When Israel decided to ban entry to US Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar in August 2019, it created a political buzz across the United States. In Palestine, it was barely met with a shrug. In fact, those who were on Tlaib and Omar’s busy meeting agenda, including the authors of this piece, had already prepared contingency plans in the event that the US representatives were detained at Ben Gurion airport and deported. While President Trump’s brazen urging of this ban and his politically opportunistic attacks on the only two Muslim women in Congress shocked and incensed mainstream liberals, Israel’s decision to bar Tlaib and Omar was historically consistent with its policies toward Palestinians and those who criticize Israeli policies.
Because President Trump and the white supremacists who exalt him like to hail Israel as a model of “European sovereignty,” the banning offers a necessary corrective to illusions that Israel is a beacon of democracy. Banning two democratically elected representatives of Israel’s closest ally makes clear that militarized nationalism, not democracy, prevails. This is a learning moment.
The first thing to learn is that Tlaib and Omar were planning to visit Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967. But the only way to any part of Palestine is through Israeli checkpoints and military posts. The fact that Israel could ban them from visiting illustrates the total lack of Palestinian sovereignty—not just over borders but over every inch of land in the occupied West Bank. Even Mahmoud Abbas, president of the non-sovereign Palestinian Authority, needs a permit from Israel to travel. It is for this reason exactly that the “peace process framework” is so absurd. While this framework suggests a degree of parity and a need for mutual compromise, the reality on the ground is hierarchical in the extreme. Overturning the hierarchy that keeps Palestinians subordinated and vulnerable to Israel necessitates political resistance and international accountability if freedom and peace are genuine goals.
In the face of public outcry over the banning, Israel conceded that Tlaib, a Palestinian American with family—including a sick, elderly grandmother—in the West Bank, could be permitted to visit on the condition that she agree to certain “restrictions” on her freedom of expression. This condition did not raise many eyebrows in Palestine. Rather, it exemplified Israel’s policies to entrench Jewish settler-sovereignty by means that include the perpetual exile of Palestinian refugees and the exclusion of all non-resident Palestinians from the territories controlled by Israel. Israel’s denial of Tlaib’s entry to visit her family in the centuries-old village of Beit Ur, now besieged by Israeli settlements and apartheid roads, is consistent with such policy.
The conditions imposed on Tlaib are also emblematic of Palestinian vulnerability. One of the most painful examples is that of Palestinians in Gaza who are diagnosed with cancer. To receive treatment, they must leave the besieged territory to enter Israel. To enter Israel, they need an Israeli permit—and as both Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations have reported, the Israeli military often resorts to blackmail and extortion, refusing to give these patients permits to go to a hospital unless they promise to surveil other Palestinians and transmit intelligence to Israeli agencies.
Israel’s message to Palestinians over the past seventy years is simple and consistent: despite your attachments to the land and claims to self-determination, you do not belong here. Should we allow you to stay, it is a matter of humanitarian exception, not a national right, and you must surrender your freedom and cease your resistance.
Israeli and US officials, including Ambassador David Friedman, have sought to frame Israel’s refusal of entry to Tlaib and Omar as a consequence of Israel’s 2017 law denying entry to adherents of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Yet the “BDS law” is only the most recent manifestation of Israeli techniques aimed at suppressing Palestinian in-gathering and national self-determination on their lands.
Israel was banning international representatives and witnesses long before there was a BDS law. A list of those banned include MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, Makarim Wibisono, a UN special rapporteur on human rights, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire who was deported by Israeli authorities in 2016 (she was seventy-two years old at the time).
Travelers who want to speak to Palestinians on the ground, as Tlaib and Omar planned to do, would find that Israel oversees a meticulous legal regime meant to center and serve a Jewish polity while devastating the Palestinian communities under its control and closing them off to any form of international solidarity. The real threat the congresswomen posed to Israel’s security was the potential to undercut the sway and believability of talking points that Israel is a liberal democratic state. In the United States, broad acceptance of these false claims continues to sustain a profoundly unjust status quo.
Yet despite the vast resources of Israel’s hasbara (propaganda) industry, its efforts to silence Palestinians and suborn solidarity have failed.
Global sympathy for the cause of Palestinian freedom has blossomed and alliances have deepened with peoples waging similar struggles from Puerto Rico to Kashmir as well as inside the United States among indigenous nations and African-Americans. In response, Israel has expanded its targeting from Palestinians to also include those standing by their side—including those who choose to come and bear witness, like Representative Omar.
This list of banned witnesses is expansive and growing. In response, Israel is exporting and exchanging tips about how to institute discrimination with various authoritarian and right-wing regimes like Modi’s India, Bolsinaro’s Brazil, and Trump’s United States in an effort to help normalize its racist policies and oppressive tactics on an international scale.
President Trump’s divisive and race-baiting politics, the wall he wants to build on the border with Mexico, ICE’s home-storming procedures, and the detention of children under horrendous circumstances are all tactics Israel has practiced and mastered for decades, with tacit American support. By funding Israel with billions of dollars annually, American taxpayers have underwritten a cynical form of politics and cruel forms of oppression that have become abundantly apparent in the jubilant alliance between Trump and Netanyahu.
Our hope is that the ban on Tlaib and Omar will provide a wakeup call—and that those who believe in freedom, justice, and dignity will recognize that, in the ever-resonant words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And it is our responsibility to unite in struggle globally, including in Palestine.