It’s 8 a.m., scorching hot and I’m standing in a village in the West Bank, a cardboard cutout squarely in my line of fire. An M-16 is propped up against my chest, and any noise is muffled by protective earphones.
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“Cock the gun, don’t rest your finger on the trigger”, military trainer Doron is calmly instructing. I barely notice the beads of sweat threatening to trace a line down my face as I clutch the firearm and pull the trigger.
A bullet exits, and I pull it again. And then again. A second later, the only evidence of shots fired are the hot shell casings at my feet, and the clouds of dust that quickly re-settle after the bullets strike a dirt mound in the distance.
I’m in Alei Zahav, a settlement near Ben-Gurion International Airport, participating in a one-day military exercise with Lionops. Founded last year by former IDF officer Eldar Bar-Or, Lionops specializes in extreme and military tourism.
Attempting to capitalize on the growing interest in niche tourism, Lionops offers seven- to 10-day excursions, on which Bar-Or and his staff take participants through a variety of modern warfare exercises and games. Customized packages can include Krav Maga hand-to-hand combat techniques, navigation, anti-terrorism techniques, camouflage, guerrilla warfare strategy, and medical procedures, to name just a few.
At Alei Zahav, I’m joined by 12 students from the US on a 10-week internship program. We will be learning basic gun techniques from Doron and two helpers for the day: Shai, a former member of the IDF and the students’ program madrich who also happens to be a longtime friend of Bar-Or’s; and Adam, currently serving in the IDF’s paratroopers unit. With Doron as the lead instructor, we are taught how to fire M-16s, Jerichos, uzis and other arms Bar-Or rents from a civilian dealer.
The facility we’re at is a ghost town of concrete structures that were intended to be multi-storey homes before the developer abandoned the project almost a decade ago, Bar-Or tells me. A perfect setting for military training, he rents the property on a day-by-day basis for Lionops.
Though he has been developing his plan for many months, Bar-Or is still involved in the challenging work of getting his business off the ground. He’s done a tour with a group of Americans, and he’s starting to see some breakthroughs. On the early-morning drive from Tel Aviv, Bar-Or apologizes for seeming less than energetic, telling me he has just come off a four-day excursion with two US travel writers.
During the excursion, Bar-Or and his staff had taken the pair through basic and advanced gun training, a camouflage session, skydiving, and a climb to Mount Carmel and spy games in Jaffa. As a send-off, Bar-Or took the writers to a nightclub where they partied until 2 a.m.
Bar-Or is hoping the junket was a promotional success, and says that the travel writers have told him Lionops will be a cover story. And there are other plans in the works. During our morning shooting exercise, an agent specializing in Israel tours for Russian visitors comes by to check out the exercises. Bar-Or tells me that she has lined up a tour for October. Some of the interest among travel agents, he says, is a result of his marketing techniques, which he describes as bootstrap. “I spammed the life out of them,” Bar-Or says. It’s clear that Bar-Or has experience getting things done.
Bar-Or comes from a military background; he served in the Second Lebanon War as a team leader, and as a battalion leader in Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. He’s currently a reservist, serving as a member of the management team for assessment and selection for the IDF Paratroopers’ "Flying Serpent" Reconnaissance Battalion.
And he is no stranger to launching entrepreneurial ventures. His other business, Excellent Training located in Herzliya, provides fitness training for young children, adolescents preparing to enter the army, and adults. His background in fitness comes from more than just his years in the military -- Bar-Or is also an Ironman, tri-athlete and marathoner.
But Lionops is vastly different from the fitness biz. Bar-Or says the prime goal is to provide fun for his participants, not give them a lesson in the realities of warfare from the IDF perspective. He disagrees with the notion that military tourism glorifies modern warfare, or the always-tenuous situation in the Middle East.
“It’s just an experience, it’s a theme.”
He says participants certainly aren’t going to learn what’s like to be in the armed forces after a 10- day excursion, but he does his best to make it a well-rounded, enjoyable experience. For some tours he will hire regular tour guides who may take participants to various areas of Israel and explain the history of war dating back to the Romans.
Bar-Or says he’s setting his sights on tourists who are looking to immerse themselves in the military experience.
“I’m not fooling myself thinking they will be hardcore, special forces, bodyguards, or whatever,” he says. “I’m not aiming for that.”
Though the main goal is fun, Bar-O says his staff of seven teaches participants tactical combat techniques and survival strategies. “You’re not just diving into the grass and shooting 100 bullets a second,” he says. “It’s a game, and you think in the game. You attack and you defend.”
And sometimes you must expect the unexpected, as I quickly learn when I am having trouble operating my nine-millimeter later in the day. When Doron, standing attentively by my side, takes the gun from my hands and begins firing it at the target, a shell casing lands on my chest, causing a small burn. Lesson learned: pay attention and ask questions or you’re liable to get an unwanted souvenir. Or perhaps a badge of honor, depending on who you ask.
Though Bar-Or says the goal is to provide a fun experience, there is some degree of soldier patriotism involved, evidenced in how highly Bar-Or speaks of his time in the army, and in the literature on the Lionops website: ”We will let you draw your own conclusions, but we hope to leave you with a lasting favorable impression of Israel, our people and the values we fight for.”
During our one-day Lionops tour, the students, many of them about to enter their junior year, seem to be enjoying themselves. They eagerly shoot the guns, ask to throw a grenade, take photos.
I’m told that the students participating are the cream of the crop from various business and technology programs across the United States; future Fortune 500 leaders. That may be so, but they are still adolescents - some of whom may not yet be fully aware of the delicate - and very real - situation facing soldiers on the ground in Israel.
Perhaps for others, it is an eye-opening experience. “It’s so simple, you could kill six people with one round,” remarks a participant.
Another participant tells me afterward the exercise was fun, but she’s well aware that the taste of military life she experienced was “nowhere near” the real-life experience soldiers go through.
Though Lionops staff are serious about teaching the students to be
respectful of the weapon for safety’s sake, they also know how to play
into the students’ interests. At one point, uzis and Keffiyehs and other
bandannas are provided to the students for photo-ops that will
inevitably end up on Facebook.
As the afternoon sun continues to shine, the students throw themselves
into a game of paintball, and even Bar-Or is impressed that they are
playing the ‘capture the flag’ - type game strategically rather than
just spraying their peers with as many paintballs as possible.
Testing my own paintball mettle, I quickly learn that its not for me
when I get nailed in the leg five minutes into the game. I put my hands
up in surrender and quickly make my way to the “safe house.”
So much for my military career.