanon and for its policies of occupation and settlement expansion in the West Bank. Israel has responded by accusing the human rights organizations of unfair and biased criticism.
The denial of a work permit to HRW sparked a wave of bad publicity for Israel, and Gerald Steinberg, the head of NGO Monitor, a group critical of organizations it says are biased against Israel, said Israeli authorities were caught “flat-footed” by the negative media attention.
“This was used very cleverly by Human Rights Watch, not for the first time, for its own political and PR purposes, and not to engage on the issue of who [their] researchers should be,” said Steinberg, who criticized the organization for hiring Shakir because of his past political activism in favor of Palestinians.
Steinberg said that HRW exploits the language of international law to produce reports that accuse Israel of war crimes, and that the group has “an obsessive focus against Israel.” Shakir, in turn, said that HRW covers all sides of the conflict and has produced reports critical of the Palestinian Authority. He said that the group’s “work on Israel accounts for less than 1 percent of its organizational budget.”
Shakir added that the denial of his work permit “comes amid increasing pressure on human rights groups and human rights defenders in Israel/Palestine.”
Earlier this month, Israeli border control officers detained and questioned the vice-president of the liberal group New Israel Fund. Last October, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused B’Tselem, a well-known Israeli human rights organization, of spreading “slander” about Israel after the group’s executive director spoke to the United Nations about the Israeli occupation and settlements.
In July 2016, the Israeli Knesset passed a law requiring NGOs who receive half their funding from foreign governments to call attention to that fact, a law critics say was about labeling anti-occupation groups as foreign agents. And in May 2016, the Israeli authorities barred Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian leader in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement targeting Israel, from traveling abroad.
In addition, Israeli authorities have repeatedly railed against the work of Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli combat veterans that publicizes abuses of power committed by the country’s soldiers. Earlier this month, the prime minister asked the British government to stop funding the group even though Breaking the Silence says it has not received money from the U.K. since 2011. In June 2015, the Israeli Embassy in Berlin convinced German authorities to cancel a Breaking the Silence exhibit, and the Defense and Education Ministries have instructed the Israeli army and Israeli schools not to host Breaking the Silence members for events.
Yehuda Shaul, co-director of Breaking the Silence, said the larger attack on civil society groups is about silencing opposition to the Israeli occupation. Such groups, he said, are the only effective opposition in a country where the right-wing has taken over the government.
“If the occupation is normalized, the one thing, the one group of people who are still bringing the occupation to the table need to be silenced,” Shaul said.