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Congresswoman Omar urges US to put conditions on aid to Israel

US aid to Israel should be dependent on ending settlement expansion and respecting Palestinian rights, Ilhan Omar says
Omar and her colleague, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, were denied entry into Israel last week (AFP)

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has urged the United States to condition aid to Israel on the country ending the expansion of Jewish-only settlements and its rights abuses against Palestinians.

Omar's comments follow Israel's decision to bar her and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib from entering the occupied Palestinian territories, which they intended to visit on a congressional delegation.

"We must be asking - as Israel's ally - the Netanyahu government [to] stop the expansion of settlements on Palestinian land and ensure full rights for Palestinians if we are to give them aid," Omar said on Monday at a news conference in Minnesota, alongside Tlaib.

Both Omar and Tlaib - the first two Muslim women ever elected to Congress - condemned Israel's decision on 15 August to deny entry to their delegation.

The congresswomen had intended to visit Jerusalem and several sites in the occupied West Bank, and speak to a variety of groups and individuals documenting the Israeli occupation.

"The occupation is real. Barring members of Congress from seeing it does not make it go away," said Omar, who went on to question Israel's status as a true democracy and US ally.

"Denying visit to duly elected members of Congress is not consistent with being an ally," she said. 

'The occupation is real. Barring members of Congress from seeing it does not make it go away'

- Congresswoman Ilhan Omar

Following the delegation's entry denial, the Israeli government said Tlaib, who is Palestinian-American, could visit her relatives in the occupied West Bank on a humanitarian visa.

That visa was conditional on the Michigan lawmaker vowing to not take part in promoting boycotts of Israel during her stay.

Tlaib at first agreed and requested the humanitarian visa, writing a letter to Israel's Ministry of Interior in which she promised to "respect any restrictions" and to "not promote boycotts against Israel". 

But after she was granted the visa, she turned it down.

On Monday, Tlaib said she regretted ever sending the humanitarian visa request in the first place. "It is something that I struggled with," she said.

She added that "all of us Americans should be deeply disturbed" by Israel's actions.

'Not the only ones'

Much of the news conference aimed at highlighting Israel's general policy of denying entry to critics of the country and Palestinian descendants everywhere.

Israel's banning of Tlaib is nothing new, say Palestinian-Americans
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"My colleagues and I are not the only ones who are being denied the right to see for ourselves the reality on the ground in the West Bank," Omar said.

She pointed out that many others, including Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), are currently fighting their own battles for the right to enter or stay in Israel. 

Also at the conference with Tlaib and Omar were four activists from Minnesota, including Palestinian-American Lana Barkawi, the executive and artistic director of Mizna, a cultural group that sponsors the annual Twin Cities Arab Film Fest.

"Palestine is a home I have never seen, and one that I long to see," Barkawi told the crowd.  

Tlaib also fought back tears as she shared stories of how the Israeli occupation has affected her family. 

She said she remembered how, as a child, she watched her parents being stopped and humiliated at Israeli checkpoints despite holding US citizenship.

Many of the speakers struggled to speak through tears, but Omar urged them not to give their critics the satisfaction.

"We are going to hold our head up high and we are going to fight this administration and the oppressive Netanyahu administration until we take our last breath," Omar said.