U.S. Tourists Become Israeli Commandos For A Day

Jun 2, 2013
Originally published on June 9, 2013 7:29 am

After two hours of yelling, shooting and getting tough with a group of American businessmen one hot spring afternoon, Steve Gar turned to storytelling.

Gar is an instructor at Caliber3, a private counterterrorism training center in an Israeli settlement area south of Jerusalem that offers short shooting courses for tourists. Wrapping up the Americans' two-hour session, he called them all to gather around.

First, he told the story of Hagai Haim Lev, an American-Israeli and captain in the Israeli military who was shot by a Palestinian sniper while searching for weapons in Gaza in 2002.

Lev was related to Caliber3's founder by marriage, and tourists who go through the training here get a certificate with his photograph and a poem written in his memory.

Gar then told his own story. He grew up in South Africa and immigrated to Israel on his own. He says he spent five years in a religious youth movement in Australia, married an Israeli immigrant from Canada and fathered four children.

Gar is good with imagery. As a reservist with a counterterrorism unit, he always has two weapons with him. "It looks a bit odd," he says, but he pushes his young twins in a stroller to synagogue with an M16 strapped to his back.

In addition to his counterterrorism service and teaching at Caliber3, Gar told the group he is studying to become a rabbi and runs a Torah program for Jewish youth with special needs, like Down syndrome and autism.

His storytelling has a purpose: humanize the image of Israeli soldiers.

"I wanted to tell you this because I want you to see what we're all about," he says. "I'm a family man. I see myself as an educator."

About his military work: "We do this because we love, we don't do this because we love killing."

Gar asks the American visitors to "help fight terrorism" by speaking up against negative views of Israeli soldiers they might see or hear back home. To seal the deal, there's one more story: Gar describes how five members of a Jewish family — a husband, wife and three of their children — were killed two years ago in their home in the West Bank settlement of Itamar. He says he was part of the team that took two Palestinian suspects back to the family's house to re-enact the murders, using toy knives and dolls.

"They had smiles on their faces as they went from room to room slaughtering a family," Gar said. "Once they left, they heard a baby crying. They responded. One terrorist held the baby while the other took a knife and slit her throat."

Published reports of the re-enactment don't fully match each detail of his memory, but Gar's narrative clearly moves the men he's talking to.

"They take you from high adrenaline to emotion," says Scott Erlbaum, who runs a chain of retail flooring stores in Philadelphia. "I'm probably not an objective observer, but the news does not portray what's going on here accurately.

"A lot of the times the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers are looked at as the bad guys because in combat and in battle children do die sometimes. And it's sad and it happens on both sides."

Which side is right in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict? Which is wrong? The battle to have one narrative seen as more legitimate or more just than the other often permeates ordinary conversations here, and certainly many interviews.

In a field below the Caliber3 site, an old Palestinian farmer trims his apple and almond trees by hand. I want to ask him about living close to the military training range, but before he can focus on that specific issue, Mahmoud Mershed has a much bigger story to tell.

"The Israelis put in a fence to keep me from using the road to get to my land," he says, gesturing toward a spread of fruit trees and grapevines covering about 60 acres. "I have to come through the valley, on my mule."

We've come along the same bumpy, twisty route — though we've used a truck with four-wheel drive instead of a mule. Right across the paved road Mershed does not have access to, an Israeli welder in modern safety gear builds the frame of a new building.

"I don't bring my sons with me to help any more," Mershed continues. "My son had a heart attack here once when we were surrounded by settlers and there was shooting. He died. Now I come alone."

When we get to the shooting range, he says he hears the gunshot practice all the time and it scares him.

Mahmoud Mershed and Steve Gar will probably never hear each other's stories.

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Now, we'll pay an unusual visit to Israel, a country that draws millions of tourists each year. They come from the religious and historic sights, the archeology and the beach resorts. But what about the chance to see Israeli combat training in action? Well, it turns that this is some tourists' idea of a good time. NPR's Emily Harris has this story from a private academy outside of Jerusalem.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: A couple dozen businessmen from Philadelphia get off the bus at a shooting range tucked among Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank south of Jerusalem.

STEVE GAR: When I shout body, what you're going to do is you're going to snap into the body position.

HARRIS: Before these visitors touch any weapons, instructor Steve Gar takes them through the basics - getting into position to shoot accurately.

GAR: You take your left foot out at a 45-degree angle.

HARRIS: Stopping quickly after running fast.


GAR: How did he stop himself? No jumps. Nothing fancy. Little steps.

HARRIS: And how to shout fire in Hebrew.

GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: This is Caliber Three, a private training facility for security forces that added tourist packages a couple of years ago. Sharon Gat started the place.

SHARON GAT: My mission in life is to teach people, good people, you know, especially Jewish people, how to fight, how to protect themselves.

HARRIS: He says 15,000 tourists, mostly American, come here a year. The group of businessmen here for a couple of hours are on a five-day whirlwind tour of Israel arranged by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Program director Pam Pearlmutter set up the visit to this range.

PAM PEARLMUTTER: Well, I think it gives them the perspective of a soldier who is showing them the fear and how important it is to be strong military to protect themselves.

GAR: OK. Now, level the sights. But it on the blue side.


HARRIS: When the tourists shoot, they aim at white paper targets. When the instructors do an anti-terrorism demo...


HARRIS: ...they aim at a photograph of a man wearing a red and white checked keffiyeh, a traditional Arab headdress also seen as a Palestinian symbol.


HARRIS: Down the hillside, Palestinian farmer Mahamoud Mershed prunes an apple tree. His land has been bordered by Israeli settlements for years now.

MAHAMOUD MERSHED: (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: He says he hears shooting from the range all the time, and it scares him. Ali Thawata, the administrator of the Palestinian village closest to the range, says he didn't realize the targets there include a photo of a man in a keffiyeh.

ALI THAWATA: (Through Translator) I'm surprised that they go to that level in order to symbolize they want, to eradicate the Palestinian presence.

GAR: OK, OK. Push-up, push-up, push-up.

HARRIS: Back at Caliber Three, once the day's training is over, instructor Steve Gar asks the group from Philadelphia to help Israel fight terrorism.

GAR: You don't have to do it with guns. I want you guys to do it with your mouths.

HARRIS: He says he wants them to counter an image of Israeli soldiers that he sees portrayed outside of Israel.

GAR: They call IDF, Israeli soldiers, they call us animals. They call us barbarians. They say that we love killing Palestinian children. You've met us. We don't do this 'cause we love killing. I love this country. You got a right to be here, and you got a right to walk around and feel safe here.

HARRIS: Heading back to the bus, David Berkman says he came to this training with an image of Israeli soldiers as hardened, brazen and a little bit callous.

DAVID BERKMAN: Tough, well trained, opinionated. And they are. But there's emotion. There's heart. There's soul.

HARRIS: This was Berkman's first trip to Israel. He wants to come back with his kids, ages 20, 18 and 11. And he says he would absolutely have them go through the kind of experience that he just did. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.


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