U.S. Congresspersons Rashida Tlaib (D, MI) and Ilhan Omar (D, MN) were denied entry to Israel and the Israeli occupied West Bank recently for publicly stating their support for the use of boycotts to affect a change to Israeli policies which they and others have criticized.
Americans and political leaders of both parties were shocked that a close U.S. ally would take such an action — but — it didn’t shock those familiar with the Israeli government’s previous behavior. Israeli authorities have barred individuals, including U.S. citizens, based on their conscientiously held beliefs or for simply being who they are, for years.
While President Trump’s tweet to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu encouraging him to block U.S. Members of Congress was unprecedented, Americans have been denied entry by Israel regardless of the party in power with little to no protections. This is not a partisan issue.
In 2012, under Barack Obama’s administration, Sandra Tamari was stopped at a port-of-entry for Israel. She contacted the U.S. embassy and the first question asked was if she was Jewish. She replied, “’No, I’m actually Palestinian-American.’ And the embassy personnel said, ‘Oh well then there’s nothing we can do to help you’ — and that was it”. She said the most shocking thing about the experience was the lack of support by her embassy.
The barring of individuals isn’t based on any prior crime committed or incitement to violence, but is based on publicly stated opinions or they may have simply criticized Israeli government policies, such as Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise in occupied territory.
In 2017, Israel formally amended the Entry Into Israel Law based on the 2011 ‘Anti-Boycott Law’ to bar any “non-Israeli” who has publicly called for, or participated in, a boycott of Israel (which also is understood to include Israeli settlements built illegally within the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. This is a direct attack on an individual’s freedom of expression.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented a wide variety of violations of human rights and international law by Israel, including war crimes. In the occupied West Bank alone, Amnesty has documented torture and ill-treatment of detainees and severe restrictions on freedom of movement, expression and association. There are hundreds of Palestinians, including children, currently being held by Israel based on secret evidence, no charge, no trial and with the potential of indefinite detention. All legitmate criticisms, yet the Israeli government is currently attempting to deport Omar Shakir, HRW’s Israel/Palestine Director and researcher, and has threatened Amnesty International-Israel with punitive measures. Legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and actions is not anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, or a crime.
As human beings, Tlaib and Omar, have the right to voice their opinions, but as Members of Congress, they also have a duty to visit the region and ask questions as part of their oversight responsibilities.
Tlaib and Omar refuse to allow their space for dialogue be closed down, though. While others have called for no Member of Congress to travel to Israel until they are allowed entry, Tlaib and Omar have encouraged members to go.
Omar said, “I would encourage my colleagues to visit, meet with the people we were going to meet with, see the things we were going to see, hear the stories we were going to hear.”
Another option is to invite the people they were going to meet with — representatives of both Israeli and Palestinian NGOs, Israeli military veterans and members of the Israeli Knesset like MK Aida Tuma — to the United States. These guests could testify before relevant congressional committees and speak directly to the American public — the public that provides more than $3.8 Billion USD to Israel in military aid annually.
It’s time for questions to be asked and these serious conversations to begin.