Jerusalem, Aug 16 (AP/UNB) — With a push from President Donald Trump, Israel on Thursday barred two Muslim-American congresswomen from entering the country for a visit, an extraordinary step bringing the longtime U.S. ally into Trump's domestic fight against political rivals at home.
The U.S. president is essentially relying on Israel to retaliate against two freshman lawmakers, Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who are both outspoken critics of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. They are also part of the "squad" of liberal newcomers -- all women of color -- whom Trump has labeled the face of the Democratic Party as he runs for reelection.
It's a glaring departure from the tradition of American politicians leaving domestic disputes at the water's edge.
For Israel, the willingness to side so pointedly with Trump marks a deeper foray into America's bitterly polarized politics and risks its relationship with Congress. Blocking the visits of two lawmakers appears to be unprecedented.
Israel announced the ban shortly after Trump tweeted that "it would show great weakness" if the two were allowed to visit. Asked later if he had spoken to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said, "I did talk to people over there," but he declined to say to whom.
In Israel, Netanyahu said his country remains "open to critics and criticism," except for those who advocate boycotts against it. The congresswomen support a Palestinian-led boycott and divestment movement.
Netanyahu said Tlaib and Omar were leaders in promoting boycott legislation and their itinerary "revealed that they planned a visit whose sole objective is to strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel's legitimacy."
Democrats in Congress denounced his move as a reversal of previous assurances by the Israeli ambassador to the United States that, "out of respect for the U.S. Congress," no lawmakers would be denied entry.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the snub "beneath the dignity of the great State of Israel." The California Democrat, long a supporter of Israel, called the decision "deeply disappointing."
Shortly before the decision was announced, Trump said the congresswomen "hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds." He called them "a disgrace," an insult he has used repeatedly for them.
Top ranking Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York said Israel's action was a sign of weakness instead of strength — the reverse of Trump's judgment — and "will only hurt the U.S.-Israeli relationship and support for Israel in America."
Trump's GOP allies in Congress were more muted, with few raising objections. Republicans have joined the president in trying to stamp Omar, Tlaib and other members of the "squad" of four new, liberal lawmakers as the heart of the Democratic Party.
The influential pro-Israel American lobby group, AIPAC, suggested the action Thursday was a step too far.
"We disagree with Reps. Omar and Tlaib's support for the anti-Israel and anti-peace BDS movement, along with Rep. Tlaib's calls for a one-state solution," AIPAC said on Twitter. "We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand."
The two lawmakers had planned to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank on a tour organized by a Palestinian organization aimed at highlighting the plight of the Palestinians. It was not immediately clear if they had planned to meet with Israeli officials, and spokespeople.
Omar denounced the decision as "an affront" and "an insult to democratic values."
"This is not a surprise given the public positions of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has consistently resisted peace efforts, restricted the freedom of movement of Palestinians, limited public knowledge of the brutal realities of the occupation and aligned himself with Islamophobes like Donald Trump," she said in a statement.
Tlaib, whose family immigrated to the United States from the West Bank, where she still has close relatives, tweeted a photo of her grandmother and said she has the right to live "in peace & with human dignity."
Israel said it would consider any request from Tlaib to visit relatives on humanitarian grounds.
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.
Blocking them is the latest escalation of Israel's campaign against the BDS movement, which advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israeli businesses, universities and cultural institutions.
Supporters of the boycott movement say it is a non-violent way to protest Israeli policies and call for Palestinian rights. Critics say the effort aims to delegitimize Israel and ultimately erase it from the map, replacing it with a binational state.
The controversy 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. The Democratic-led House voted overwhelmingly in July in favor of a resolution against the BDS movement.
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. The Palestinians seek these territories for a future state.
MIFTAH, the Palestinian organization that was 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."
Tlaib and Omar have been the target of repeated verbal attacks by Trump, including a series of tweets 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 U.S.
Madrid, Aug 16 (AP/UNB) — The State Department says it will revoke U.S. visas for crew members on an Iranian oil tanker that was seized by authorities in Gibraltar for sanctions violations but released Thursday.
