US Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib doubled down on their criticisms of the Israeli government for denying them entry to the country, with Omar hinting that Congress should reconsider the billions of dollars in annual military aid given to Israel in light of the move against the democratic representatives.
The two congresswomen held a press conference on Monday in St. Paul, Minnesota, Omar’s home state, to formally address the Israeli government’s decision, which sparked nationwide outcry last week.
“All of America should be deeply distrubed,” Tlaib said, directly referencing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and US President Donald Trump, who vocally supported the barring of the congresswomen.
“The decision to ban me and my colleagues, the first two Muslim American women elected to congress is nothing more than an attempt by an ally of the United States to suppress our ability to do our jobs as elected officials,” Omar told a room of journalists and local Jewish and Palestinian-American activists.
During her remarks, Omar referenced the $3.8 billion dollars the US gives to Israel every year for military aid — something that some Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg have suggested leveraging against the Israeli government to pressure the latter to change its policies, specifically towards Palestinians.
“Fortunately, we the United States have a constructive role to play,” Omar said, as she went on to mention the military aid.
“This [aid] is predicated on their being an important ally in the region and the only democracy in the Middle East,” she continued, saying that denying visits to members of Congress “is not consistent with being an ally.”
“Any denying millions of people freedom of movement or expression or self-determination is not consistent with being a democracy.”
The issue was brought up again by Omar later in the conference, when she said:
“It is my belief that as legislators, we have an obligation to see the reality there for ourselves. 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.”
Throughout their remarks and the subsequent testimonies of their Palestinian and Jewish constituents, both Tlaib and Omar were brought to tears, with the former sharing a more personal side of the issue, recounting stories of traveling to the occupied West Bank to visit family as a young girl.
“I watched as my mother had to go through dehumanizing checkpoints,” Tlaib told the crowd as her voice cracked, “even though she was a United States Citizen and proud American.”
“I remember shaking with fear when checkpoints appeared in our small village, tanks and guns everywhere,” she said.
When asked why Tlaib declined an offer by the Israeli government to visit her grandmother on a highly restrictive “humanitarian” trip, she told journalists she came to the decision after a long conversation with her family in the West Bank.
“My grandmother said, I am her dream manifested. I am her free bird,” Tlaib said fighting back tears. “So why would I go back to being caged?”
.@IlhanMN: "What I tell @RashidaTlaib all the time is, you don't ever allow people to enjoy your tears. There are so many people invested in our pain, in our struggle, in seeing us broken"… this is phenomenal pic.twitter.com/GrXy0eAAfd
— Michael Bueckert (@mbueckert) August 19, 2019
The pair also addressed the public attacks on MIFTAH, the Palestinian NGO that was sponsoring the trip, which pro-Israel and right-wing voices in the US have alleged is a “terror-linked group.”
Tlaib told reporters that herself and Omar that the decision to work with MIFTAH was based on the fact that other congressional members had taken trips, similar to the one they had planned, to the occupied West Bank under the sponsorship of MIFTAH.
“We were as taken aback as you are that people are now questioning that,” Tlaib told journalists, saying that the attacks on MIFTAH were “just distractions.”
“I think the focus is hiding the truth, hiding that the occupation is happening,” she continued. “Us setting foot there would basically bring attention to something many of us feel is very much against international human rights.”
“We cannot let Trump and Netanyahu succeed in hiding the cruel reality of the occupation from us,” Omar said.
“I call on all of you to go. The occupation is real. Barring members of Congress from seeing it does not make it go away.”
Michael Arria contributed to this report.