U.S. Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress who expressed support for the BDS movement, were barred from entering Israel Thursday, said an announcement by Aryeh Deri and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu .
Netanyahu said: "As a vibrant and free democracy, Israel is open to every critic and criticism, with one exception: Israeli law prohibits the entry of people who call for and carry out a boycott of Israel, as is the case with other democracies that prevent the entry of people whoas positions harm that country. This is how the U.S. acted towards an Israeli Knesset member and other public figures in the world."
Netanyahu added that, “Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar are leading activities to promote boycott legislation against Israel in the U.S. Congress. Only a few days ago, we received their visitation plan, which showed they were planning a campaign whose sole purpose is to strengthen the boycott and deny Israel's legitimacy. They said their destination was ‘Palestine’ and not ‘Israel,’ and unlike all Democratic and Republican congressmen to this day, refrained from seeking a meeting with any Israeli official either in the government or the opposition. "
The prime minister said that the trip was funded by an organisation that backs BDS and whose supporters also are in favour of terrorism.
“The interior minister decided not to allow their visit, and I as prime minister support his decision,” Netanyahu added.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said in a statement that "we are talking about people who use the stage that they get to support the BDS and call for a boycott against Israel. Israel respects the American Congress as part of the strong alliance between the two countries, but it is unheard of that we will allow those who wish to harm the state of Israel in, even for a visit."
Deri said however that if Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent, requested permission to enter Israel on humanitarian grounds in order to have a private meeting with her family in the West Bank, he would give it “due consideration.”
U.S. President Donald Trump urged Israel earlier Thursday not to allow the visit, and said Israel "would show great weakness" to allow them in.
The pair have voiced support for the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Under Israeli law, backers of the BDS movement can be denied entry to Israel.
Trump has vented in recent months against Omar, Tlaib and two other Democratic congresswomen of colour, accusing them of hostility to Israel in what has widely been seen as a drumming up of Republican votes for his 2020 reelection bid.
"It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep.Tlaib to visit," he tweeted on Thursday. "They are a disgrace!"
No date had been formally announced for the congresswomen's trip, but sources familiar with the planned visit said it could begin at the weekend.
Israel's ambassador in the United States, Ron Dermer, said last month Tlaib and Omar would be let in, out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Political commentators said a reversal of Israel's original intention to approve the legislators' entry likely stemmed from a desire to mirror Trump's hard line against them.
An Israeli official said earlier on Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior members of his cabinet held consultations on Wednesday on a "final decision" about the visit.
Denying entry to elected U.S. officials could further strain relations between Netanyahu, who has highlighted his close ties with Trump in his current re-election campaign, and the Democratic leadership in Congress.
A planned tour by the two lawmakers of the holy compound in Jerusalem that houses al-Aqsa mosque, and which is revered by Jews as the site of two biblical Jewish temples, turned into an issue of contention, according to sources familiar with preparations for the visit.
The flashpoint site is in an East Jerusalem area that Israel captured along with the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally.
An official in Israel's internal security ministry said any visit by Tlaib and Omar to the complex, revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount, would require Israeli security protection.
Violence erupted there on Sunday between Israeli police and Palestinians amid tensions over visits by Jewish pilgrims on a day when the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha and the Jewish fast day of Tisha B'Av overlapped.
Tlaib, 43, who was born in the United States, draws her roots to the Palestinian village of Beit Ur Al-Fauqa in the West Bank. Her grandmother and extended family live in the village.
Omar, who immigrated to the United States from Somalia as a child, represents Minnesota's fifth congressional district.
In February, Omar, 37, apologized after Democratic leaders condemned remarks she made about the pro-Israel lobby in the United States as using anti-Semitic stereotypes.