Forty-one US Democrats landed in Israel yesterday as part of a tour organised by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), the educational branch of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Every non-election year AIEF organises an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel for "freshman" members of Congress which, in the organisation's own words, "help educate [US] political leaders and influentials about the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship through firsthand experiences in Israel".
The delegation will spend one week in Israel, during which it is slated to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as de facto leader of the opposition and Netanyahu's main election rival, Benny Gantz, who heads the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) party.
The Democrats will also meet Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank.
The group is being led by Steny Hoyer, a Maryland congressman who currently serves as the Democrat's house majority leader. A statement by Hoyer's office said that the delegation will "learn about issues critical to the US-Israel relationship and international security," which will include visiting Israel's northern borders with Lebanon and Syria, an Iron Dome battery and historical and cultural sites.
"I am pleased to join so many House Democrats in traveling to Israel to reaffirm our support for a critical US ally and to continue learning about the opportunities and the challenges facing Israel and the Middle East," Hoyer added.
Israeli media has tried to paint the trip as a concerted effort by the Democratic Party to reaffirm its support for Israel, particularly in the wake of a number of high profile debates around Israel-US relations initiated by "the Squad".
The Squad, a group of four progressive Democratic congresswomen have been vocal in their criticism of Israel's 52-year-old occupation of the Palestinian territories (oPt), US financial and military assistance to Israel and the US' almost-unconditional political support of Israel.
Made up of Congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley – the Squad refused to join their freshmen colleagues on the AIPAC-affiliated trip, with Omar and Tlaib instead announcing they would lead their own delegation to the oPt.
A date for their trip has not yet been announced but is slated to take place this summer. Although speculation that the pair could be prevented from entering the country under Israel's anti-BDS law – which prohibits supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement from travelling to Israel – quickly spread. Israel's Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer confirmed that they would not be refused entry into Israel "out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America".
Last week, notorious Israel advocacy group Shurat HaDin filed a petition to the country's Jerusalem District Court to demand that Omar be banned from entering the country because of her support for BDS. Among the evidence submitted to the court was US President Donald Trump's recent demand that Omar and other members of the Squad "apologise" to Israel for the "terrible things they have said".
It is not yet clear whether Shurat HaDin will be able to secure a court ruling banning Omar from entering the country before the planned trip takes place.
A number of NGOs have hailed the Squad for their stance on this week's AIEF trip, calling on other Democrats to follow suit using the hashtag #SkipTheTrip.
Among these NGOs is Code Pink, which said it applauds Tlaib and others for "taking the first important step in elevating the experiences of Palestinians in the West Bank which have been silenced by the AIPAC trip for so long".
"The purpose of AIPAC-sponsored trips is to whitewash Israel's human rights violations and continue unchecked U.S. financial and diplomatic support for Israel — all at the expense of Palestinian rights," Code Pink continued, adding that "U.S.-Israel relations MUST change."
IfNotNow, another NGO supporting #SkiptheTrip, yesterday tweeted: "Today is the 1st day of @AIPAC's propaganda tour of Israel/Palestine for new members of Congress. Since AIPAC will surely be hiding the brutal reality of Israel's occupation from our reps, we have decided to show them the truth through an alternative digital tour. #SkipTheTrip"
Today is the 1st day of @AIPAC's propaganda tour of Israel/Palestine for new members of Congress. Since AIPAC will surely be hiding the brutal reality of Israel's occupation from our reps, we have decided to show them the truth through an alternative digital tour. #SkipTheTrip
— IfNotNow🔥 (@IfNotNowOrg) August 5, 2019
The movement then posted a series of videos featuring Palestinian activist Issa Amro, speaking from West Bank city of Hebron, to provide an alternative itinerary for the Democrat delegation to see "the reality of [Israel's] occupation] and "the human rights catastrophe over here in Palestine".