JERUSALEM — Israel’s Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a senior official of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch must leave the country within 20 days, invoking a contentious law that bars entry to foreigners who have publicly called for a boycott of Israel or its settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The ruling upheld a 2018 decision by Israel’s interior minister, Aryeh Deri, itself upheld in April by a lower court, to bar Omar Shakir, an American citizen and the organization’s Israel and Palestine director, from staying and working in the country. The case has shone a spotlight on the limits of what Israel views as legitimate criticism and human rights activity, as well as of its commitment to liberal democratic values.
Rejecting Mr. Shakir’s appeal, the judges wrote that the decision not to renew his visa had stemmed from “a real concern” that Mr. Shakir, through his activities, was “exploiting” his stay to delegitimize Israel and to promote the boycott movement against it.
The judges said that the ruling against Mr. Shakir as an individual had no bearing on the work of other rights advocates and did not mean that Israel was “closing its gates” to other representatives of Human Rights Watch, a prominent New York-based organization, or to similar groups.
But critics described the decision as a chilling signal meant to intimidate rights workers and, more broadly, add to a growing Israeli clampdown on peaceful protest against the settlements and the treatment of Palestinians under the conservative government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Who will they throw out next?” Mr. Shakir asked in an interview after the ruling. “The Supreme Court has put a veneer of legality on the Netanyahu government’s clampdown on human rights activities.”
Neither he nor Human Rights Watch had called for a wholesale consumer boycott of Israel or its settlements, he said.
Michael Sfard, one of the lawyers representing Mr. Shakir, wrote on Twitter: “The ruling gives the Israeli government a dangerous and antidemocratic veto over the identity of representatives of international organizations operating in Israel and the territories,” referring to the areas occupied by Israel since the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.
“Today, Omar is being expelled,” Mr. Sfard wrote. “Tomorrow they’ll expel representatives from other organizations, foreign journalists and basically anyone who criticizes government policy in the territories.”
Israel has stepped up its fight in recent years against the international movement to boycott it, saying that the movement delegitimizes the country and is anti-Semitic because it singles out Israel and ultimately aims to undermine its existence as a Jewish state. In 2017 the Israeli Parliament passed an amendment to the Entry Law barring foreigners who have publicly called for boycotts against Israel or its West Bank settlements.
Gilad Erdan, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, who heads the fight against the boycott movement, applauded the court decision. Arguing that Mr. Shakir “took advantage of his stay in Israel to harm it, something no sane country would allow,” Mr. Erdan said that Human Rights Watch was “welcome to appoint another representative in Israel in place of Shakir.”
Activists say that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is a nonviolent means to protest Israel and its policies toward Palestinians, along with its settlements, which most of the world considers to be a violation of international law.
In August, under pressure from President Trump, Mr. Netanyahu’s government barred two members of the United States Congress from entering Israel for an official visit, citing their support for boycotting Israel.
Israel initially denied Mr. Shakir a work visa in 2017. At the time, Israel’s Foreign Ministry accused Human Rights Watch of engaging in “Palestinian propaganda” and said it was “systematically biased against Israel.”
That led rights activists to draw unflattering parallels between Israel and other countries that have denied the group access, such as Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela. Israel relented.
But last year Mr. Deri, the interior minister, decided that Mr. Shakir’s visa should not be renewed, and the case moved to the courts.
The Israeli authorities compiled a dossier on Mr. Shakir documenting his activities in support of a boycott, mostly from before he joined the advocacy group.
Like the dossier, the courts also pointed to reports and advocacy by Human Rights Watch that called on businesses to cease activities that benefit Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Tuesday’s judgment cited more recent Twitter posts written by Mr. Shakir, including some promoting a decision by Airbnb to stop listing properties in West Bank settlements — a decision that Airbnb has since frozen.
In February, Mr. Shakir wrote a post praising a Spanish company’s rejection of a tender for Jerusalem’s light rail project, saying that a section would be built on confiscated Palestinian land. “Other companies should follow its lead,” he wrote.
Eugene Kontorovich, the director of international law at the right-leaning Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem, said in a statement that the ruling against Mr. Shakir was “entirely unexceptional.”
“Western countries typically have legal provisions barring entry to people that seek to undermine the country,” Mr. Kontorovich said.
But Human Rights Watch said in a statement that it had been calling on businesses to stop operating in Israeli settlements “as part of their duty to avoid complicity in human rights abuses,” and that it called on businesses to comply with this duty in many parts of the world.
“The Supreme Court has effectively declared that free expression in Israel does not include completely mainstream advocacy for Palestinian rights,” the group’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, said in the statement.
After a protracted court battle, Tuesday’s ruling appeared to have all but exhausted Mr. Shakir’s legal options. He said the decision on whether to expel him now reverted to the government.
“Our ask now is for the government to reverse its decision,” Mr. Shakir said. “I hope the government will see what’s at stake here. Regardless of what they say, it is not about one person or one organization. It’s about what kind of country Israel wants to be.”
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