Tunisia ministers grilled over Israeli tourists’ visit
Tunisian members of parliament react in the Tunisian Constituent Assembly after they were accused of allowing the entry of Israeli tourists in Tunisia - AFP/Fethi Belaid

TUNIS: Tunisia’s Islamist-dominated parliament on Friday questioned two ministers accused of promoting “normalization” with Israel, after Israeli tourists were controversially allowed into the North African country, which does not recognize the Jewish state.

A motion of censure was filed late last month against Tourism Minister Amel Karboul and Deputy Interior Minister for Security Ridha Sfar, with documents purporting to show that the latter give written authorization for the tourists to enter Tunisia earlier this year.

Karboul is accused of receiving an Israeli delegation.

The vote was to take place later on Friday, with a three-fifths majority needed to get the ministers dismissed.

It is an open secret that Israelis have been visiting Tunisia for years on the quiet.

The debate, which is focused on Israelis only, comes just a week ahead of an annual pilgrimage that draws Jews from around the world to Tunisia’s ancient Ghriba synagogue.

For reasons of “national security,” the government had asked for the hearing to be held behind closed doors. The majority of parliamentary group leaders said they supported that, but failed to muster the votes necessary to force it.

The tourism minister denied receiving an Israeli delegation while defending her comments supporting the entry of tourists regardless of nationality, to boost a key sector of the Tunisian economy that was battered by the turbulence that followed the 2011 revolution.

Earlier, centrist MP Iyed Dahmani insisted the debate sent “a clear message; that this issue (of relations with Israel) is a red line in Tunisia’s policies and foreign relations.”

Leftist MP Faycel Jadlaoui also argued that allowing Israelis into Tunisia “undermines state sovereignty”.

“We did not have our revolution so that the first revolutionary measure taken was normalization with the Zionist entity,” he said, to enthusiastic applause from the National Assembly.

The deputy interior minister defended himself against charges of promoting normalization with Israel, saying he merely followed procedures that have been in force for years.

“The case is purely administrative… We do not deal with Israeli papers,” Sfar said, explaining the tourists coming from the Jewish state had been issued with Tunisian passes, because Tunis does not recognize Israeli passports.

The debate comes just weeks after Israeli tourists aboard an American cruise ship were denied entry.

In response, Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line announced its ships would not return to Tunisia in a potentially severe blow to a struggling economy three years after the ouster of autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Sfar justified his authorizing the Israelis’ entry by the need to respond to an “international campaign” accusing Tunisia of discrimination.

Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa has tried to brush the matter aside, saying it is important the new tourism season is successful.

“Normalization yes? Normalization no? Let’s put these great affairs aside,” he told parliament last month.

“Tourism professionals have advised that, for the tourist season to be a success, the Ghriba gathering must be a success.”

Like most other countries in the Arab world, the North African nation does not recognize Israel, primarily out of solidarity with Palestinian demands for a state of their own.

Many remember Israel’s deadly 1985 air strike on the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization, then hosted by Tunisia, in which 68 people were killed, and its assassination of the PLO’s then number two, Abu Jihad, in Tunis three years later.

But Tunisia is one of the Arab world’s most liberal countries, and still has a small Jewish population—of about 1,500.

More than half are on the southern resort island of Djerba, where the Ghriba synagogue, the focus of the three-day pilgrimage that begins next Friday, is located.

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