The department says in a statement it intends to fully enforce all U.S. sanctions related to Iranian oil exports despite the decision by Gibraltar to allow the ship to leave. The Grace I was seized last month on suspicion of transporting Iranian oil to Syria in violation of European sanctions. Such deliveries are also barred by U.S. sanctions.
Gibraltar freed the ship after Iran promised the oil won't be sent to Syria.
The State Department also says the ship was assisting Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps in evading sanctions. The Corps is designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S.
Britain's Foreign Office has warned Iran to abide by the assurances it provided to the government of Gibraltar that led to the release of a detained Iranian supertanker.
In a statement hours after a Gibraltar court released the Grace I, U.K. authorities insisted they would not allow Iran or anyone else to bypass European Union sanctions meant to punish Syria for using chemical weapons against its own people.
But the U.K. also insisted that there should be "no comparison or linkage" between the enforcement of sanctions and "Iran's unacceptable and illegal seizure of, and attacks on, commercial shipping vessels in the Strait of Hormuz."
Britain wants Iran to release the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which was seized by the Islamic Republic after British Marines took over the Grace I.
Iran's foreign minister is accusing the U.S. of trying to "steal our property on the high seas" after an American request to seize an Iranian oil tanker.
Mohammad Javad Zarif made the comment in a tweet Thursday night, immediately after a Gibraltar court said it would allow the Grace 1 to leave the British territory.
Zarif wrote: "Having failed to accomplish its objectives through its #EconomicTerrorism —including depriving cancer patients of medicine — the US attempted to abuse the legal system to steal our property on the high seas."
Zarif added: "This piracy attempt is indicative of Trump (administration's) contempt for the law."
The Grace 1, carrying 2.1 million barrels of Iranian crude, was seized last month in a British Royal Navy operation off Gibraltar. The vessel was suspected of violating European Union sanctions on Syria.
A newspaper in Gibraltar says authorities have released an Iranian supertanker at the center of a standoff with Tehran that the U.S. had sought to seize through legal action.
The Supreme Court in Gibraltar had delayed a decision to release the ship after the U.S. Department of Justice made a last-minute application to extend the vessel's detention, the Gibraltar government said earlier on Thursday. Gibraltar is a British overseas territory linked by a narrow stretch of land to southern Spain.
But the Gibraltar Chronicle reports there was no U.S. application before the court when the hearing resumed on Thursday afternoon. The newspaper quoted the court's chief justice, Anthony Dudley.
The Grace 1, carrying 2.1 million barrels of Iranian crude, was seized on July 4 in a British Royal Navy operation off Gibraltar. The vessel was suspected of violating European Union sanctions on oil shipments to Syria.
A newspaper in Gibraltar says the United States has applied to seize an Iranian supertanker that authorities in the British overseas territory were seeking to release from detention.
The Gibraltar Chronicle says the development means a last minute application by the U.S. Department of Justice to extend the ship's detention prompted the Supreme Court to adjourn its decision until later Thursday.
The Justice Department didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
The tanker was seized last month in a British Royal Navy operation off Gibraltar. It's suspected of violating European Union sanctions on oil shipments to Syria, and its seizure deepened international tensions in the Persian Gulf.
The Gibraltar government says it is seeking to "de-escalate" the situation over the Grace 1.
Jerusalem, Aug 15 (AP/UNB) — Israel said Thursday that it will bar two Democratic congresswomen from entering the country ahead of a planned visit over their support for a Palestinian-led boycott movement, a decision announced shortly after President Donald Trump tweeted that it would "show great weakness" to allow them in.
The move to bar Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota from visiting the close American ally appeared to be unprecedented, and marked a deep foray by Israel into America's bitterly polarized politics. It is also a sharp escalation of Israel's campaign against the international boycott movement.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri issued a statement saying that after consultations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials he decided not to allow Tlaib and Omar to enter because of "their boycott activities against Israel."
The two newly-elected Muslim members of Congress are outspoken critics of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Tlaib's family immigrated to the United States from the West Bank. Deri said Israel would consider any request from Tlaib to visit relatives on humanitarian grounds.
