U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar blasted Israel's travel policies and treatment of Palestinians as undemocratic and unjust on Monday, days after the Minnesota Democrat and fellow U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib were denied entry into the country over their support of a boycott movement.
Speaking at a packed news conference in the State Capitol, a defiant Omar vowed to continue to "highlight the human cost" of Israel's policies. The freshman lawmaker sharply condemned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump for their opposition to the trip.
"We cannot let Trump and Netanyahu succeed in hiding the cruel reality of the occupation from us," said Omar, who was joined at the event by local activists and Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat. "The occupation is real. Barring members of Congress from seeing it does not make it go away."
The two congresswomen were set to travel to Israel over the weekend, Omar said, to "hear from individuals on the ground about the conflict so I could be more informed as a member of Congress."
Israeli officials had initially signaled that they would allow the visit to proceed, despite a recent law permitting them to bar individuals who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement backed by supporters of Palestinian rights.
But last week, following a tweet by Trump that criticized that decision, Netanyahu reversed course. In a statement, the prime minister called Omar and Tlaib "leading activists in promoting the legislation of boycotts against Israel in the American Congress."
Netanyahu said their itinerary — which reportedly listed the destination as Palestine, not Israel — "revealed that they planned a visit whose sole objective is to strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel's legitimacy." In a tweet, Netanyahu's office said the congresswomen did not request meetings with Israeli officials.
Omar says those claims are false. She laid out the trip's planned itinerary in a series of tweets, saying they intended to meet with Arab and Jewish members of parliament, Israeli military veterans and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, in addition to visiting occupied territories.
The trip was organized by Miftah, a nonprofit that describes its goal as seeking to "contribute to the building of a democratic State of Palestine."
Omar criticized Israel's actions as undemocratic and blasted the Trump administration's comments urging Israeli officials to block their entry.
"People feel that when you are a United States citizen ... that your president, your ambassadors, your State Department works in your behalf. They defend you and fight for your right to freedom of speech, to freedom of movement," she said.
"To have an administration and a president and an ambassador that is not doing that puts fear in many people's hearts. They can't trust that if they found themselves abroad ... that their country would fight for them."
Some critics have raised concerns and pointed to reports of anti-Semitic statements and actions by trip organizer Miftah, which is led by a former Palestinian lawmaker.
Tlaib said that while she was "taken aback" by some of those allegations, the group was vetted carefully and had organized congressional delegations to Israel in the past. She dismissed the criticisms as a distraction.
The move to cancel the trip was met with backlash from many staunch supporters of Israel, including lawmakers from both parties. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the decision "deeply disappointing." AIPAC, the influential pro-Israel lobbying organization, said in a tweet that while it disagreed with the congresswomen's position, it believed that "every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand."
Omar said Monday that she had met with constituents from the Jewish community ahead of the trip and heard "overwhelming outcry and condemnation" of actions taken by the Netanyahu administration and Trump. She noted that many Jewish leaders and organizations in her district have issued statements of support.
"This is not an issue where there are some people who agree with this action that is being taken," Omar said.
But some advocates within the Jewish community who had come to the congresswomen's defense on the trip took issue with how they depicted Israel's policies during the news conference.
"We hope the congresswomen will have the opportunity to visit Israel and deepen their understanding of the collective Israeli experience," Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota, said in a statement. "However, their one-sided portrayal of Israel does not advance the cause of peace and reconciliation."
The Trump administration, meanwhile, renewed its criticism of the two Democrats in a statement issued Monday.
"Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar have a well-documented history of anti-Semitic comments, anti-Semitic social media posts and anti-Semitic relationships," White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said. "Israel has the right to prevent people who want to destroy it from entering the country — and Democrats' pointless Congressional inquiries here in America cannot change the laws Israel has passed to protect itself."
Omar and Tlaib, the first Muslim women to serve in Congress, were joined at Monday's news conference by Minnesotans who have been affected by Israel's travel policies.
Lana Barkawi, who is Palestinian-American, recounted the sorrow she felt as a teen when she was unable to visit her family's hometown. Minneapolis resident Amber Harris, who is Jewish, recounted through tears the travel challenges and limitations she faced after marrying her husband, who is Palestinian.
Tlaib, too, choked up as she discussed her own decision to reject Israel's follow-up offer to let her enter Palestinian territory to visit her grandmother on humanitarian grounds, providing she agreed to certain conditions.
Omar said Monday that those stories motivate her to keep fighting.
"There is no way that we are ever, ever going to allow people to tear us down, to see us cry out of pain, to ever make us feel like our certificate is less than theirs," Omar said. "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."