After turning down an offer for a conditional visit to Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, Democratic Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar warned that Israel’s move pits Muslim and Jewish people against one another.
In the latest twist in a dispute drawing US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu together against US Democrats ahead of elections in both countries, Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, said in a news conference in Minnesota on Monday that she felt compelled to speak out for her 90-year-old grandmother, whom she had planned to visit during the trip.
“All I can do as her granddaughter is help humanise her and the Palestinian people’s plight. I know that when we can finally see them as deserving of human dignity, everyone who lives there will be able to live in peace,” Tlaib said, speaking through tears.
She added: “It is unfortunate that Prime Minister Netanyahu has apparently taken a page out of Trump’s book and even direction from Trump to deny this opportunity,” she said.
Tlaib and Omar are the first two Muslim women to be elected to Congress. Both are members of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing and sharp critics of Trump and Israel.
Bowing to pressure from Trump, Israel barred Thursday a visit by Tlaib and Omar that it had initially said it would allow. The next day, Israel said it would allow Tlaib visit her family in the West Bank on humanitarian grounds. Tlaib rejected the offer, saying that Israel had imposed restrictions meant to humiliate her.
“All I can do as my sitty’s (an Arabic nickname for grandmother) granddaughter, as the granddaughter of a woman who lives in occupied territories, is to elevate her voice by exposing the truth the only way I know how — as my Detroit public school teachers taught me — by humanising the pain of oppression,” Tlaib said.
Omar, who stood next to Tlaib, sharply criticised the unprecedented decision by Israel to ban entry to two members of the US Congress. Since its creation in 1948, Israel counts on generous US financial support, military protection and the constant use of US veto power in the UN Security Council to prevent the adoption of resolutions calling for an end to Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories.
“The decision to ban me and my colleague, the first two Muslim American women elected to Congress, is nothing less than an attempt by an ally of the United States to suppress our ability to do our jobs as elected officials,” Omar said. “But this is not just about me. Netanyahu’s decision to deny us entry might be unprecedented for members of Congress, but this is the policy of his government when it comes to anyone who holds views that threaten the occupation, a policy that has been egged on and supported by Trump’s administration.”
Omar, who has had her own bitter exchanges with Trump for being critical of his policy towards minorities, said: “We know Donald Trump would love nothing more than to use this issue to pit Muslims and Jewish Americans against each other. The Muslim community and the Jewish community are being bothered and made into the boogeyman by this administration.”
Justifying her decision not to take Israel’s offer for a “humanitarian visit” to meet her grandmother, Tlaib said in a tweet Friday: “I can’t allow the State of Israel to take away that light by humiliating me & use my love for my sitty to bow down to their oppressive & racist policies.”
“Silencing me & treating me like a criminal is not what she wants for me. It would kill a piece of me. I have decided that visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions stands against everything I believe in — fighting against racism, oppression & injustice,” she added.
Israel’s Interior Ministry said it had received a letter from Tlaib on Thursday seeking permission to visit her family in the West Bank village of Beit Ur Al-Fauqa, and it granted her request.
Tlaib did not outline what the conditions imposed on her visit were. Israeli media reported that she had agreed not to promote boycotts against Israel as part of her request to Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
Trump criticised Tlaib for opting not to travel to Israel after she was permitted to visit only her grandmother.
“As soon as she was granted permission, she grandstanded & loudly proclaimed she would not visit Israel,” Trump wrote on Twitter Friday evening. “Could this possibly have been a setup? Israel acted appropriately!”
Tlaib and Omar have voiced support for the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement that opposes the Israeli occupation and policies towards Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. A recent law approved by Israel’s parliament stated that BDS backers should be denied entry to Israel.
The initial ban sparked an outcry among Democrats in the US Congress, who have largely been strong supporters of Israel, raising concerns about the two nations’ relationship as Netanyahu aligns himself ever more closely with Trump.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer have strongly backed US aid to Israel, which totals $3.8 billion annually, but both called on Israel to reverse the ban on their fellow Democrats on Thursday.
US Representative Steny Hoyer, the second-most powerful Democrat in the House, said Israel’s conditions for Tlaib to visit her grandmother were unacceptable.
“Not only was this request disrespectful of Representative Tlaib but of the United States Congress as well,” Hoyer said in a statement Friday. “This matter is a self-inflicted wound by one of America’s closest allies, one of our closest friends and a vibrant democracy.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful Jewish lobbying group, said while it did not support the two congresswomen’s views, they should be allowed to visit.
Most Republicans in Congress have remained silent about the dispute. The fact that lawmakers are on a month-long recess has allowed them to avoid pointed questions.
Republican US Senator Marco Rubio was critical of Israel’s move, but also of the two congresswomen. “Denying them entry into #Israel is a mistake,” Rubio wrote on Twitter. “Being blocked is what they really hoped for all along, in order to bolster their attacks against the Jewish state.”
