July 8th, 2011
10:23 AM ET
By Kevin Flower, CNN
West Bank (CNN) – Boarding a bulletproof bus to travel through one of the Middle East's perennial hot spots may not be most people's idea of a fun vacation activity, but for a growing number of Christians visiting West Bank settlements, it’s becoming an obligatory part of their visit to the Holy Land.
So it was that Marie Louise Weissenbock and a handful of other Austrian tourists came to tour the Israeli settlement of Shilo, where the Bible says the sanctuary for the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written – a place known as the Tabernacle - resided for nearly four centuries.
"It's a very significant place in the Bible,” she said. “And it’s important for us to see where the roots lie and to be here ourselves."
Shiloh is just one of dozens of important biblical locations scattered throughout the West Bank, but the Austrians’ visit was about more than just getting in touch with spiritual roots. It was also about expressing support for the Jewish settlement of land Israel occupied since the Jewish state’s 1967 war with Arab neighbors.
Shilo is home to over 2,000 Israeli settlers who began moving to the area just over three decades ago.
Weissenbock and her fellow travellers are members of Christians for Israel International , a group dedicated to spreading understanding of what it calls “God's purposes for Israel and to promote comfort of Israel through prayer and action.”
The group’s recent tour of Shilo is part of a growing effort by some of Israel's 300,000 West Bank settlers to explain to the outside world why they choose to live on land claimed by Palestinians and continue to build houses that the international community views as illegal.
Shilat Kahalani, a tour organizer, says that last year some 30,000 tourists came through Shilo. This year, she expects that number to increase to 40,000.
"Some groups come out of their own interest,” she said. “They know this is a Bible land and they know that there are deep roots here and they come here to see it with their own eyes. Some come here to understand the politics better."
Kahalani said the decision to open up settlements to tours was necessary to counter what she says is an inaccurate public perception of settlers.
"We know that if people just opened their eyes and saw, then they would see the truth,” she said. “What we see in the media and the picture that is drawn of us abroad is not true and we decided the only way to really take out the story is to open up and say, ‘Just come and look.’ "
As the bus slowly drove past the red-tiled roofs of Shilo's homes, Kahalani explained to the Austrians that most of the world misunderstands the settlers’ relations with Palestinians.
"They enjoy a higher standard of living thanks to the Jewish population that lives here,” she said, referring to the Palestinians.
It's a narrative rejected by the 2.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and who say that the scores of settlements like Shilo deny the viability of a future Palestinian state and constitute an Israeli land grab.
But for the pro-Israel Austrian tourists, the settlers’ message is resonating.
"I think that just in the European and American countries, they know too little about the real facts here," said Weissenbock.
"If you come here, you see how much space there is and you really ask the people and get a history of the place,” she said. “It’s really a different picture."
And while the organizers of the tours acknowledge that the majority of the visitors are Christian evangelicals, they argue they are doing more than preaching to the converted.
"I know it has changed many things and I know that people have changed their minds just walking around, without me saying anything," said Kahalani.
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