WASHINGTON ― The Israeli government is blocking an American citizen from taking his post with Human Rights Watch in Israel, accusing the group of engaging in "politics in the service of Palestinian propaganda."
The 39-year-old Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization sent a request in July 2016 for its new Israel and Palestine program director, Omar Shakir, to start his assignment in October. The approval process is supposed to take 60 days, but Human Rights Watch heard nothing back until Monday.
The group received a letter from Israel's Interior Ministry denying the work permit "on the grounds that we were not a real human rights organization," said Shakir, a California native of Iraqi descent with a master's degree from Georgetown and a law degree from Stanford.
The Interior Ministry cited guidance from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a letter explaining its decision not to grant Human Rights Watch's request. "The opinion received from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that, for some time now, this organization's public activities and reports have engaged in politics in the service of Palestinian propaganda, while falsely raising the banner of 'human rights,' and therefore recommended denying the application," the letter stated.
The Israeli government did not respond to The Huffington Post's requests for comment.
Human Rights Watch has operated in Israel for three decades, Shakir said. The last director of the Israel and Palestine program was an Israeli national and did not need a work permit. However, previous regional directors needed and received work permits from the Israeli government, he added.
On the Israel/Palestine page on its website, Human Rights Watch criticizes Israel for "severe and discriminatory restrictions on Palestinians' human rights" and for building "unlawful settlements" in the occupied West Bank. But it also criticizes the Palestinian Authority for arresting dissenting students and activists and Hamas security forces in Gaza for using torture.
"This decision and the spurious rationale should worry anyone concerned about Israel's commitment to basic democratic values," Iain Levine, who oversees Human Rights Watch's research and reporting, said 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."
Human Rights Watch pointed to a law Israel passed last July that increased reporting requirements for organizations that support Palestinian groups and receive foreign funds, but not for those that support the expansion of Jewish settlements.
Human Rights Watch got a vote of support on Thursday from the U.S. State Department, whose acting spokesman, Mark Toner, said it strongly disagreed with Israel's description of the group.
"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," Toner said. "We reference HRW reports in our own reporting, including our annual human rights reports."
Human Rights Watch was founded in 1978 to monitor compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which included guarantees of human rights. The nonprofit now operates in some 90 nations to report on human rights conditions. In 1997, a group it co-founded, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Israel joins Egypt, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea on the list of nations that refuse entry to Human Rights Watch to monitor human rights conditions.