Hagai El-Ad is executive director of B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
If Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) had been allowed by Israel to visit her family in the Palestinian village of Beit Ur al-Fauqa, she might have been able to see with her own eyes the nearby highway that Israel built on confiscated Palestinian land — a highway that makes commutes easier for Israelis but is almost completely off-limits to Palestinians.
If Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) had been allowed by Israel to visit the Palestinian city of Ramallah, she might have seen how the combination of civilian Israeli settlements, military checkpoints and the separation barrier all work together to encircle this urban Palestinian enclave, limit its development and separate it from the rest of the other Palestinian fragments celebrated by Israel as “autonomous.”
Yet neither congresswoman will be able to visit Israel as scheduled this Sunday, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reversed his government’s earlier decision to allow them entry following pressure from President Trump.
Israel’s choice to ban the entry of the two congresswomen is based on a relatively recent amendment to the “Entry Into Israel Law,” which prohibits entry of any foreign national who makes a “public call for boycotting Israel” or “any area under its control.” The law has already been used to try to deport a prominent human rights activist and an American student of Palestinian origin. Though the law’s title suggests it controls entry into Israeli territory, it goes much further: Because Israel controls border crossings in and out of the occupied West Bank, it also dictates who is allowed to enter and exit Palestinian territory.
While the decision to use the law against Tlaib and Omar is being framed as unprecedented in international media, the truth is that Israel’s authoritarian leanings are all too common on the ground. Restrictions on the movement of U.S. lawmakers may be shocking, but it’s a daily reality for the 2 million Palestinians caged off in the Gaza strip. Publicly attacking members of Congress may make international headlines, but for some 5 million Palestinians living without political rights under Israel’s half-century-long occupation, it’s all too familiar — with no end in sight. And trying to hide, censor and lie about the brutal oppression of an entire people is a long-standing Israel strategy, not one invented to please Trump. The difference is whether Israel will get away with it this time as well, or whether there will finally be consequences from such a high-profile move.
Israel’s record of killing or injuring Palestinians with impunity, systematically taking over their land and controlling the lives of millions through an arbitrary system of permits — while claiming that all this is “legal” and democratic — is part of the infamous status quo. So is its habit of attacking and trying to ban those who criticize its behavior. And U.S. foreign policy in the face of these injustices has vacillated between disastrous and naive, acting as the cornerstone that enables Israel and provides it with almost blanket impunity.
Given this legacy, the only novelty is the courage of American elected officials — including Tlaib, Omar and others — to see this injustice for what it truly is and demand fundamental change. We don’t need more “expressions of concern,” the international diplomacy version of toothless “thoughts and prayers.” Instead, there needs to be an understanding that Israel is unlikely to consider Palestinian rights, freedom or dignity with any degree of seriousness unless a sufficiently significant self-interest reason presents itself internationally — and the United States is clearly the country with the most leverage to, at long last, tip the scales.
At a time when American “leadership” is more and more about naked force, Tlaib and Omar’s support for Palestinian rights reminds us what America can, and should, stand up for. And when Israeli strategy is increasingly associated with rising ultra-nationalist powers around the world, the decision to ban Tlaib and Omar’s entry proves once again how undemocratic Israel truly is. Today, we are reminded that if we wish to truly share in the values of human rights and democracy, these cannot be treated as empty slogans. They need to be fought for, together, with conviction — whether in Washington, Jerusalem or Beit Ur al-Fauqa.