Tel Aviv (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.
American citizen Omar Shakir, the New York-based rights group's director for Israel and the Palestinian territories, arrived at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on Monday afternoon, where he was greeted by around 20 supporters.
He denies the allegations and accuses the Israeli government of seeking to suppress dissent.
"Today culminates a two-and-a-half year effort to deport me over my human rights advocacy, an effort to muzzle Human Rights Watch," Shakir said at the airport.
"One day you will welcome me here, I hope, when it is a better day -– a day in which all people, Israeli and Palestinian, have their human rights respected."
He was due to fly out early on Monday evening.
Authorities say Shakir's expulsion was to be the first from inside Israel under its controversial 2017 law allowing the deportation of foreigners who support a boycott.
The European Union, United Nations and others had called on Israel to reverse course, 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 only that it supported freedom of expression.
HRW said Shakir would continue in his position despite being expelled, working from neighbouring Jordan.
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 wide-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 charge, comparing the embargo to the economic isolation that helped bring down apartheid in South Africa.
The Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which led the campaign to expel Shakir, said Monday that Israel, "like any sane country, has the right to decide who is given the freedom to enter and work within its borders".
It labelled him "an active BDS propagator who zealously promotes boycotts".
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.
Shakir, who started in the HRW Israel post in 2017, appealed the deportation but Israel's supreme court backed the government's decision earlier this month.
"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 American 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.
The right-wing Jerusalem-based group NGO Monitor meanwhile charged that HRW focuses unfairly on Israel.
"It's the singling out we disagree with," said Gerald Steinberg, head of the organisation.
"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.
Yet Steinberg admitted that Israel's move had created negative publicity that helps its critics.
"This is playing into their hands," he said.