Visit to Israel
Last week, I was part of a bipartisan congressional delegation fortunate enough to participate in an American Israel Educational Foundation (AIEF) fact-finding seminar in Israel. Especially given the recent conflict, this was a rigorous and substantive trip, featuring many high-level briefings with people of major political groups, American, Israeli, and Palestinian officials, and other leaders and experts.
During last week’s 72-hour cease-fire, our group had an hour-long meeting with the Prime Minister of Israel, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu. It was a great discussion of issues in the Middle East, including the situation in the Gaza Strip with Hamas, the situation in the West Bank with the Palestinian Authority, and the situations in Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
We also met with Mr. Shimon Peres, former Prime Minister and former President of Israel. We met Mr. Peres at his Center for Peace.
Additionally, we met with Dr. Salam Fayyad, former Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority. Dr. Fayyad spoke of his efforts to stabilize and grow Palestine. His belief is the best way to build Palestine is to build an economy through peaceful means, not through warfare.
The conflicts in the Middle East are difficult to resolve. These problems have their roots in antiquity. While there, we visited several hospitals and met with severely wounded Israelis and, at one hospital, met with severely wounded Syrians who had come to Israel for medical help. We were witnesses to shelling in the towns just outside of Israel in Syria. The Israeli hospital accepts soldiers and civilians, including children, from Syria without question. For security reasons, we were not permitted to see the border between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Israel would like to not have its citizens under a constant state of fear of attack by Hamas in Gaza and Hamas’ allies, the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the government of Iran.
During part of our week’s trip, Israel and Hamas agreed to a 72-hour cease-fire. Missiles, rockets, or mortars were being launched into Israel as we were arriving and also as we were leaving. The AIEF security detail was constantly monitoring the situation and adjusting our group’s schedule so as to help ensure our safety. Several in our group tracked the situation themselves using the free “Red Alert” iPhone application, which provides real-time notifications when rockets or missiles are fired into Israel.
Hamas was launching the rockets from the Gaza Strip. Hamas is the group currently controlling Gaza.
It is important to note that there is a difference between Hamas and the Palestinian National Authority. Hamas won elections in Gaza, and then consolidated its power by eliminating political opponents. There have been some reports that indicate they have even killed some of their political opponents. Hamas wants to eliminate Israel. On the other hand, the Palestinian Authority, at this point in time, appears to be willing to work through more peaceful channels.
We also had the opportunity to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is located in the Christian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. This place has been identified as the location of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth as well as the location of his three-day tomb, and is a major pilgrimage location for many of the world’s Christians. Unfortunately, another visit to the Old City of Jerusalem had to be moved to another day and for a shorter period of time because of a terrorist attack in the Old City. An attack Hamas applauded.
Several days before we left, the 72-hour cease-fire ended. While the Israelis we had met with had hoped the cease-fire might be extended, Hamas began sending rockets, etc. into Israel immediately at the end of the cease-fire. Israel waited roughly two hours before returning fire.
At the writing of this column, the two sides are again negotiating. I am hopeful that peace will again be restored amongst the parties in this part of the Middle East.
It goes without saying that pressing problems and issues here at home in the United States remain my priority. But ensuring that Israel, one of our strongest allies, is safe and secure is an essential part of our nation’s foreign policy. There is much we can learn from this young nation in terms of its efforts to fight terrorism, protect its sovereignty, and advance technology. I am grateful for this opportunity to have learned about and broadened my understanding of developments in the Middle East.
As always, if you have concerns or comments or wish to inquire about legislative issues, feel free to contact my offices. You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov.