Israel said Thursday it will bar a planned visit by two US Muslim congresswomen who have supported a boycott of the country over its treatment of the Palestinians, a decision strongly encouraged by President Donald Trump.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the highly unusual move against Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib necessary, charging that their "sole purpose is to harm Israel and increase incitement against it".
US politicians called on Israel to reconsider, while senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi labelled it "an outrageous act of hostility against the American people and their representatives".
Omar said it was a "chilling" decision and an "insult to democratic values."
Omar and Tlaib, who is of Palestinian origin, were expected to arrive in Israel at the weekend for a visit that would have taken them to the Palestinian territories.
Before Israel announced its decision, relatives of Tlaib in the family's village of Beit Ur Al-Foqa in the occupied West Bank had been excited about her planned visit.
"We are preparing a party for her" and her fellow congresswoman, said Tlaib's 85-year-old grandmother, Muftia Tlaib, in the yard of the family's stone home surrounded by olive trees.
Israeli officials said they would consider a separate humanitarian request from Tlaib to visit her family, a trip for which she would have to pass through Israel.
Israel announced its decision shortly after Trump called on the country to bar the Democratic congresswomen.
"It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit," Trump wrote on Twitter.
He continued with typical bombast: "They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds... They are a disgrace!"
The US president told reporters later in the day the lawmakers had "said some of the worst things I've ever heard said about Israel. So how can Israel say: 'welcome'?"
Tlaib and Omar are outspoken critics of Trump, who has a close relationship with Netanyahu.
- 'Sign of weakness' -
Netanyahu alleged the itinerary of the congresswomen showed they intended to strengthen the boycott movement against Israel.
"As a vibrant and free democracy, Israel is open to any critic and criticism, with one exception," Netanyahu said.
"Israel's law prohibits the entry of people who call and act to boycott Israel, as is the case with other democracies that prevent the entry of people whom they see as harming the country."
In 2017, Israel passed a law banning entry to foreigners who support boycotting the country, in response to a movement that advocates such an embargo.
Israel sees the movement as a strategic threat and accuses it of anti-Semitism -- a claim activists deny.
Both Omar and Tlaib have been critical of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and treatment of Palestinians.
The Democrats have also faced accusations of anti-Semitism, which they firmly deny.
Israel's ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, had previously signalled the two would be allowed to visit out of respect for Washington, Israel's most important ally.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, called Israel's denial of entry to the two congresswomen "a sign of weakness, and beneath the dignity of the great State of Israel".
She called the move a "sad reversal" of the position earlier set out by Dermer and "deeply disappointing".
Elizabeth Warren, a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, said: "Israel doesn't advance its case as a tolerant democracy... by barring elected members of Congress from visiting".
The two congresswomen, along with two other progressive congressional allies, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley -- known collectively as "The Squad," have been in Trump's crosshairs.
He has taken aim at all four in a series of xenophobic comments, telling them to "go back" where they came from and accusing them of "love" for America's "enemies like Al-Qaeda".
Tlaib and Omar, who fled war-torn Somalia as a child and arrived in the US as a refugee, are the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.
Tlaib is also the first woman of Palestinian descent in Congress.
Members of Congress are regular visitors to Israel and the Palestinian territories and blocking them is highly unusual.
It comes at a time when Jewish groups in the US have expressed concern over whether bipartisan support for Israel in Washington is eroding.
Democratic candidates for president in the US have openly criticised Netanyahu, who is seeking re-election in Israel on September 17 after polls earlier this year failed to yield a coalition.
Influential US pro-Israel lobby AIPAC said it disagreed with the views of the congresswomen, but opposed the decision to bar them.
Democratic Representatives Ilhan Omar (L) and Rashida Tlaib, whom Israel has barred from visiting the Jewish state
Muftia Tlaib, maternal grandmother of US congresswoman Rashida Tliab, pictured outside her home in the village of Beit Ur al-Foqa, in the occupied West Bank
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the two congresswomen intend "to harm Israel and increase incitement"