Israel's Supreme Court has delayed a landmark hearing which would have seen the Regional Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Omar Shakir, deported from Israel over his alleged support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Shakir's ordeal has been ongoing since May 2018, when Israel's Interior Minister Aryeh Deri issued an order to cancel Shakir's work permit and deport him on the pretext of "his activity against Israel".
Under an Israeli law passed in 2017, any foreigner who "knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel" can be prevented from entering the country or obtaining a residency or work visa.
In April this year, the Jerusalem District Court upheld Deri's deportation order. Shakir has since appealed the decision, prompting it to be passed up to the Supreme Court. Last month, the Supreme Court postponed his deportation while appeal proceedings continued, noting that his case should be heard in the current court year, which is due to end this month. Three Supreme Court Justices were therefore slated to give the final verdict on Shakir's fate today.
The court's decision to postpone the hearing has been seen as highly unusual, particularly given the fact that it was previously expedited under pressure from right-wing NGOs. The original court date was set for November, but infamous legal advocacy group Shurat HaDin and the right-wing NGO Monitor demanded the hearing be moved up to secure Shakir's deportation.
The fresh delay is thought to be the result of increased media attention surrounding the case, after HRW's Executive Director Kenneth Roth this week accused Israel of mounting a campaign "not only to shut down human rights activity, including by our Israeli partners, but also to deprive Israelis of information about what is happening around them".
Roth issued a blistering attack on the state, saying that if it went ahead with its plan to deport Shakir, Israel would "join the likes of North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Sudan, and Iran, which also exclude [HRW] representatives". "That is not a club that Israel should be eager to join," Roth cautioned.
The delay is also thought to be motivated by a desire to avoid negative press coverage during Israel's election season. With a do-over election slated for 17 September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely keen to avoid any negative PR and draw attention to Israel's ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories (oPt), discussion of which has been most noticeable by its absence in election campaigning.
The fact that the new court date has been set for September has fed speculation that the election is a key consideration in the postponement of the hearing.
Shakir's legal battle has been seen as a landmark case; if he is eventually deported, it will represent the first time the 2017 anti-BDS law has been applied to someone already residing in the country, as opposed to someone trying to enter Israel.
The case forms part of an ongoing crackdown on supporters of the BDS movement, which has seen anti-BDS NGOs wage legal battles in Germany, Spain and the UK. Spearheaded by Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs and the ministry's head, Gilad Erdan, this crackdown has smeared supporters of the movement as "terrorists", deprived charities of access to fundraising platforms and sought the assistance of Israel's intelligence agency, Mossad.
The affair is expected to have repercussions far beyond the BDS movement, with commentators seeing the case as evidence of the shrinking space for criticism of Israel. Despite the accusations against him, Shakir has maintained that neither he nor HRW have called for a boycott of Israel, but rather have criticised its policy in the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza Strip.
To this end, other human rights organisations have joined Shakir's appeal, including Amnesty International which argued that the deportation "will be an unreasonable and disproportionate restriction on [Shakir's] rights to freedom of expression and association in contravention of Israel's obligations under international human rights law".
In addition, "a group of senior Israeli diplomats, including the former Israeli Foreign Ministry general director and ex-ambassadors to France and South Africa," have backed Shakir's appeal, according to a HRW statement today.
Speaking about the delay, Executive Director Roth said: "The Israeli government may not like people pointing out the human rights violations inherent in its settlement enterprise, but that is legitimate speech that the government has no business punishing. The real problem here is Israeli legislation that empowers the government to throw people out for peaceful advocacy."