'Get out of the way': Counterterrorism boot camp aims to give Middle East tourists survival lessons

An Israeli security company attracts visitors from around the world to take part in a counterterrorism boot camp, where they experience simulated attacks, writes the CBC’s Derek Stoffel.

Palestinian mayor says program is effort by Israelis to 'change the picture of reality' of occupation

Participants at the counterterrorism boot camp watch as an attack dog subdues a mock assailant during a demonstration. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

In a market lined with a few fruit and vegetable stalls, people mill about in the hot Middle Eastern sun. Then, several men armed with assault rifles rush forward to confront attackers who have launched a brazen assault. 

"Get down, get down!" shout the security guards, dressed in green uniforms that make them look more like soldiers. Some of the market-goers dive to the pavement in an act of self-protection.

The "attackers" are, in fact, merely cardboard photos of men and women pasted to wooden planks inside a firing range that, for two hours, has been turned into a counterterrorism boot camp for nearly 30 visitors from around the world.

The aim of the simulated attack is to offer visitors a glimpse of how soldiers and police respond to such violence, while offering a few lessons to increase one's chances of survival.

An instructor takes the group through a lesson on proper target identification. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"People are very afraid of terror attacks. They don't know what to do," said Sharon Gat, the founder of Caliber 3, which puts on the camp from a gated location near the Gush Etzion settlement in the occupied West Bank.

"This, for the first time in their life, simulates for them … that an attack like that, at least in Israel, people's lives can be saved," said Gat, who is also a commander in Israel's army.

Participants pay up to $150 Cdn for the two-hour boot camp, in which former and reserve members of the Israel Defence Forces take them through three simulated assaults. Adults in the group can also fire live ammunition at a shooting range.

"It was important for my wife and I to have our kids come and see — not so much to train for it, but to see what Israelis go through on a regular basis," said Elie Lowy, who brought his two sons and wife to the camp from Long Island, N.Y.

Visitors from around the world

Lowy said his family took away valuable lessons, "if, God forbid, a terrorist attack would happen."

"If you understand what the responders are doing, you know how to get out of the way and how to work with them," he said following one demonstration, in which he volunteered to face off against one of the cardboard assailants.

Elie Lowy, centre, listens as an instructor offers advice on how to best deal with an attack. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Most of the participants of the session attended by CBC News came from the United States, with a few visitors from Mexico. Caliber 3 says tourists from Canada, China and South America also regularly take part.

Caliber 3 also trains Israeli security guards at its compound in the West Bank on land the Palestinians claim for their future state.

Palestinian objections

The mayor of the nearby Palestinian town of al-Khader said the boot camp is an effort by Israelis to "change the picture of reality" about the occupation, which has lasted five decades.

The Palestinian town of al-Khader is close to the Caliber 3 facility in the West Bank. The mayor objects to the boot camp for tourists. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"Maybe they call it security," said Mayor Yasser Sobih. "The intention of this training is not for protection. What it is intended for is the killing or humiliation of Palestinians."

Sobih said he's particularly worried about Palestinian farmers with land near the Caliber 3 facility.

There have been several Palestinian attacks — some fatal — against Israelis in the Gush Etzion area in the last two years. Israeli rights groups have also documented cases where Jewish settlers are accused of attacking Palestinians.

Gat says his operation is "100 per cent professional."

"It has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian fight. I'm not even saying the word Palestinian," he said.

Gaza training camps for kids

There are other boot camps in the region that have stirred up controversy.

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which monitors news reports in the region, has documented several instances where the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has offered summer camps for children. Photos and video show boys, in some cases dressed as militants, attacking others dressed as Israeli police officers and soldiers.

Palestinian boys examine firearms in what the monitoring group MEMRI says is a summer camp for kids run by the Gaza-based militant group Hamas. (MEMRI)

A video posted by MEMRI appears to show Palestinian children staging a re-enactment of the recent tensions and violence surrounding access to the al-Aqsa/Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem.

'Show that Israel is strong'

The operators of the Caliber 3 boot camp say as many as 22,000 visitors take part in the experience every year.

Gat said part of his mission is to "show that Israel is strong."

Sharon Gat, the CEO and founder of Caliber 3, says the boot camp is aimed at helping participants prepare for a potential attack, while also highlighting the strength of the Jewish people. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"I want to show that Israel, the Jewish people are not humiliated anymore, like we were 2,000 years in exile," he told CBC News. 

"And, by the way, I'm not ashamed of that."


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.