Tlaib declines to visit West Bank, citing Israeli conditions

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Rashida Tlaib

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., listens to a question from a constituent in Wixom, Mich., Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib said Friday she would not visit her grandmother in the occupied West Bank, despite being granted an Israeli permit on humanitarian grounds, saying Israel’s “oppressive” conditions aimed to humiliate her.

Israel barred Tlaib and another Democrat, Rep. Ilhan Omar, from visiting Jerusalem and the West Bank over their support for the international boycott movement following an unprecedented appeal from President Donald Trump to deny them entry.

Israel had said Tlaib could visit relatives in the West Bank on humanitarian grounds. But then the Interior Ministry released a letter purportedly signed by Tlaib in which she promised not to advocate boycotts during her visit. That appears to have led to her decision to cancel the visit.

“Visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions meant to humiliate me would break my grandmother’s heart,” she said in a statement. “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.”

Tlaib and Omar had planned to visit Jerusalem and the Israeli-occupied West Bank next week on a tour organized by a Palestinian group. The two are outspoken critics of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and support the Palestinian-led international movement boycotting Israel.

The two newly elected Muslim members of Congress have sparred with Trump, who tweeted before the decision that it would be a “show of weakness” to allow them in. Israel controls entry and exit to the West Bank, which it seized in the 1967 Mideast war along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — territories the Palestinians want for a future state.

Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri announced early Friday that Tlaib had requested and been granted permission to enter the West Bank to see relatives. The U.S.-born Tlaib’s family immigrated from the West Bank.

Deri’s office released what it said was Tlaib’s request, written on congressional stationery and dated Thursday, in which she said she wanted to visit her grandmother, who is in her 90s.

“This could be my last opportunity to see her. I will respect any restrictions and will not promote boycotts against Israel during my visit,” she said. Tlaib’s office could not immediately be reached for comment on the letter’s authenticity.

Shortly after the announcement, Tlaib tweeted that she wouldn’t allow Israel to use her love for her grandmother to force her to “bow down to their oppressive & racist policies.”

“When I won (in 2018), it gave the Palestinian people hope that someone will finally speak the truth about the inhumane conditions. I can’t allow the State of Israel to take away that light by humiliating me,” she wrote.

Bassam Tlaib, an uncle who lives in the West Bank, expressed support for her decision.

“If Rashida’s visit to her homeland is under conditions, we reject that,” he said. “It’s Rashida’s right as a Palestinian to come and visit her family and country.”

Some Palestinians had expressed disappointment with the letter. Ali Abunimah, a prominent Palestinian activist, tweeted that Tlaib should have used her platform to highlight Israel’s restrictions “instead of writing that humiliating letter asking the occupier to treat her as an exception in exchange for abiding by its ‘restrictions.'”

Deri, the interior minister, said after the cancellation that her initial request was apparently a “provocative request, aimed at bashing the State of Israel.”

“Apparently her hate for Israel overcomes her love for her grandmother,” he tweeted.

Trump’s request to a foreign country to bar the entry of elected U.S. officials — and Israel’s decision to do so — were unprecedented and drew widespread criticism, including from many Israelis as well as staunch supporters of Israel in Congress. Critics said it risked turning Israel into a partisan issue and threatened to undermine ties between the close allies.

Tlaib and Omar are known as supporters of “boycott, divestment and sanctions,” or BDS, a Palestinian-led global movement. Supporters say the movement is a nonviolent way of protesting Israel’s military rule over the occupied territories, but Israel says it aims to delegitimize the state and eventually wipe it off the map.

The two congresswomen are part of the “squad” of liberal newcomers — all women of color — whom Trump has labeled as the face of the Democratic Party as he runs for re-election. He subjected them to a series of racist tweets last month in which he called on them to “go back” to their “broken” countries. They are U.S. citizens.

Trump’s recruitment of a longtime U.S. ally to punish his domestic rivals was a glaring departure from the tradition of American politicians leaving such disputes at the water’s edge.

Israel announced the ban Thursday after Trump tweeted that “it would show great weakness” if the two were allowed to visit. Asked later if he had spoken to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said, “I did talk to people over there,” without elaborating.

In a tweet, Omar disputed Netanyahu’s claim that she and Tlaib didn’t ask to meet with Israeli government or opposition officials. She said they planned to meet with Jewish and Arab members of the Israeli parliament plus other Israeli officials.

For Israel, the willingness to side so pointedly with Trump marks a deeper foray into America’s bitterly polarized politics and risks its relationship with Congress.

Netanyahu’s embrace of Trump has yielded major gains for the Israeli right, including the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Trump’s acceptance of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in the 1967 war, provided a boost to Netanyahu ahead of April’s elections.

Netanyahu might be hoping for a similar jolt ahead of next month’s polls, which were called after he failed to form a coalition government. Reactions in the Israeli media to the decision to bar the congresswomen were split, with Netanyahu’s opponents accusing him of kowtowing to a divisive U.S. president and endangering bilateral relations and supporters saying he had no choice but to fully back an important ally in the White House.

“Just like Trump’s base in America does not like the extreme left-wing elements of the Democratic Party, (Netanyahu’s) base in Israel does not like them,” said Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at Hebrew University. “It serves his base. It does not serve the state of Israel.”

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Associated Press cameraman Eyad Moghrabi in Beit Ur al-Foqa, West Bank, contributed.

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