Israel to allow barred US lawmaker for 'humanitarian' West Bank visit

Guillaume Lavallee
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First-term US House Democrat Rashida Tlaib, one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress, became a focus of international controversy when Israel denied her entry to the Jewish state and Palestinian territories on a congressional visit

First-term US House Democrat Rashida Tlaib, one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress, became a focus of international controversy when Israel denied her entry to the Jewish state and Palestinian territories on a congressional visit

Israel said Friday it will allow barred US congresswoman Rashida Tlaib who is of Palestinian origin to visit her elderly grandmother in the occupied West Bank, following a pledge she would respect its conditions.

The decision taken by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri came a day after a controversial Israeli announcement that it would bar a planned weekend visit by Tlaib and fellow Muslim congresswoman Ilhan Omar over their support of a boycott of the Jewish state for its treatment of the Palestinians.

The decision to allow a "humanitarian visit" followed a pledge in a letter from the lawmaker to "respect conditions imposed by Israel", the ministry said in a statement.

Tlaib had "promised not to promote the cause of the boycott of Israel during her stay", in the letter sent overnight, it said.

Israeli media published the letter, which said: "I would like to request admittance to Israel in order to visit my relatives, and specifically my 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."

The decision to bar the congresswomen, although encouraged by President Donald Trump, drew sharp criticism in the United States from several allies of Israel, including top Democratic lawmakers, presidential hopefuls and influential pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.

Israeli officials had, however, said they would consider a separate humanitarian request from Tlaib to visit her family, a trip for which she would have to pass through Israel.

Before Israel announced its decision Thursday, Tlaib's relatives in the West Bank village of Beit Ur Al-Foqa had been excitedly preparing her visit.

"We are preparing a party," said Tlaib's grandmother, Muftia Tlaib, in the yard of the family's stone home surrounded by olive trees.

Israel scrapped the visit by the two lawmakers shortly after Trump weighed in via Twitter to say it would be showing "great weakness" if the Jewish state granted them entry.

- 'Sign of weakness' -

The US president later told reporters that the lawmakers had "said some of the worst things I've ever heard said about Israel. So how can Israel say: 'Welcome'?"

Tlaib and Omar are outspoken critics of Trump, who has a close relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But the American Israel Public Affairs Committee led a collection of pro-Israel groups in denouncing Israel's decision.

While the group's members "disagree" with support by Democrats Omar and Tlaib of a boycott on Israel, AIPAC said: "We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand."

More than 70 House and Senate Democrats publicly denounced Israel's rejection, while Republican lawmakers were largely silent.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a staunch Israel ally on Capitol Hill, called the decision "a sign of weakness (that) will only hurt the US-Israeli relationship and support for Israel in America".

And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who herself has clashed with Omar and Tlaib, both of whom have been accused of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel statements, called the travel ban "beneath the dignity of the great State of Israel".

Senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi labelled the ban "an outrageous act of hostility against the American people and their representatives", while Omar said it was a "chilling" decision and an "insult to democratic values."

But Netanyahu defended the entry ban, alleging the congresswomen had intended to strengthen the boycott movement against Israel.

"As a vibrant and free democracy, Israel is open to any critic and criticism, with one exception," Netanyahu said.

"Israel's law prohibits the entry of people who call and act to boycott Israel, as is the case with other democracies that prevent the entry of people whom they see as harming the country."

In 2017, Israel passed a law banning entry to foreigners who support boycotting the country.

Israel sees the boycott movement as a strategic threat and accuses it of anti-Semitism -- a claim activists deny.