Shortly before the decision was announced, Trump had tweeted that "it would show great weakness" if Israel allowed them to visit. "They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds." He went on to call the two congresswomen "a disgrace."
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."
Last month, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer had said Israel would not deny entry to any member of Congress.
The interior minister's statement said "the state of Israel respects the American Congress, in the framework of the close alliance between the two countries, but it's unacceptable to allow the entrance to the country of those who wish to harm the state of Israel, especially during their visit."
Supporters of the boycott movement say it is a non-violent way to protest Israeli policies and call for Palestinian rights. Critics say the movement aims to delegitimize Israel and ultimately erase it from the map, replacing it with a binational 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.
MIFTAH, the Palestinian organization 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."
It was not immediately clear if the two congresswomen had planned on meeting with Israeli officials during their visit. Their spokespeople did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The decision to ban the congresswomen could further sharpen divisions among U.S. 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 favor 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 Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
American Jewish organizations had objected to barring the two Democrats from entering the country. The American Jewish Congress said that despite Omar and Tlaib's planned "propaganda exercise," it believed that "the costs in the U.S. of barring the entry of two members of Congress may prove even higher than the alternative."
Politicians and former diplomats also spoke out against barring the congresswomen from visiting.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro wrote on Twitter that the decision to bar their entry "harms Israel's standing in the U.S., boosts BDS."
Israeli lawmaker Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List of Arab parties, criticized the move, writing that "Israel has always banned Palestinians from their land and separated us from other Palestinians, but this time the Palestinian is a U.S. Congresswoman."
Arthur Lenk, formerly Israel's ambassador to South Africa, said barring Omar and Tlaib "would be sinking us deeper into U.S. domestic political quagmire."
Sanaa, Aug 15 (AP/UNB) — Thousands of Yemenis rallied Thursday in the port city of Aden in support of southern separatists who seized the city from the country's internationally recognized government amid diplomatic efforts aimed at reinstating forces loyal to the Saudi-backed president.
Yemeni military officials said a Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates commission arrived Thursday in Aden to monitor the withdrawal of separatist forces from government headquarters and military camps seized last week from President Abel Rabbo Mansour Hadi's presidential guards after four days of fighting that left more than 70 people dead, including civilians.
Officials in Hadi's camp said that forces loyal to the so-called Southern Transitional Council, which represents the separatists, had withdrawn from the presidential palace. Yet, they still remain in key positions in Aden, which has served as the seat of Hadi's interim government since 2014.
Officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to brief the media.
Both the separatists and Hadi's government are allies within a Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting northern Yemen-based rebels, known as Houthis, since 2015.
The UAE is a key member of the coalition. However, it never threw its full support behind Hadi because of his ties to Yemen's Muslim Brotherhood group, a pan-Arab movement that many Arab countries, including UAE, consider to be a terrorist organization.
After the UAE-backed separatists seized control of Aden and kicked Hadi's forces out of their camps, the Saudi-led coalition ordered an immediate cease-fire and threatened to bomb the separatists if they did not return to positions they held before the fighting.
It also called for the separatist movement and Hadi's government to attend talks in Saudi Arabia without offering a date. The separatists said they would attend but they did not withdraw from the city and called on their supporters to take part in the protests Thursday.
Thousands of Yemenis had been bussed or driven by car from rural areas in southern Yemen to the rally in downtown Aden. They chanted "Oh Revolution of the South" and waved flags of the old state of South Yemen.
"(Hadi's forces) won't be able to come back again to the southern streets because we have suffered from them and their actions for many years. God willing, we will achieve victory," said Youssef al-Kaeity, a pro-Southern Transitional Council activist present at the rally.
Yemen was split into two countries during much of the Cold War before unifying in 1994.
Ahmed Omar Bin Farid, a senior STC leader, hailed the rally as "a new beginning" for the people in the south and an opportunity to restart U.N.- brokered negotiations to address their political grievances.
"This is a spontaneous outpouring by the people," Bin Farid wrote on Twitter. "These voices calling for inclusion in a political process and the legitimate demand of self-determination must be listened to."
Bin Farid also stressed the separatists' commitment to fight the Houthis alongside the Saudi-led coalition.
