When the ‘squad’ goes to occupied Palestine

Tlaib and Omar are shunning propaganda trips to Israel and organising their own visit to occupied Palestine.

Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar have announced that they intend to travel to occupied Palestine in August [File: AP]

Following President Donald Trump‘s racist suggestion that they should “go back” to “the broken and crime infested” places that they came from, one of the four freshman democratic congresswomen of colour, known widely as “the squad”, is planning to pay an official visit to her ancestral homeland. 

Rashida Tlaib, a Detroit native born to a family of Palestinian immigrants, is expected to visit the occupied Palestinian territories in the coming weeks. 

It is pretty common for freshman members of the US Congress – Democratic and Republican – to visit Israel. Usually, the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC organises and sponsors these visits to make sure US representatives start their tenure with a positive perception of Israel and view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an Israeli perspective.

During these luxurious and entertaining trips, US representatives visit the tourist attractions and sacred sites of Jerusalem, meet Israeli leaders, soldiers and settlers, and listen to the Israeli authorities’ complaints about the so-called “security threats” posed by the Palestinians. Throughout their time in Israel, these representatives rarely get to hear any Palestinian voices or witness the devastation caused by Israel’s unlawful occupation.

Of course, Tlaib’s visit, which she plans for August together with her fellow “squad” member Ilhan Omar and other US officials, is going to be significantly different from these AIPAC-organised visits. First, they may not even be allowed to travel to the occupied Palestinian territories; this is because as supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, they could be barred by the Israeli government from entering Israel and occupied Palestine.  

If they are allowed in, Tlaib and Omar will likely meet up with Palestinian leaders, civil society activists and human rights defenders and learn about the Palestinian people’s ongoing struggles. During these meetings, they will likely hear how most Palestinians view the two-state-solution as a joke and hold no hopes for it to deliver the “viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent’ Palestinian state that former President George W Bush promised it would back in 2008. And, as they plan to visit several different destinations within the occupied Palestinian territories, they will experience first-hand the difficulties of living a life governed by the whims of the Israeli security apparatus.

Today, not only is the occupied West Bank totally inaccessible to Palestinians in Gaza and vice versa, but Jerusalem and its holy places are also impossible to get to for most Palestinians, regardless of where they are based.

Travelling within the West Bank is also not a simple affair. Illegal settlements – which are home to more than 600,000 Israelis – and the roads connecting them, which Palestinians are not allowed to travel on, cut through the occupied Palestinian territories, turning them into a maze of inaccessible areas.

If Tlaib wants to visit her grandmother during her visit, for example, she will have a difficult time doing so. 

Her grandmother, who she warmly refers to as her “siti” in many of her talks and tweets, lives in the West Bank village of Beir Ur, three kilometres west of Ramallah and surrounded by illegal Jewish settlements. To get there, visitors who do not hold Israeli passports are forced to go through checkpoints, diversions, tunnels and a complicated, badly maintained road system.

The main highway, known as route 443, which connects Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to the village, is inaccessible to most Palestinians because it can only be used by Israeli citizens, residents and settlers driving vehicles with Israeli licence plates. Palestinians are forced to use heavily monitored and poorly maintained secondary roads that significantly increase the length of their journey.

If Tlaib, Omar and others do make it to the village, they would witness the stark reality of Israeli occupation. 

In the early 1990s, the Oslo Accords divided the occupied Palestinian territories into three types of areas. The highly populated cities in which most of the Palestinian population of the West Bank resides were included in Area A and put under the complete administrative and security control of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Other, smaller, towns and villages were placed in Area B and put under the administrative control of the PA, but security control of the Israeli military. The remaining areas, which constitute over 60 percent of the West Bank, were designated as Area C and put under complete security and administrative control of Israel.

The village of Beit Ur falls within the last two categories (12.1 percent of the village is considered Area B, while the remaining 87.9 percent is designated Area C. Israel also confiscated 213 acres of land from the village to construct the Israeli settlement of Beit Horon and, as a result, Israel has near-complete control over the movements of its residents.

Residents of Beit Ur do not even have direct access to their local school. Beit Ur al-Fuqa High School, which is attended by some 200 Palestinian students, is surrounded by Israel’s illegal “security wall” on three sides. The school’s fourth and only side not enclosed by the concrete wall is blocked by a road built exclusively for Israeli settlers. As a result, students are forced to use a four-kilometre route that runs alongside the security wall to reach their school. During their 40-minute journey, the students walk through dangerous sewage channels and endure harassment by Israeli soldiers and armed settlers.

Tlaib and Omar’s trip to occupied Palestine will highlight these and other horrendous realities of the Israeli occupation. The two congresswomen alone cannot “fix” the many problems Palestine faces, but they can help raise awareness of the crimes Israel is perpetrating on a daily basis. 

Amid the ongoing aggressive efforts to impose on the Palestinians an unfair deal eliminating the right of return for refugees and quashing their hopes for statehood, a visit by Tlaib and Omar will indeed be a breath of fresh area and a reassurance that the world has not abandoned us. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.