Human Rights Watch has said it plans to appeal Israel's decision about the work permit.

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HRW says work permit application for its Israel and Palestine director rejected

Israel explains decision by saying group has a "hostile agenda"

Jerusalem CNN  — 

Israel has rejected a work permit application for Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director on the grounds the organization “engaged in politics in the service of Palestinian propaganda.”

According to Human Rights Watch, a letter dated February 20 from the Israeli Interior Ministry denied a work permit for US citizen Omar Shakir – a Human Rights Watch employee. The Ministry of Interior said it had taken advice from the Foreign Ministry, and stated that HRW insisted on “falsely raising the banner of ‘human rights’”.

HRW says the denial is a sign that Israel is seeking to “limit the space for local and international human rights groups to operate in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

“This decision and the spurious rationale should worry anyone concerned about Israel’s commitment to basic democratic values,” said Iain Levine, Human Rights Watch’s deputy executive director, in a statement.

“It is disappointing that the Israeli government seems unable or unwilling to distinguish between justified criticisms of its actions and hostile political propaganda.”

‘Hostile, extremist agenda’

Emmanuel Nahshon, Spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the decision was made “due to the hostile, extremist, and anti-Israel agenda of the organization.”

He said HRW has “placed itself at the disposal of Palestinian propaganda, [and] is acting clearly and unequivocally against the State of Israel in a completely biased manner.

“This is the reason we have decided we are no longer willing to turn the other cheek, and we will not grant work visas to an individual and organization with the clear goal of harming Israel and its good name.”

Nashon told CNN that representatives of HRW could still enter Israel with tourists’ visas.

He added: “Regarding work visas, the issue will be re-examined by the relevant authorities if the original decision will be appealed.”

US criticizes decision

The decision was condemned by the US, with Acting State Department Spokesperson Mark Toner rejecting Israel’s stance on HRW.

“We are aware of reports that a Human Rights Watch employee was denied a work permit by Israeli authorities on the grounds that HRW is not a ‘real’ human rights organization,” he said.

“I would note that every country sets its own immigration and visa laws. That said, we strongly disagree with that characterization of HRW,” he said.

“HRW is a credible human rights organization and even though we do not agree with all of their assertions or conclusions, given the seriousness of their efforts, we support the importance of the work they do.”

Foreign NGO debate

The move comes at a time of great debate over the influence of foreign-funded NGOs in Israel.

Last July, the Knesset passed a law forcing human rights groups which receive more than 50% of their funding from foreign governments or bodies such as the European Union to disclose such information.

The law’s detractors say that it impacts those advocacy groups which speak out against the right-wing government’s policies, particularly on Palestinian issues. Its supporters say it prevents foreign powers from meddling in Israel’s domestic affairs.

The NGO law was widely criticized both by the European Union and the United States.

HRW plans to appeal

HRW, which monitors 90 countries across the world, says it will challenge the decision before an Israeli district court.

The group added that the criticism leveled at it by the Israeli government was unfair and says its wider work in the region shows that.

Last year, it highlighted the detention of journalists and activists by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas as well as reporting on free expression in the West Bank and Gaza where HRW said, at the time, “both Palestinian governments, operating independently, have apparently arrived at similar methods of harassment, intimidation and physical abuse of anyone who dares criticize them.”

“The Israeli government is hardly the only one to disagree with our well-researched findings, but efforts to stifle the messenger signal that it has no appetite for serious scrutiny of its human rights record,” Levine added.

“We hope the Israeli authorities will reverse this decision and allow both international and domestic human rights groups to work freely.”

Oren Liebermann reported from Jerusalem. Elise Labott reported from Washington. James Masters wrote in London. Victoria Eastwood contributed to this report.