The positions of Trump and Netanyahu could help them whip up support in their conservative voter bases as each head into election campaigns. Israel will see national elections 17 September, and Trump faces presidential elections in November 2020.
Trump has been attacking Tlaib and Omar along with lawmakers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — all women of colour known as “the Squad” — for weeks, accusing them of hostility to Israel in a barrage condemned by critics as racist.
While most Democrats disagree with the views of Tlaib and Omar on Israel, Trump’s repeated attacks have rallied support. The president in turn has tried to paint that support as an endorsement of the two lawmakers’ positions, seeking to make them the face of the party.
Tlaib and Omar represent districts in states Trump is aiming to win in his 2020 re-election campaign: Michigan, which he narrowly won in 2016, and Minnesota, which he narrowly lost.
PALESTINIAN grandchildren of the diaspora have taken social media by storm with stories of their ancestors’ dispossession from their homeland using the hashtag #MyPalestinianSitty
By refusing US congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar entry to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories last week, the Israeli authorities have brought more attention to the history and nature of the occupation than the two lawmakers visit would have achieved had they been able to visit.
Tlaib, a Palestinian-American congresswoman, said she wanted to visit her sitty, the colloquial Arabic word for grandmother, Muftia Tlaib who lives in Beit Ur Al-Fouqa, a village near Ramallah in the Palestinian West Bank.
In response, an avalanche of tweets came pouring out on Twitter under the hashtag #MyPalestinianSitty where thousands of Palestinians posted stories about their grandmothers. Because much of the focus was on their ancestors’ traumatic experience during Al-Nakba, the Palestinian dispossession and the creation of Israel in 1948 on Palestinian land, #MyPalestinianSitty gave way to collective activism highlighting Tlaib’s history and millions like her in the diaspora.
The Israeli authorities had cited Tlaib and Omar’s support for the peaceful BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement for the decision to bar their entry. Modelled on the anti-apartheid boycott movement in South Africa before the end of white-minority rule, BDS seeks to draw attention to Israel’s version of racism and apartheid, encouraging boycott as a tool of resistance.
“#MyPalestinianSitty is trending, and I am overcome with emotion realising how we are finally humanising one of the world’s most dehumanised peoples,” Omar tweeted in response to the solidarity campaign.
The hashtag’s focus on elderly Palestinian women provided visibility through the thousands of grandmother photographs shared on Twitter and was a rare opportunity to illuminate and humanise aspects of the occupation that are overshadowed by the politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict, such as the struggle of Palestinian women against the occupation since 1948.
Leading figure in the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) Hanan Ashrawi, who joined the initiative, shared a photograph of her late grandmother Farha who was born in Ramallah in 1925. Her step-grandmother, Teta Zareefeh, died in the 1967 War, Ashrawi said.
Twitter user Jameel Shuqair described the hashtag as an initiative to honour women “who managed despite the struggle and occupation to raise generations around the world. These women to many of us are the recollection of home. They are Palestine,” he wrote.
Aami Nashashibi wrote that his grandmother had given birth to his mother on a dirt road outside of Bethlehem while fleeing her village in May 1948. Her family later became among the first Palestinians to settle on Chicago’s South Side.
Yasmeen Serhan, a London-based reporter with the US magazine The Atlantic, tweeted that her Palestinian grandmother was expelled from her village near Jaffa in 1948. She was among the thousands of Palestinians who ended up in Kuwait, where she was a mathematics teacher, she said.
“#MyPalestinianSitty was born in Yaffa. She was expelled from Palestine in ‘48 at the age of 11. Never went back to school because they always thought they’d go home tomorrow, next week, next month,” Aywa Rhiannon, another contributor, wrote.
The campaign revived a famous poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish on his late mother, which is also an ode to the lost land. “I long for my mother’s bread, my mother’s coffee and my mother’s touch,” he wrote.
Palestinian-American author Rami Kanzy posted a black-and-white photograph of his young and slender grandmother and wrote, “until the day she passed, it was Yaffa, Yaffa, Yaffa. It was always about return, a life stripped away. A yearning for home in exile. An experience shared by too many Palestinians.”
Ammar Campa-Najjar, who is running for congress in the US, tweeted that “#MyPalestinianSitty was killed in her own home 16 years before I was born. She never hurt a soul. The last memory her children have of her is stepping over her to get to the doorway.”
“I honour her by choosing peace over violence & progress over bitterness. I’m a prisoner of hope,” he wrote.
Karen Al-Sayed detailed the heroic story of her great-grandmother who had fled from Palestine to Lebanon with her five children on foot in 1948. She had had to provide for her family alone because her blind husband hadn’t been able to do so.
“She also faced the burden of more war in Lebanon as the trouble seemed to follow my family there with many civil wars and Israeli Zionist attacks on parts of Lebanon as well as Palestinian refugee camps,” she added.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Democrats rally, criticise Israel