Shooting live ammunition, neutralizing “attackers,” training with former military commandos … Israel’s anti-terrorism camps give tourists a taste of Israeli army life with quick counter-terrorism workshops.
Despite that the majority of tourists in Israel are usually attracted to its religious sites and vast history, anti-terrorism camps are sprouting around the country as a new trend in tourism.
The drive to Caliber 3, an Israeli counter-terror and security academy, crosses through the controversial settlement bloc of Gush Etzion in the West Bank.
Initially, it was an institution for training of security professionals, both Israelis and foreigners.
Its founder, Sharon Gat, a former Israeli military officer, saw the potential in tourism and opened a few years ago the academy’s gates to tourists who want a different experience.
Around 500,000 tourists have already participated in a range of programs that let them shoot live ammunition and rub shoulder to shoulder with former military commandos, said Gat.
On a hot summer afternoon, a dozen of tourists gathered in an air-conditioned briefing room upon commands from a uniform clad and armed guide, also their instructor.
He asked the group questions about their perceptions on terrorism. It was a quick conversation.
The chill in the room was soon replaced with scorching heat at a shooting range. The tourists, most from the United States and one from Finland, were soon bending down to do push-ups as their instructor barked orders at them.
Live fire is heard at almost all times.
The group appeared fascinated by the explanations they got. In one scene, a guide on the site showed them how he and his companion, an attack dog, are completely synchronized, with the dog taking quiet signals and acting accordingly.
They also recreated a scene of a shooting attack at a crowded market. As they pretend to walk around, live fire suddenly interrupted the calm and they all ducked for shelter as the attackers, more accurately posters of them, were being neutralized by their guides.
Miika Vahakangas, a Finnish tourist, was satisfied with the experience.
I’ve never done this type of thing, it’s just pure interesting thing to do,” he said. “I thought I knew much more about this kind of activity but actually I know really, really little bit and it’s really amazing.”
But for some, the taste of Israeli life may actually serve as a deterrent.
Israel’s incoming tourism is lagging, with over 3 million visitors annually. While a country packed with history and holy sites to three religions has the potential of attracting many more tourists, bringing its difficult reality to the forefront may be counter-productive.
One of Israel’s main challenges in attracting more tourists is its security situation and international image. The country frequently fluctuates from periods of calm to periods of tension and upheaval.
In its tourism campaigns abroad, Israel tries to distance itself from its militant image. Therefore some believes that anti-terror fantasy camps are an ironic twist.
Meanwhile, Han Sand, owner of Travel Composer, a boutique travel company based in Tel Aviv, sees a definite increase in tourists looking for such attractions.
“Tourists nowadays are savvier,” said Sand. “They want to see something different. They want to really understand the army. I want to give them the whole picture and let them make their own decisions.”
In addition to offering tourists military experiences, Sand also has tours to the Palestinian territories in the West Bank, tours to Israel’s northern border with Syria and its southern border with Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Gat had a specific purpose in mind when opening his gates to tourists.
“The main purpose of this activity from our side is that we want people to become better ambassadors for the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) and Israel,” he said.
But Gat and his colleagues may be preaching to the choir.
Gat admitted that the overwhelming majority of his visitors are Jewish and thus most likely predisposed to supporting Israel. He said many come to “fill their hearts with Jewish pride.”
Israel is often in the headlines for disputed government policies, particularly towards the Palestinians.
“I think it’s really something that if you are interested in the IDF and military, you should come here and see it,” said Giovanna Zavell, a Jewish student from the United States who was part of the group.
It is an inescapable fact that terrorism has become more prevalent globally. Places like Caliber 3 do not only offer a two-hour thrill, but make people face scenarios that they may have to face in real life. “It can happen anywhere and it can be anybody, from a stranger on a street to maybe your neighbor. I mean — who knows?” said Zavell. “They really teach you how to hold yourself and how to stay somewhat calm in those situations.”