'Delegation to Palestine'

What Omar, Tlaib were going to do on their thwarted trip to Jerusalem, West Bank

Banned lawmakers’ shared itinerary reportedly included Temple Mt. visit, meetings with US Embassy staff, far-left Israeli groups, a Palestinian official, UNRWA staff, refugees

Reps. Rashida Tlaib, left, and Ilhan Omar at a rally with Democrats in the Capitol, March 13, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images, via JTA)
Reps. Rashida Tlaib, left, and Ilhan Omar at a rally with Democrats in the Capitol, March 13, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images, via JTA)

JTA — By now it seems clear that Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are not going to be visiting Israel or Palestinian areas of the West Bank.

Israel’s government announced Thursday 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 controversial 2017 law entitles the state to deny entry to boycott supporters.

Tlaib subsequently requested and was granted entry on humanitarian grounds to visit her grandmother in the West Bank. First she accepted, but hours later rejected the offer.

Explaining the decision to ban the pair, 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.”

Apparently the pair did not have an identical itinerary, however. Omar and her aides on Friday said she had planned to sit with Israeli Knesset members and security officials on Saturday and Sunday, before beginning her joint program with Tlaib. On Friday Omar tweeted that “I planned to hold meetings with members of the Knesset (both Jewish and Arab) along with Israeli security officials.”

Omar planned to meet the Israelis, including Arab Knesset member Aida Touma-Sliman, because of her role as a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, an aide to the congresswoman told The Times of Israel on Friday.

Omar’s aide said that she and her staff had been planning to arrive in Israel earlier than Tlaib, on Saturday. He said she planned to hold her meetings with Israelis, without Tlaib, on Saturday evening and Sunday morning.

What was on the lawmakers’ shared schedule? Gili Cohen, a reporter for the Kan public broadcaster, shared a copy of their plan on Twitter.

Where they would have gone

In broad strokes, the tentative itinerary — titled “US Congressional 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 non-profits and activists, as well as international human rights groups.

The joint program featured no meetings with Israeli officials of any political persuasion, including Arab lawmakers. The plan also did not feature any extended time spent within Israel’s internationally recognized borders. (Neither Omar nor her aides in their comments Friday on her planned meetings with Israelis made any reference to Tlaib meeting Israeli officials.)

The lawmakers were scheduled to meet a Palestinian official, Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi speaks at a press conference in Ramallah on February 24, 2015. (WAFA/File)

One Israeli non-profit, the left-wing B’Tselem, was to be present at one of those meetings, along with three other non-Israeli organizations, and the congresswomen were to receive a tour of Hebron from Breaking the Silence, a controversial far-left Israeli group.

“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, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaking to Democratic members of Congress on August 7, 2019. (Credit: Wafa)

Omar and Tlaib’s trip was to start with a lunch with staff at the US Embassy in Israel on Sunday afternoon. From there they were going to meet with UNRWA, the United Nations agency that aids Palestinian refugees, before moving on to meetings in eastern Jerusalem. UNRWA, which is currently embroiled in a major misconduct and corruption scandal, is often criticized by Israeli officials for an anti-Israel bias and for its policy of extending refugee status to millions of descendants of the original Palestinian refugees.

On the second day, 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, the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam. 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.”

In this May 26, 2019, photo, a teacher supervises while Palestinian schoolchildren take a final exam during the last day of the school year, at the UNRWA Hebron Boys School, in the West Bank city of Hebron. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

The group, like many Palestinian civil society organizations, supports the movement to boycott Israel. It has also praised Palestinian suicide bombers and published an anti-Semitic blood libel accusation, 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 US 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.”

In this March 21, 2019 photo, an Israeli solider stands guard as Palestinian school children cross back from school in the Israeli controlled part of the West Bank city of Hebron. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

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 did not returned a request for comment.

Why was this trip different?

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, but the representatives did meet 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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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