By Ori Lewis
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel has denied a work permit to a Human Rights Watch researcher after receiving Foreign Ministry advice that HRW works "in the service of Palestinian propaganda under the false banner of human rights," the immigration authority said.
HRW said the move was unexpected, since the organisation regularly meets and corresponds with Israeli government officials, including representatives of the military, the police, and the Foreign Ministry.
Israel's decision was criticised by the U.S. State Department, which said, "we strongly disagree with that characterization of HRW ... (which is) a credible human rights organisation."
A photo of a letter to HRW dated Feb. 20 seen by Reuters informing the group of the permit denial to researcher Omar Shakir, a U.S. citizen who was to be based permanently in the area. The letter said the immigration authority had acted "in light of the Foreign Ministry's recommendation". It gave leave for appeal.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said the decision was taken because of HRW's "extreme, hostile anti-Israel agenda which was working at the service of Palestinian propaganda ... in a totally biased manner."
The group said in a statement that "the decision marks an ominous turn after nearly three decades during which Human Rights Watch staff has had regular access without impediments to Israel and the West Bank."
It added that Israel has refused HRW access to Gaza since 2010, except for one visit in 2016.
Acting U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that "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. We reference HRW reports in our own reporting, including our annual human rights reports."
HRW's Iain Levine said that it was "disappointing that the Israeli government seems unable or unwilling to distinguish between justified criticisms of its actions and hostile political propaganda."
The decision to bar the HRW representative is a latest move by authorities to curb foreign non-governmental organisations who have issued reports critical of Israeli government actions, particularly concerning Palestinians.
It was initially unclear whether the decision heralded the start of a new policy by Israel towards foreign citizens working for NGO's.
Last year, Israel's right-wing governing coalition enacted a law aimed at limiting foreign funding for NGOs it considers critical of its policies. The law was heavily criticised by the European Union.
Most of the Israeli NGOs that receive support from foreign governments are left-wing and many oppose the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government towards the Palestinians.
HRW's Sari Bashi said Israel had joined Cuba, Egypt, North Korea, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Venezuela as countries that have blocked access to the organisation's staff members.
(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington, Writing by Ori Lewis)