Israel has denied a work permit to a Human Rights Watch researcher, accusing the group of doing the work of Palestinian propagandists, a move the U.S.-based organization called unprecedented and an "ominous turn."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said the decision had been 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 U.S. State Department said it strongly disagreed with Israel's characterization of HRW which it considers a credible human rights organization.
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"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," acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
The news emerged as Israel faced criticism from the U.N. Human Rights Council over an 18-month jail sentence handed to an Israeli soldier who shot an incapacitated Palestinian assailant in the head, something the U.N. body called an "apparent extrajudicial execution of an unarmed man".
Calling the sentence of soldier Elor Azaria "excessively lenient", U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said on Friday it was part of a "chronic culture of impunity" for Israeli abuse of Palestinians.
Many Israelis, particularly from the right-wing, opposed the prosecution of a conscript for killing an assailant who had attacked one of his comrades with a knife. Israel and its U.S. ally accuse the Geneva-based Council of bias against Israel.
HRW said it had been granted unimpeded access to Israel and the West Bank for three decades and it was "disappointing that the Israeli government seems unable or unwilling to distinguish between justified criticisms of its actions and hostile political propaganda."
Israel had now joined Cuba, Egypt, North Korea, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Venezuela as countries that have impeded its access. HRW said.
In its letter, the immigration office said: "The opinion received from the Foreign Ministry pointed out that, for an extended period, the public activity and the reports by this organization deal with politics in the service of Palestinian propaganda under the false banner of human rights and because of this, we recommend denying the permit."
Israeli spokesman Nahshon said the decision was a "one off" and did not represent a change in policy toward NGOs. He added that the HRW representative could enter Israel on a tourist visa and that the work visa application may be reconsidered if an appeal is lodged.
Last year, a new law limited foreign funding for NGOs which Israel considers critical of its policies. The law was heavily criticized by the European Union.
Many of the Israeli NGOs that receive support from foreign governments oppose the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government toward the Palestinians.
The prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were thrown into additional uncertainty this month when new U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned a long-standing commitment to a two-state solution.
(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)