Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib Speak About Israel, and Trump
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During Congress's August recess, a group of 41 Democratic and 31 Republican congress-members traveled to Israel on a delegation sponsored by American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). AIPAC subsidizes congressional trips to Israel in order to further the "special relationship" between Israel and the United States. Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid: $3.8 billion annually. AIPAC is the chief Israel lobby in the United States and a consistent apologist for Israel's oppressive policies toward the Palestinians.
Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, had planned their own "Delegation to Palestine," scheduled to begin on August 17. Tlaib, who was born in the U.S., planned to travel to the West Bank to visit her 90-year old Palestinian grandmother, whom she hasn't seen for a decade. But, aided and abetted by Donald Trump, Israel withdrew permission for the trip unless Tlaib agreed to remain silent about Israel's mistreatment of the Palestinians. She refused to abide by the gag order and the trip was cancelled.
Tlaib said in a statement, "Visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions meant to humiliate me would break my grandmother's heart. Silencing me with treatment to make me feel less-than is not what she wants for me it would kill a piece of me that always stands up against racism and injustice." She added, "Being silent and not condemning the human rights violations of the Israeli government is a disservice to all who live there, including my incredibly strong and loving grandmother."
Omar, who expressed"strength and solidarity" with Tlaib in a tweet, told reporters, "[Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu's decision to deny us entry might be unprecedented for members of Congress. But it is the policy of his government when it comes to Palestinians. This is the policy of his government when it comes to anyone who holds views that threaten the occupation." She tweeted, "We cannot let Trump and Netanyahu succeed in hiding the cruel reality of the occupation from us."
Israel's refusal to allow members of the U.S. Congress entry into Israel-Palestine without muzzling them backfired. It has garnered widespread criticism, even by AIPAC, and focused the national discourse on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), which Tlaib and Omar support.
Omar, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, "It is my belief that as legislators, we have an obligation to see the reality there for ourselves. We have a responsibility to conduct oversight over our government's foreign policy and what happens with the millions of dollars we send in aid." She says the U.S. must ask Netanyahu's government to "stop the expansion of settlements on Palestinian land and ensure full rights for Palestinians if we are to give them aid."
Sen. Bernie Sanders said, "the idea that a member of the United States Congress cannot visit a nation which, by the way, we support to the tune of billions and billions of dollars is clearly an outrage," adding, "And if Israel doesn't want members of the United States Congress to visit their country to get a firsthand look at what's going on ... maybe [Netanyahu] can respectfully decline the billions of dollars that we give to Israel."Tlaib and Omar Planned to Witness the Occupation Firsthand
Tlaib and Omar were scheduled to meet with members of the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) and Palestinian and leftist Israeli activists and nonprofits, as well as international human rights organizations in Jerusalem and the West Bank. They were also set to confer with members of Breaking the Silence, a group of former members of the Israel Defense Forces who now actively oppose Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands. Omar tweeted that the goal of the delegation "was to witness firsthand what is happening on the ground in Palestine and hear from stakeholders our job as Members of Congress."
The visit by Tlaib and Omar "was to be something else" in contrast to the AIPAC delegation, James Zogby, co-founder and president of the Arab American Institute , wrote in the Forward. Tlaib and Omar "weren't going to focus on officials," according to Zogby. "They were going to expose the reality of Palestinian daily life under occupation. They were going to visit the Wall that separates Palestinians from their lands. They were going to refugee camps now cut off from US funding. They were going to see how Hebron has been horridly deformed by a settler invasion and military occupation."
Israel had approved the Tlaib/Omar trip last month. Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer said, "Out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America," Israel would not deny entry "to any member of Congress."
But Donald Trump reportedly told several of his advisers that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should bar Tlaib and Omar because they supported BDS. Hours after Israel cancelled the trip, Trump tweeted, "It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people."
The Israeli government agreed to allow Tlaib to visit her grandmother, provided she agree in writing not to discuss her support for BDS. But after emotional conversations with her family, Tlaib refused to submit to the condition that she not discuss the Israeli occupation.
Tlaib "was forced to make a choice between her right to visit her grandmother and her right to political speech against Israeli oppression," Sandra Tamari wrote at In These Times. Tamari has been barred from seeing her family in Palestine for more than 10 years because of her advocacy for Palestinian freedom and justice. Tlaib "ultimately chose the collective over the personal: She refused Israel's demeaning conditions that would have granted her a 'humanitarian' exception to enter Palestine, so long as she refrained from advocating for a boycott of Israel during her visit," Tamari added.What Is the BDS Movement?
In 2005, Palestinian civil society including 170 Palestinian unions, political parties, refugee networks, women's organizations, professional associations, popular resistance committees and other Palestinian civil society bodies issued a call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.