"We have been and will remain a close ally of (the Saudi-led) coalition and we always believe in the mission of thwarting the Iranian-Houthi project," Bin Farid wrote.
Madrid, Aug 15 (AP/UNB) — Gibraltar on Thursday allowed a detained Iranian supertanker to leave the British overseas territory after a last-minute U.S. attempt to seize the vessel, potentially defusing tensions between London and Tehran as a British-flagged tanker remains held by the Islamic Republic.
The release of the Grace 1 comes after the U.S. under President Donald Trump pulled out of Iran's nuclear deal with world powers over a year ago, setting in motion a growing confrontation between Tehran and the West over its atomic program. In past weeks, the Persian Gulf region has seen six attacks on oil tankers that the U.S. has blamed on Iran and the downing of a U.S. surveillance drone by Iranian forces. Iran has denied being behind the tanker attacks, though it has seized other tankers.
The Gibraltar Chronicle newspaper reported there was no U.S. application before the court when a hearing on the Grace 1 resumed Thursday afternoon, quoting the court's chief justice, Anthony Dudley. That allowed the ship to be freed.
That's a stark change from a morning hearing, which saw Gibraltar say the Justice Department sought to seize the vessel "on a number of allegations."
Dudley said that were it not for the U.S. move, "the ship would have sailed," the Chronicle reported.
The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Britain's Foreign Office said in a statement that the "investigations conducted around the Grace 1 are a matter for the government of Gibraltar" and that it couldn't comment further.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Downing Street office said Iran was discussed during the U.K. leader's meeting with Trump's national security adviser John Bolton earlier in the week, though no details were released on the talks.
The Grace 1, carrying 2.1 million barrels of Iranian crude, was seized last month in a British Royal Navy operation off Gibraltar. The vessel was suspected of violating European Union sanctions on Syria, namely its Banyas refinery, where the Grace 1's cargo was allegedly headed, according to authorities in Gibraltar. Iran called the seizure an "act of piracy."
Shortly after the detention of the Grace 1, Iran seized the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which remains held by the Islamic Republic. Analysts had said the release of the Grace 1 by Gibraltar could see the Stena Impero similarly released.
Signaling preparations for the expected release of the ship, the captain, an Indian national, and three officers of the Grace 1 were released from detention Thursday, the government said.
The whereabouts of the released crew, none of whom are Iranian, were not immediately known. The crew of the Grace 1 includes sailors from India, Pakistan and Ukraine, according to Iranian state television.
Beyond a few Gibraltar-flagged patrol boats, an Associated Press crew saw little security around the tanker on Thursday as speculation mounted over its impending release. A handful of men could be seen from a distance on the deck, some of them carrying binoculars and looking into the horizon.
This is the second time the Trump administration has moved to seize a ship in recent months. In May, the Justice Department announced that it had seized a North Korean cargo ship used to supply coal to the isolated nation in violation of international sanctions.
Tensions have escalated in the Persian Gulf region since Trump over a year ago unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. The decision stopped billions of dollars' worth of business deals, largely halted the sale of Iran's crude oil internationally and sharply depreciated Iran's currency, the rial.
In recent weeks, Iran has begun to step away from the nuclear deal by increasing its production and enrichment of uranium. It has threatened to take further steps in early September if Europe can't help it sell its oil abroad.
Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, said the U.S. request on the Grace 1 was based on its own imposed sanctions on Iran, and not the EU's sanctions on oil exports to Syria.
"Although the U.S. expects its European allies to abide by these sanctions, it is up to the Gibraltar authorities to assess the allegations presented by the U.S.," Khatib said.
Resolving the tanker dispute would help Prime Minister Johnson focus on domestic issues as he works to complete Britain's exit from the European Union and prepare for anticipated national elections over the next few months.
The U.S. has been asking its allies to take part in a naval mission to protect shipping in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, at the Mouth of the Persian Gulf, though European nations have been reluctant.
Britain has so far been the only one to express willingness to join a maritime security mission. It has also been giving U.K.-flagged vessels a naval escort since the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's seizure of the Stena Impero.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Jill Lawless and Danica Kirka in London, Eric Tucker in Washington and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.