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US denies entry to Palestinian BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti

Palestinian rights leader had US visa that was valid until 2021
Barghouti was to take part in speaking events and attend his daughter's wedding during US trip (Courtesy of Omar Barghouti)

Palestinian human rights activist and co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement Omar Barghouti has been denied entry into the United States, despite having valid travel documents, the Arab-American Institute (AAI) said in a statement on Thursday.

The move was quickly denounced by rights groups as a violation of free speech by the administration of President Donald Trump.

On Thursday, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a Washington-based advocacy group, called the decision "another example of the Trump administration silencing Palestinian voices and those standing up for Palestinian Rights".

Barghouti was stopped at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv on Wednesday and told he would not be allowed to board his flight to the US, where he was expected to join a panel in Washington DC the following day. 

Barghouti instead joined the panel via a video conference call that was live-streamed on social media. During the panel, he called for taking Palestinian non-violent resistance to the "global scene" amid failure by the international community to uphold Palestinian rights.  

In an official statement released by the BDS movement, Barghouti said the ban was "ideologically and politically motivated". 

"Israel is not merely continuing its decades-old system of military occupation, apartheid and ethnic cleansing; it is increasingly outsourcing its outrageous, McCarthyite repression to the US and to xenophobic, far-right cohorts across the world," Barghouti said. 

Amid speculations that Barghouti was denied entry to the US because of his advocacy for Palestinian rights, Robert Palladino, a US State Department spokesperson said the US does not deny visas "based solely on political statements or views". 

Speaking to reporters at a news briefing on Thursday, Palladino declined to discuss the details of the Barghouti case, saying that individual visa applications are confidential. 

According to AAI, Barghouti had been in possession of a US visa valid through January 2021. But Palladino did not confirm if it had been revoked.

Barghouti has had difficulties with freedom of movement and travel in the past, but those were due to the Israeli government limiting his ability to exit and enter the country by not renewing his travel document.

In February, Amnesty International called on Israel to "end the arbitrary travel ban" on the human rights activist. 

Barghouti was not provided an explanation for his entry denial by the US beyond it being tied to an "immigration matter", AAI said.   

AAI President James Zogby called the denial a clearly "arbitrary political decision" that was "motivated by this administration’s effort to silence Palestinian voices".

"Omar Barghouti is a leading Palestinian voice on human rights," Zogby said in a statement.

"Omar’s denial of entry into the US is the latest example of the Trump Administration’s disregard for those rights. Having spent considerable time here as a student and while on speaking tours, Omar visiting America was never an issue before."

Attacks on BDS

In addition to the discussion in Washington, the rights activist was scheduled to participate in other events at NYU in New York City and Harvard University, and attend meetings with leading policymakers, activists and journalists.

In the same statement released by the BDS movement, Barghouti said he would not be silenced, as the rest of his planned event will go on as planned, "just with audiences seeing me on a screen, not in person". 

After his speaking tour, Barghouti was planning to attend his daughter’s wedding.

"One thing that this ban deprives me of and that I cannot compensate is the right to be at my US-based daughter’s wedding," Barghouti said. "I am hurt, but I am not deterred."

Denying entry to Barghouti is the latest attack on the BDS movement in the US. Over the past years, dozens of states have enacted laws that restrict companies and individuals from boycotting Israel.

The US Congress has also repeatedly condemned the movement, and earlier this year, the Senate passed a bill that encourages states to cut off businesses that boycott Israel. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has not yet taken up the legislation.

These measures have been decried by rights groups as a blatant violation of free speech.

"When you can't win the debate, you try to silence it," AAI executive director Maya Berry wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

For her part, Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, called the move "a shameful attempt to silence a crucial voice for Palestinian rights".

PEN America, a group that advocates for free speech, also condemned the decision, calling it a "violation of the basic principles of free expression and open discourse", which are protected by the US Constitution.

"The US government needs to explain immediately why Omar Barghouti was blocked today from travelling to the US," Summer Lopez, a director at Pen America, said in a statement.

"Preventing Mr Barghouti from travelling denies Americans the opportunity to hear, engage with, and challenge his views as they see fit."