The 20 or so Jewish tourists from South America are on an “anti-terrorism” course run by former Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank. Their targets are balloons nearby.
“The aim of the training is not to teach you how to shoot,” Eitan Cohen, one of the instructors, says to the group, “but to make you understand what we do here in Israel to fight terrorism.”
The tourist attraction offers an unusual option for visitors coming to see Jerusalem’s holy sites or to float in the Dead Sea.
But while it may be exhilarating or instructive for some, others find it offensive, accusing the company of profiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and fears of “terrorism.”
The company is called Caliber 3, located near the Israeli settlement of Efrat south of Jerusalem, and it began in 2003 as a training camp for professional security personnel such as police.
The instructors, including ex-soldiers who say they served in elite units, use their experience gained through Israel’s various conflicts.
Since 2009, it has also become an attraction for tourists who are taught how to handle weapons, participate in paintball or learn Krav Maga, the self-defence method using boxing and martial arts developed by the Israeli military.
They pay a little over $100 to participate.
One programme sees the tourists stumble onto a “terrorist attack” in a simulated market with plastic fruits and wooden stalls.
Instructors are disguised, including one wearing a Palestinian-style headscarf.
Suddenly, instructors in fatigues yell at the tourists to get on the ground, then they stop a “terrorist” with a knife — not the person with the headscarf.
Cohen, 41, debriefs them and tells them to always be alert in a crowd.
He has a Rambo-like look: fatigues, sunglasses perched on his forehead, rifle slung over his shoulder and a pistol on his belt.
Caliber 3’s website says he is a former sniper and member of elite police units.
“I’m going to show you the values of soldiers in the Israeli army and how we fight against terrorists,” he says to the tourists, who take photos of him with Israeli flags in the background.
Foreign tourists watch an Israeli instructor demonstrating how to use a dog to neutralize an attacker during a simulation. Photo by AFP/Menahem Kahana.
Dan Cohen, 49, came from Caracas with his family to vacation in Israel and decided to add the training to his itinerary.
While his children play paintball nearby, he and his wife Lili listen attentively to the instructor before a crash course in handling automatic weapons and firing on a balloon stuck to a target.
“We came here thinking we were going to do something completely different,” he says, adding they wanted to learn “how to shoot” and “react in a terrorist situation, God forbid”.
“But what we really learned is how the soldiers make quick decisions and understand what is wrong and what is right in these situations, and how hard it is to understand.”
But some Palestinians say they see the company as another insult.
Mohammed Burjieh, a 38-year-old teacher in the neighbouring village of Massara, cut off from Efrat by Israel’s controversial separation wall, accuses Caliber 3 of exploiting fears over “terrorism”.
“The settlers who run this company create fear (of Palestinians) among tourists so they spread it when returning to their countries,” he says.
Around 25,000 tourists, mainly American, but also Chinese, Canadian and South Americans, participated in the training last year, according to the firm.
Another instructor, Yoav Fleishman, wearing a black t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Combat Instructor”, says “we are explaining to tourists the difficulties of this war, which is very different from classic warfare”.
After the tourists complete the two-hour training, Cohen provides an assessment, but also a message.
“We must protect civilians while keeping our moral values,” he says to applause.