Jews pray inside the El Ghriba synagogue in D
Jews pray inside the El Ghriba synagogue in D Reuters

Members of Tunisia's parliament on Wednesday accepted a petition to question the tourism minister over a decision allowing Israelis to use their passports to enter the country for an annual religious pilgrimage, The Associated Press (AP) reported.

Israelis and Jews long have traveled to Tunisia for an annual pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba, but this year, for the first time, Israelis have been allowed to use their passports rather than a special document issued by Tunisian embassies.

According to AP, some 85 of the 217 members of the assembly signed the petition summoning Tourism Minister Amel Karboul to explain her actions to the parliament.

The protesting lawmakers argue that recognizing Israeli passports amounts to recognition of the Jewish state.

"Our problem is not with our Jewish brothers who come for the pilgrimage but with the Zionist entity that occupies Palestinian territories," said the head of the center leftist Democratic Alliance Mohammed Hamdi, according to AP.

In remarks Tuesday, Tunisia's interim prime minister, Mehdi Jomaa, defended the new policy as part of efforts to revive the country's key tourism sector, which accounts for 7 percent of the GDP and employs 400,000 people.

"We must dispense with these political arguments focus on the essential," he said. "All the previous government authorized Jews from Israel to come to Tunisia for the annual pilgrimage; we just decided to do it in total transparence."

The Jewish community of Djerba dates back 2,500 years. Jews were such a significant part of life on the island that it was once known as "the island of the kohanim," after the high proportion of members of the Jewish priestly caste, or kohanim, within the Jewish community there.

The annual pilgrimage to the island attracts many Jews, but Tunisia has no formal ties with Israel.

In fact, the Islamist Ennahda party, which won the elections in Tunisia after the ouster of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and which has since been replaced, rejected outright any normalization of diplomatic ties with Israel.

The latest incident is not the first time that Karboul has come under fire over an issue related to Israel.

In January, Karboul faced criticism from parliamentarians over a trip to Israel she took in 2006 to take part in a UN training program for Palestinian Arab youths.

Karboul subsequently resigned from her post but Jomaa refused to accept her resignation.

In March, the Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) said that a "small number" of Israeli passengers on one of its ships were not allowed to disembark in Tunis "because of a last-minute decision made by the Tunisian government."

The next day, NCL announced that it would no longer call at Tunisian ports, saying that "in response to this discriminatory has cancelled all remaining calls to Tunisia and will not return."

Karboul later denied that Israelis were discriminated against, saying that "as in all the countries in the world, for certain nationalities, there are obligatory visas or passes."

Tunisian authorities have been criticized by Jewish and human rights activists for turning a blind eye to Islamist anti-Semitism, and even of harassing local Jews.

In fact, just last week a Jewish merchant was stabbed by a Muslim man in Djerba, hours before the Jewish festival of Pesach (Passover).

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