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Israel to expel Human Rights Watch country director

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Jerusalem (AFP)

Israel was set to expel the country director of Human Rights Watch on Monday after a lengthy court battle over claims he supports a boycott of the Jewish state.

US citizen Omar Shakir, the New York-based rights group's director for Israel and the Palestinian territories, denies the claims and accuses the Israeli government of seeking to suppress dissent.

Shakir's deportation, expected in the afternoon, would be the first from inside the country under Israel's controversial 2017 law allowing the expulsion of foreigners who support a boycott, according to authorities.

The European Union, United Nations and others have criticised the looming expulsion, with the UN warning of a "shrinking space for human rights defenders to operate" in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

But the United States, Israel's closest ally, declined to do so, saying Sunday only that it supported freedom of expression.

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

- 'Boycott support' -

Israel refused to extend Shakir's work permit in May 2018 after parliament passed a law mandating the expulsion of foreign supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

BDS activists call 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. Activists strongly deny this and compare it to the economic isolation that helped bring down apartheid in South Africa.

Shakir, who started in the HRW Israel post in 2017, appealed but Israel's supreme court backed the government's decision earlier this month.

The case against Shakir was initially based on statements he had made supporting a boycott before joining HRW.

But the government also highlighted work he did with rights groups, including criticising Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

"The Israeli government pretends it is only deporting Omar Shakir and that it is not penalising Human Rights Watch," its executive director Ken Roth told AFP Sunday.

"But in fact it is deporting him for the core message of Human Rights Watch with respect to the settlements."

More than 600,000 Israelis live in settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, communities considered illegal under international law.

Israel disputes this, and the United States last week broke with decades of international consensus and announced it no longer considered the settlements illegal.

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 US embassy said only it had raised Shakir's case with Israel and that it supports "freedom of expression."

"At the same time, our strong opposition to boycotts and sanctions of the State of Israel is well known," it said.

- 'Move backfired' -

Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which led the campaign to expel Shakir, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The right-wing group NGO Monitor meanwhile charged that HRW's record was anti-Israel.

"It's the singling out we disagree with," said Gerald Steinberg, head of the organisation which argues that international organisations put a disproportionate focus on Israel and the Palestinians.

"They are not saying 'we disagree with Israeli policy but we believe in the Jewish people's right to self-determination'," he said.

"It is about 'we don't believe in the Jewish state's right to exist'," he argued.

HRW strongly denied the claim.

NGO Monitor provided evidence to the government's case and Steinberg argued that not renewing a visa was "standard practice" in democracies.

Yet Steinberg admitted that Israel's move had created negative publicity that helps its critics.

"This is playing into their hands," he said. "Shakir is milking this, they are going to dance their way out of the airport."

Roth agreed that Israel's move had actually intensified scrutiny of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.

"The world isn't fooled," he said. "When you try to censor something, the first thing you do is say 'well what is it you are trying to censor?'"

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