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Apr 23, 3:09 PM EDT

Tunisia divided over Jews' use of Israel passports


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TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) -- Tunisia's elected assembly accepted a petition Wednesday to question the tourism minister over a decision allowing Israelis to use their passports to enter the country for an annual religious pilgrimage.

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

Tunisia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

Some 85 of the 217 members of the assembly signed the petition summoning Tourism Minister Amel Karboul to explain her actions to the parliament, said spokeswoman Karima Souid.

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.

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."

At its peak in 2000, about 8,000 Jews came - many from Israel, Italy and France, where they or their forebears had moved over the years. Such crowds haven't returned since an al-Qaida-linked militant detonated a truck bomb at the synagogue in 2002, killing 21 people, mostly German tourists - and badly jolting the now-tiny Jewish community.

The pilgrimage was called off in 2011 in the wake of Tunisia's revolution, when major street protests ousted longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Only a few hundred came in the past two years.

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