Two Republican US congressmen, Andy Harris (MD-R) and Ron DeSantis (FL-R), visited the Gush Etzion region of Judea on Tuesday with their wives.
The congressmen were accompanied by the Gush Etzion Regional Council Chair Davidi Perl, Ruti Liberman of the "Yes Israel" organization, along with Yesha Council members. "Yes Israel" and the Gush Etzion Regional Council organized the visit; in the last year 20 congressmen have visited Gush Etzion under their auspices.
"Until today I didn't know anywhere in Israel other than the Tel Aviv area, so it was very important for us to visit here," stated DeSantis. "There's a great difference between what we see about Israel in the media, and the focus it gives to certain topics, as opposed to what we see in the tour here."
The two congressmen hold influential positions: Harris serves on the House Committee on Appropriations, which has been behind transferring budgets to Israel including recent financial support of the Iron Dome defense system. DeSantis sits on the Committee on Foreign Affairs, which is very involved in events in the Middle East and Israel in particular.
Walking in the footsteps of the Patriarchs
The two began their visit in Sde Boaz, a mixed religious and secular community that had a home violently demolished in 2006. There the congressmen spoke with children and parents at a local kindergarten, and were given drawings of US and Israeli flags from the kids.
Afterwards, the congressmen were taken to walk on the "Path of the Patriarchs," an ancient road from Biblical times which stretches through Gush Etzion on its way between Hevron and Jerusalem.
The two were told about an ancient mikveh (ritual bath) located on the path which dates from the Second Temple Period, roughly 2,000 years ago. The ancient path clearly demonstrated the historical and religious connection between the Jewish people and Judea and Samaria.
Gush Etzion residents shared their lifestyle with the American officials, and emphasized that their presence in the region is in fact beneficial for local Arab residents, who in many cases enjoy employment opportunities and conditions that would otherwise not exist.
At Kfar Etzion, Harris and DeSantis experienced a light and sound show recounting the modern Jewish settlement of the Gush Etzion area from the beginning of the 20th century up through current times.
Seeing the reality on the ground, not through the media's lens
DeSantis remarked "I don't think that what the average American reads in the newspaper is an accurate reflection of the Israeli reality. It's incredible to be here today and realize that the US has existed 224 years, while we're in a place with thousands of years of Jewish history."
The appreciation for the tour was shared by Harris, who said "this is my second time in Israel, and I'm glad for the opportunity to visit here again, particularly these days when Judea and Samaria are on the American Congress's daily agenda."
"It's important to see what's happening on the ground. We are waiting to see what the Palestinian unity deal (between Fatah and Hamas) will lead to, and what policy the Palestinian Authority (PA) will take as a result," noted Harris.
Perl of the Gush Etzion Regional Council praised the visit as an important opportunity to let American decision makers appreciate the daily reality of the region directly, without media influence.
"The reality is that we live lives full of spiritual and cultural wealth, we are connected to this land, and we returned to it to stay here," remarked Perl. "Whoever comes here becomes an ambassador in their country, telling the true story of what they saw with their own eyes."
Visits such as that of Harris and DeSantis "tighten the strategic connection between the US and Israel," said Liberman of "Yes Israel." She noted that part of the strengthening of ties promoted in the visit concern the US visa crisis, whereby a peak of Israelis have been rejected for visas, and other similar issues.