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Israel first democracy to expel HRW staffer: director

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Jerusalem (AFP)

Israel is set to become the first democracy to expel a Human Rights Watch employee, its executive director Ken Roth said Sunday, denouncing the upcoming deportation of one of his staffers.

US citizen Omar Shakir, the New York-based rights group's director for Israel and the Palestinian territories, is to be deported from Israel on Monday over his alleged support of a boycott of the Jewish state.

The expulsion would make Shakir the first person to be expelled from inside the country under a controversial 2017 law allowing the deportation of foreigners who support a boycott, according to authorities.

HRW denies Shakir supports a boycott and accuses Israel of seeking to suppress criticism of its policies towards Palestinians.

"I cannot think of another democracy that has barred a Human Rights Watch researcher," Roth told AFP in Jerusalem.

Roth said countries including North Korea, Venezuela and Iran have expelled HRW researchers but no functioning democracy had taken such action.

"I think it demonstrates the increasingly constrained nature of Israeli democracy," Roth added.

He said Israel, despite having elections and a free press, tries "as much as it can" to silence efforts "spotlighting the human rights violations at the heart of the oppressive, discriminatory occupation" of Palestinian land.

Shakir has been fighting a lengthy legal campaign against expulsion but earlier this month Israel's supreme court upheld the government's deportation order.

Israel accuses him of supporting the banned Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for a broad-ranging embargo of Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians.

Israel sees the movement as a strategic threat and accuses it of anti-Semitism -- a claim activists strongly deny.

Supporters compare it to the economic isolation that helped bring down apartheid South Africa.

"All those who work against Israel must know that we will not let them live or work here," Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said earlier this month.

- 'Implicit green light' -

The United Nations and European Union have criticised the expulsion and called on Israel to reverse course.

But the United States declined to do so, saying only it supported freedom of expression worldwide.

Roth contended that US President Donald Trump's support for Israel's fellow right-wing government had emboldened it to crack down on human rights groups.

"It is hard to imagine Omar's deportation going ahead if the US government hadn't given a kind of implicit green light," he told AFP.

The case against Shakir was initially based on statements he made in support of a boycott before taking up his post with HRW.

But the government case also highlighted work he has undertaken since joining HRW, including criticising Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Shakir told AFP he had not called for a boycott in his capacity as HRW's representative in Israel, but said that the rights group does not restrict free speech, including the right to call for a boycott.

"It is undeniable that boycotts around the world have led to changing unjust systems but Human Rights Watch doesn't take a position on them," he said on Sunday.

The NGO said Shakir would continue in his position despite being expelled, working from neighbouring Jordan.

Roth argued that while Israel claimed the issue was Shakir, authorities in reality took issue with HRW's work on highlighting Jewish settlements, which are considered illegal under international law.

"So we couldn’t possibly replace Omar because whoever the next person would be would engage in the same kind of advocacy that just led to Omar’s deportation," Roth said.

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