“We give Israel more than $3 [billion] in aid every year. This is predicated on them being an important ally in the region and the only democracy in the Middle East,” said Omar (D-Minn.). “But denying a visit to duly elected members of Congress is not consistent with being an ally, and denying millions of people freedom of movement or expression or self-determination is not consistent with being a democracy.”
She added: “We must be asking, as Israel’s ally, that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s government stop the expansion of settlements on Palestinian lands and ensure full rights for Palestinians if we are to give them aid.”
Tlaib, speaking at times through tears, took a more personal approach, expressing remorse about not being able to visit her grandmother who lives in the West Bank. After Israel blocked their official visit, Tlaib (D-Mich.), a Palestinian American, made an appeal to Israel officials to allow her to visit her relatives.
Israeli officials agreed, but would have required her to sign a promise restricting her speech and her movement. Tlaib ultimately declined to go.
“My grandmother said … I’m her bird. She said I’m her dream manifested,” Tlaib said, her voice growing angry as she started to cry. “I’m her free bird, so why would I come back and be caged and bow down when my election rose her head up high, gave her dignity for the first time?”
Netanyahu blocked Tlaib and Omar from visiting his country on Thursday, a move made at President Trump’s urging. Trump, who has targeted the women repeatedly on Twitter, tweeted that approving the visit would “show great weakness” on Israel’s part and said Omar and Tlaib “hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds.”
Both women have long been fierce critics of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians. They support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a global protest of Israel known as BDS. Israeli law bars visitors who support the boycott from entering, one of the prime reasons Israeli officials cited for stopping the two congresswomen from visiting the nation and neighboring Palestinian territories to learn about settlement expansion and humanitarian conditions.
Israel’s unprecedented move followed a frantic 24-hour lobbying session on the part of Democratic leaders and other strong supporters of Israel in the House, including Jewish lawmakers who do not agree with Tlaib’s and Omar’s positions on Israel. They urged Israeli leaders to embrace the duo’s visit to build understanding and argued that barring them from Israel would only embolden the BDS movement and critics of the Middle Eastern nation.
Since then, Democrats have also criticized Israeli leaders for requiring that Tlaib sign a memorandum restricting her comments and movements while visiting her grandmother in the West Bank.
During the news conference, Omar and Tlaib invited four women speak about their own struggles with the Israeli government and in visiting family who lived there. They struck a note of defiance against Trump and Netanyahu.
“There are so many people invested in our pain and seeing us broken,” Omar said, later adding. “We are going to hold our head up high.”
Omar in her opening remarks argued that the situation wasn’t unique to them but “this is the policy of [Netanyahu’s] government when it comes to anyone who holds views that threaten the occupation.”
“The only way to preserve this unjust policy is to suppress people’s freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of movement,” she said. “We have a responsibility to conduct oversight over our government’s foreign policy and what happens with the millions of dollars we send in aid, so I would encourage my colleagues to visit, meet with the people we were going to meet, see the things we were going to see and hear the stories we were going to hear.”
Tlaib used her time to highlight what she called degrading situations she and her family had endured, including her mother’s treatment going through checkpoints, begging to be given access to “the best hospitals, which were in Jerusalem” when her grandmother was in a car accident and seeing tanks and guns on street corners.
“All I can do as her granddaughter is help humanize her and the Palestinians’ plight,” she said.