Israel has barred two U.S. Congresswomen from entering the country on a planned visit because of their support for a Palestinian-led boycott movement.
The move to prohibit Democrat Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota appeared to be unprecedented and followed public pressure from President Donald Trump who tweeted that it would "show great weakness" to allow them in.
It marked a deep foray by Israel into America's bitterly polarised politics and a sharp escalation of Israel's campaign against the international boycott movement.
The two Muslim members of Congress are outspoken critics of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and have repeatedly clashed with Trump. Tlaib's family immigrated to the United States from the West Bank, where she still has close relatives.
They had planned to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank on a tour organised by a Palestinian organization aimed at highlighting the plight of the Palestinians.
'Open to critics'
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is "open to critics and criticism," except for those who advocate boycotts against it.
"Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar are leading activists in promoting the legislation of boycotts against Israel in the American Congress," Netanyahu charged. He said their itinerary "revealed that they planned a visit whose sole objective is to strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel's legitimacy."
The U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, endorsed the decision after it was made, saying Israel "has every right to protect its borders" against promoters of boycotts "in the same manner as it would bar entrants with more conventional weapons."
Trump's decision to urge a foreign country to deny entry to elected U.S. officials was a striking departure from the long-held practice of politicians from both parties of leaving their disputes at the water's edge.
Israel has sought to combat the BDS movement, which advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israeli businesses, universities and cultural institutions. The country passed a law permitting a ban on entry to any activist who "knowingly issues a call for boycotting Israel."
Supporters of the boycott movement say it is a non-violent way to protest Israeli policies and call for Palestinian rights. Critics say the boycott movement aims to delegitimise Israel and ultimately erase it from the map, replacing it with a bi-national state.
Israel often hosts delegations of U.S. representatives and senators, who usually meet with senior Israeli officials as well as Palestinian officials in the occupied West Bank. Israel controls entry and exit points to the West Bank, which it seized along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek these territories for their future state.
MIFTAH, the Palestinian organisation that was set to host Tlaib and Omar in the West Bank, issued a statement saying that Israel's decision was "an affront to the American people and their representatives" and "an assault on the Palestinian people's right to reach out to decision-makers and other actors from around the world."
The move could further sharpen divisions among Democrats over Israel ahead of the 2020 elections. Republicans have amplified the views of left-wing Democrats like Tlaib and Omar to present the party as deeply divided and at odds with Israel. Democratic leaders have pushed back, reiterating the party's strong support for Israel, in part to protect representatives from more conservative districts.
In July, the Democratic-led House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution against the BDS movement.
Tlaib and Omar have also been the target of repeated attacks by President Donald Trump in recent months, including a series of racist tweets on July 14 in which he said they should "go back" to the "broken" countries they came from. Both are U.S. citizens and Tlaib was born in the United States. The two are members of the so-called "Squad" of newly-elected left-wing Democrats, along with Pressley and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
Dan Shapiro, U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama, said that he knew of "no such precedent" for Israel barring an elected American official from entering the country, calling the decision "short-sighted."
Watch NBC's correspondent, Peter Alexander's report on this story in the video above.