Israel denies permission for Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib visit

The two outspoken US legislators support a pro-Palestinian campaign that promotes sanctions against Israel, Miriam Berger reports from Jerusalem

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Israel will refuse entry to two US congresswomen who are outspoken critics of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the deputy foreign minister said on Thursday.

Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib had planned a five-day visit to the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, starting on Sunday.

"The decision has been made, the decision is not to allow them to enter," Tzipi Hotovely told an Israeli radio station.

The proposed trip by Ms Omar and Ms Tlaib had caused a stir because of their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a campaign that promotes various types of sanctions against Israel. It is rare for US members of congress to air such support.

Israeli passed a law in 2017 that allows it to deny entry to those who support boycotts of the country.

Mr Trump tweeted earlier on Thursday that Israel would be showing "great weakness" if it allowed the two congresswomen to visit, saying "they hate Israel and all Jewish people".

Ms Omar and Ms Tlaib, both Muslim women of colour, have become the frequent target of President Trump’s attacks on progressive Democrats and his remarks on immigration, which have been labelled racist.

Israeli Interior Ministry spokesman Arieh Deri said the decision to bar the congresswomen was made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Israel Katz and Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Arden.

"The state of Israeli respects the American Congress, as part of the close alliance between the two countries, but it is inconceivable to allow in anyone who wishes to harm the state of Israel, even during a visit," he said.

Ramallah-based Salem Barahmeh, executive director of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, said the decision was an extension of movements in America that were "trying to silence and curb freedom of expression around talking about Palestine".

Miftah, a Palestinian non-profit run by politician and peace negotiator Hanan Ashrawi, said denying entry to the US legislators was "an assault on the Palestinian people’s right to reach out to decision-makers and other actors from around the world".

"As a sponsor of this trip, Miftah worked hard to organise a well-rounded visit ... in order to facilitate their engagement with Palestinian civil society and to provide them with an opportunity to see the reality of occupation for themselves," it said.
No official meetings were confirmed, but the US legislators had hoped to meet privately with young Palestinians, Israeli and Palestinian civil society groups, and humanitarian workers in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron and Jerusalem.

Last month, Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, said the government would allow the representatives’ entry “out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America”. But on Wednesday, US and Israeli media reported that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was backtracking and was consulting with senior offices over his final decision.

Israeli journalist Barak Ravid reported that the authorities considered a compromise, allowing the pair entry but limiting their movement to areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Ms Tlaib is Palestinian-American and her grandmother still lives in her family’s home village of Beit Ur Al Fauqa. She had reportedly planned to extend the trip so that she was also able to spend time with her grandmother.

US House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who is leading the current Democratic congressional trip to Israel, said from Jerusalem on Sunday that he supported Ms Omar and Ms Tlaib’s visit, despite disagreeing with their views.

“I feel very secure in this — anyone who comes with open ears, open eyes and an open mind will walk away with understanding … it is important to have a democracy in the Middle East that makes a difference to the world and to security,” he said.

Israeli officials met last week to prepare for a possible visit to Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, according to Axios. The news site also reported that Israeli officials were vetting other proposed members of the delegation for their support of boycotts, and would decide to allow entry on a case-by-case basis.