A week before Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) were barred from entering Israel and Palestine by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a group of congressional staffers attended a tour of the countries carried out by a former Israeli intelligence official. According to the itinerary filed with the House Ethics Committee, the staffers traveled to various sites on a 7-day excursion that featured lectures from an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) base commander, a Palestinian billionaire who has worked alongside occupation forces, and an Israeli settler who advocates for the annexation of the West Bank.
Staffers for Bradley Byrne (R-AL), Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), Rep. John Moolenaar (R-MI) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL), Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH), Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA), Rep. Max Rose (D-NY) all attended the trip between August 2 and August 11. Staffers from the House Committee on the Budget, the Republican National Committee, and the House Committee on Administration also attended.
It was sponsored by Inside the Middle East, a charity stablished by Avi Melamed, an author and former Israeli intelligence official. Melamed formerly carried out Israel tours for the New York Times as a “Times-selected expert.” His website cites a number of his other former clients, including AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, Birthright, Friends of the IDF, Israel Border Police Senior Command, Israel Defense Forces, Israel Ministry of Defense, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Israel Police, and the Israel Prison Authority.
Inside the Middle East is billed as a “The Antidote for Partisan, Biased, ‘Fake’ News & Myopic Vision.” The group has been sponsoring student fellowship tours for six years, but this is only second delegation sent from Capitol Hill. The two recent Washington trips correspond with the group establishing itself as a tax-exempt charity based in Baltimore, MD. The Ethics Committee forms list Melamed’s wife Maia Hoffman as Chief Operating Officer of the organization. According to her Linkedin, Hoffman was Program Developer and Director for Zionist Organization of America in Baltimore for two years during the 1990s.
The itinerary provided to the Ethics Committee for the trip details a number of events and lectures. On August 4 the staffers visited Rawabi, a planned city in the West Bank that was developed by Palestinian billionaire Bashar Masri and partially financed by a Qatari real estate firm. Masri has become a target of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement because Rawabi was built on land stolen from three Palestinian villages by the Palestinian Authority and given to his private firm. He has also worked with Israeli businesses and institutions throughout the region. “Masri and his companies must end all normalization activities with Israel and its complicit institutions, beyond the bare necessity that all Palestinian businesses in the occupied territory must reckon with,” declared the BDS National Committee in 2012, “Palestinian civil society has always stood – almost unanimously – behind boycotting normalizing businesses and institutions.”
“I’ll say one thing: our relationship with Israeli companies is very good – we’re not hiding it, we’re not ashamed of saying this,” Masri told Time Magazine in 2015.
That same day they heard from settler David Ha’ivri about what it’s like to be an Israeli living in the West Bank. In his younger days Ha’ivri was arrested for celebrating the murder of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, he also served time in prison for being connected to the desecration of a mosque. “I’m a little older now, a little more mature,” he told the New York Times in 2010. However, he remains politically active and has developed a number of programs to connect with fellow Zionists around the world. Ha’ivri consistently advocates for the annexation of the West Bank. “Netanyahu must apply Israeli sovereignty to Samaria and Judea in the same way that Israel already did in Jerusalem and Golan in 1981,” he recently wrote, “In democracies leaders who want to be re-elected and stay in power must not lose touch with their constituency.”
There is no historical reference to the term 'the west bank' prior to the Jordanian invasion and occupation of Samaria, Judea and #Jerusalem in #Israel's war of independence in 1948. pic.twitter.com/hFDGyLmeln
— David Ha'ivri 🇮🇱 #Israel News Editor (@haivri) August 5, 2019
Even Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg (certainly not known as a defender of Palestinian rights) has denounced Ha’ivri as a fascist. In 2011 Goldberg referenced the ultranationalist political party Ha’ivri formerly belonged to:
David Halvri, is someone I met in the 90s when he still called himself David Axelrod (no relation, as far as I can tell, to the other David Axelrod), and when he was a leader of the Kach movement, founded by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, and of Kahane Chai, the successor organization to Kach. Kach men, of course, are fascist fundamentalists. HaIvri was arrested in Israel for celebrating the death of Yitzhak Rabin; he was also jailed for six months for desecrating a mosque. He has also been associated with groups that have been included on the State Department list of terrorist organizations. Just noting this for the record.
The delegation was also addressed by IDF Lt. Col. Yaron Buskila. Buskila made headlines in 2015 for commanding a base that featured a “mini Gaza” which allowed soldiers to train on a three dimensional model with the same topographical structure of the area. “The region is very crowded and complicated in terms of communities and buildings, both within the Strip and also in terms of the communities surrounding it,” he said at the time, “Thanks to this unique model we will be able to get a feel of the territory and give a wide picture of the front with ease,” he concluded.”
The congressional staffers arrived in Israel just one week before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu barred Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib from entering the country, possibly under pressure to do so from the Trump administration. Netanyahu ostensibly blocked the two women from entering because of their support for BDS. The staffer trip also coincided with a delegation of freshman Congress members who arrived as a part of an annual trip sponsored by the AIPAC.