The policy was revealed when authorities turned down a visa for HRW's new Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir, a US citizen, at the request of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In a letter, rejecting Shakir's application, Israel accused HRW of being "engaged in politics in the service of Palestinian propaganda, while falsely raising the banner of 'human rights.' "
Confirming the decision, Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said HRW was "not a real human rights group," and had demonstrated "time and again it is a fundamentally biased and anti-Israeli organization with a clear hostile agenda."
Israel: Human Rights Watch Denied Work Permit https://t.co/hwsN0n8nr9— Human Rights Watch (@hrw) February 24, 2017
Nahshon said the group was not banned and its Israeli and Palestinian employees were still permitted to work in Israel, but questioned why Israel "should give working visas to people whose only purpose" was to "besmirch and attack" the country. Furthermore, he suggested other organizations such as Amnesty International could also be subject to visa denials, and applications from similar organizations would be assessed on a case by case basis.
In a statement, HRW countered that its work in Israel had also included numerous reports of human rights abuses in Palestine, such as the detention of journalists by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, an extrajudicial execution carried out by Hamas' military wing, and executions by Hamas in Gaza.
Moreover, the organization found the decision "particularly surprising" given that it regularly meets and corresponds with Israeli government officials, including representatives of the military, the police, and the Foreign Ministry. Last year, the Foreign Ministry even requested HRW intervene in a case involving Israeli victims of human rights abuses.
"This decision and the spurious rationale should worry anyone concerned about Israel's commitment to basic democratic values. It is disappointing the Israeli government seems unable or unwilling to distinguish between justified criticisms of its actions and hostile political propaganda," said Iain Levine, HRW Deputy Executive Director for Program.
While the decision was deemed "ominous" by HRW, the organization has had its ability to investigate human rights abuses in the West Bank sharply truncated ever since 2010, with Israel refusing HRW staff access to the area without impediments — save for a single visit in 2016.
Moreover, it comes at a time when Israel is increasingly cracking down on human rights groups' operations in the country; a law passed by the Knesset in July 2016 targets human right groups, imposing onerous reporting requirements that burden their activities. While the law's wording does not specifically refer to any organization, pro-Israel NGOs are not impacted by its requirements.
In August, five US activists aiming to investigate living conditions for Palestinians in Israeli-occupied areas were arrested, detained and then deported, as well as being banned from ever returning.
In December, Israel detained African theologian Isabel Phiri over claims the organization for which she works, World Council of Churches, supported sanctions against Israel.
On Twitter, Shakir noted that while Israel was far from unique in contesting HRW's findings, it was almost alone in blocking the organization from entering the country — only states such as North Korea, Sudan, Uzbekistan and Venezuela "where there is zero appetite for human rights engagement" had done the same to date.