EFRAT, West Bank (Reuters) - Sharon Gat, owner of the “Caliber 3 Company,” steadies a little girl who comes up to his gunbelt. They’re holding a rifle almost as big as she is.
They aim and fire at a cardboard soldier cutout. The girl is with a group of Israelis, Europeans and Americans on a tourist “anti-terrorism” shooting course in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“I think it’s important for every Jew to know how to use a weapon and protect themselves,” says Gat, and Israeli reservist. “And I won’t lie or be a hypocrite, it’s good money for me too.” Gat’s company normally specializes in counter-terrorism and defense training for private security firms and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The two-hour course for security-conscious tourists is a recent addition to its product line.
Not everyone thinks this is a healthy idea.
At the company’s firing range in the Jewish settlement bloc of Gush Etzion, near the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, relatives from Israel, Canada, the United States and Belgium formed a group of 15 clients from 10 to 50 years old.
They shot everything from handguns to M-16 combat rifles.
James, an Ohio native who did not want his family name published, took the course earlier this month while visiting friends in Israel after a business trip in the West Bank.
“The most shocking part was when they had us shout ‘terrorist’ before getting into shooting position,” he said.
He enjoyed the course and felt it was safe but morally questionable. “It could indoctrinate children with racist beliefs. It was sad to hear young kids express such racism. It makes the likelihood or reaching a peaceful settlement to the (Middle East) crisis seem more difficult.” In the group before his, James said, excited children shouted to their parents about being able to “shoot the Arabs.”
Gat started the course 18 months ago and lifted Caliber 3’s revenue by 15 percent, he says. About 1,000 visitors came last year, and he expects more in 2009.
Instructors say most come between August and September, when kids are off school and around the Jewish High Holidays.
The course, says Gat, is a simplified and condensed version of the first month training for IDF counter-terrorism units.
Gat stresses the essentials to his class: “I don’t want to play games with a terrorist, I want to kill him.”
Rivka, 20, is an Israeli who lives in Toronto. Her family is here to commemorate a relative killed on one of the planes that was crashed into the World Trade Center in the 9/11 attack.
“He was a military man, and his kids are here today. This is something for their father, to remember him.”
Rivka says it is part of Israeli reality.
“They grow up in this country. They grow up with the military all around them. They’ll go to the military one day, so why not get a positive experience?”
Gat says his anti-terrorism theme is mostly for excitement.
“Counter-terrorism shooting is the most active and aggressive. If I taught them sharp-shooting, they’d be bored.”
“In a terrorist attack, what you don’t have is time. Every time, it’s frightening. You are scared for your life.”
But Gat says his course is not just about shooting guns; it also teaches “Zionist values.”
”The usual Jew abroad is not like us,“ he says. ”They learn to be doctors and lawyers. There’s an impression that they want to earn money and not that they’re strong people.
“I thought it would be nice to be next to the people who have fought in all the wars and fought for Israel. It gives you pride in being a Jew.”
Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Samia Nakhoul