By Ben Sales
WASHINGTON (JTA) – By now it seems clear that Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are not going to be visiting Israel or the Palestinian areas of the West Bank.
Israel’s government announced Thursday, August 15 that it would not allow the Democratic congresswomen to make their scheduled visit this weekend because both have declared support for the Israel boycott movement. A 2017 law entitles the state to deny entry to boycott activists.
(Tlaib was granted entry on a humanitarian trip to visit her grandmother in the West Bank. First she accepted, but hours later rejected.)
Explaining the decision, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited the lawmakers’ itinerary, which he said “reveals that the sole purpose of their visit is to harm Israel and increase incitement against it.”
What was on this itinerary? Omar outlined it in a series of tweets last Friday.
Where they would have gone
In broad strokes, the itinerary – titled “Delegation to Palestine” – took Tlaib and Omar through major Palestinian population centers in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and to a string of meetings with Palestinian and left-wing Israeli nonprofits and activists, as well as international human rights groups.
“Let’s be clear: the goal of our trip was to witness firsthand what is happening on the ground in Palestine and hear from stakeholders – our job as Members of Congress,” she tweeted.
Omar wrote that the delegation was going to meet with Israeli lawmakers – including Jewish ones. She did not say which members of Knesset, Israel’s parliament, they planned to meet. The lawmakers were also scheduled to meet a Palestinian official, Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
An Israeli nonprofit, the left-wing B’tselem human rights group, was to be present at one of their meetings, along with three other non-Israeli organizations. And the congresswomen were to receive a tour of Hebron from Breaking the Silence, a left-wing Israeli group that opposes the West Bank occupation.
“I would’ve loved to take @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib on our tour of Hebron,” tweeted Avner Gvaryahu, who would have given the tour. “There’s no joy in seeing or showing the harsh reality of the territories, but change will only come when we face up to the truth.”
The would-be trip contrasts with a Democratic congressional delegation to Israel and the Palestinian territories taken earlier this month by 41 representatives and sponsored by an organization affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. That delegation met with both Israeli and Palestinian officials and activists. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, however, refused to meet with a parallel Republican delegation.
Omar and Tlaib’s trip was planning to meet with staff at the U.S. Embassy in Israel. In addition, they were going to meet with UNRWA, the United Nations agency that aids Palestinian refugees and often is criticized by Israeli officials for having an anti-Israel bias, and had also planned meetings in eastern Jerusalem.
Omar and Tlaib planned to visit Jerusalem’s holy sites, including the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They additionally planned to visit the Al-Aqsa mosque, which is located at the Temple Mount, a Jewish holy site also revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The remainder of the trip took them to meetings and tours in the West Bank cities of Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah, including at a refugee camp.
Who organized the trip
Miftah, a Palestinian NGO chaired by Ashrawi, organized the trip. Its website says its mission is to “promote the principles of democracy and good governance within various components of Palestinian society” and to “engage local and international public opinion and official circles on the Palestinian cause.”
The group, like many Palestinian civil society organizations, supports the movement to boycott Israel. But it has also praised Palestinian suicide bombers and published an age-old antisemitic stereotype, for which it later apologized. Netanyahu described Miftah as “an avid supporter of BDS, and among whose members are those who have expressed support for terrorism against Israel.”
A report on the group’s site from 2006 about Palestinian women in the second intifada praises Wafa Idris, who killed one Israeli civilian and injured 150 people in a 2002 suicide bombing in downtown Jerusalem. The report says Idris, the first female suicide bomber of the second intifada, “marked the beginning of a string of Palestinian women dedicated to sacrificing their lives for the cause.”
Years later, in 2013, Miftah staffer Nawaf Al Zaru posted an article on its site criticizing President Barack Obama for hosting a Passover seder at the White House. In the article, Al Zaru repeated a false accusation that Jews kill non-Jewish children and use their blood in religious rituals.
“Does Obama in fact know the relationship, for example, between ‘Passover’ and ‘Christian blood’..?! Or ‘Passover’ and ‘Jewish blood rituals?!’” Al Zaru wrote. “Much of the chatter and gossip about historical Jewish blood rituals in Europe are real and not fake as they claim; the Jews used the blood of Christians in the Jewish Passover.”
At first the group defended the article by saying the blogger who first criticized it had “wrongly accused MIFTAH and Dr. Ashrawi of promoting Jewish blood libel during Passover through its publication of an Arabic-language article that briefly addressed the subject.” But the group deleted the article from its site, apologized and said it disciplined Al Zaru.
“The said staffer has been reprimanded and all our staff has been informed as to the disgusting and repulsive phenomena of blood libel or accusation, including its use against Jews,” the apology said.
In a statement, Miftah called the ban on Omar and Tlaib “an affront to the American people and their representatives. It is an assault on the Palestinian people’s right to reach out to decision-makers and other actors from around the world.” The group said it wanted to facilitate Omar and Tlaib’s “direct contact with the Palestinian people, who are subject to Israel’s cruel regime of colonization, oppression and land grab.”
Ashrawi has not returned a Jewish Telegraphic Agency request for comment.
This was not the first congressional delegation to Palestinian areas sponsored by Miftah. Politico first reported Friday that Miftah co-sponsored a trip by five Democratic congressmen to Israel and the West Bank in 2016 that was allowed into Israel without a problem. The participants were Matt Cartwright, Dan Kildee, Hank Johnson, Luis Gutierrez and Mark Pocan.
The itinerary of that trip was similar to Omar and Tlaib’s would-be visit. The representatives met with Arab-Israeli lawmakers. Other than that, the trip was centered on visiting Palestinian areas and Arab cities in Israel, and on meeting with Palestinian activists and groups.
But while both Omar and Tlaib support boycotting Israel, all of the congressmen had been to Israel previously or otherwise had spoken out in support of Israel, though they have also criticized its policies, at times harshly. All five were endorsed by JStreetPAC, the political funding arm of the liberal Israel lobby.
JStreetPAC did not endorse Tlaib or Omar.