'Katyusha tours' take Tel Avivians to scene of the action

"It is one thing to see things on television, or on radio, and another thing to see it."

katyusha tour 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
katyusha tour 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Eyes covered by expensive sunglasses, and with both men and women sporting trendy 7/8th-length "board shorts," the group of about two dozen residents of central Israel stared at the tank crew, dusty and dirty from operating along the Lebanese border. Leaving Tel Aviv in the early morning, the group has driven to the North to participate in the latest tourism trend in the aftermath of the summer's war: so-called "Katyusha tours." "Why are you wearing a snowsuit?" asked Ariel, one of the young men on the tour who was not much older than the soldier he was addressing. The soldier smiled, and explained that his jumpsuit was not a snowsuit, but the flame-retardant suit that tank crews wear while on assignment. The tours, offered through the Kibbutz Gonen Holiday Village, have provided an opportunity for Israelis outside the Katyusha strike zone to see firsthand some of the key sites of the summer's war. Beginning at Moshav Avivim, the scene of bloody fights between IDF special forces and crack Hizbullah squads, the tour winds through the hills of the Upper Galilee, stopping to view UNIFIL posts, overlook key Lebanese villages such as Maoun a-Ras, and view the damage caused by Katyusha rockets to both forests and houses. At Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, tours visit the improvised memorial at the place where 15 reservists were killed when a rocket hit the parking lot in which they were standing. "By the third day of the war, we were already trying to design a plan for the 'day after'" said Ori Alon, the marketing director for the holiday village. "I asked around at the tour agencies that we work with and received the answer that people wanted to see the damage from the war. I was shocked, and decided to ignore the requests at first, but then more requests kept coming." Since the end of the war, tourists have paid NIS 100 per vehicle to participate in the tours, and while Alon is certain that the excitement will drop off, more tourists keep coming. Alon said the desire to see the sites connected with the war is natural. "It is one thing to see things on television, or on radio, and another thing to see it," he said. Amir, a Jerusalem resident who took part in the tour, agreed. "We were exposed to the war through news and television, but didn't really feel like it was in our country," he said, adding that he signed up for the tour out of a desire to "see where things happened" and to "help northerners by spending money in local restaurants and gas stations." After the three-hour drive from Tel Aviv to Koah Junction, the group, traveling in a caravan of vehicles mostly embossed with the logos of hi-tech companies, wound along the Northern Road. Stopping once along the way to Moshav Avivim, guide Amnon took time to explain the situation along the Lebanese border before and after the IDF pullout from southern Lebanon in 2000. "I am very optimistic," the Kibbutz Amir resident told the group, as he expressed his belief that the recent war had shifted the balance of power in Lebanon against Hizbullah. After a few more minutes in the sun, the group was back into the cars, and off to the perimeter road of Avivim, stopping to point out a UN base and to pick up peaches that had fallen off a local farmer's truck. Once the group stopped again on the perimeter road, looking out in the direction of nearby Hizbullah strongholds Maroun a-Ras and Bint Jbail, a political debate broke out as to how best to secure the northern border. A local Arab resident, seeing the group, pulled over and, flanked by his young daughter, joined the fray. "You destroyed all of Lebanon," he told Amnon. But tensions were calmer at the next stop, as tour participants bought ice cream from a local vendor, and yelled 'Shalom' and 'Namaste' (a greeting) to blue-turbaned Indian UN soldiers at a UNIFIL post across the street - and the border - from Kibbutz Manara. The largely adult group smiled and snapped pictures as the guards waved back. The tour hit its emotional climax at Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, where tour participants joined with cars full of other tourists who had come to visit a makeshift memorial where the reservists were killed. They bent over and touched the burned, twisted pieces of the deadly Katyusha, tangled together with blackened branches and chunks of the vehicles that were near the point of impact. A mother and daughter stood silent, arms linked across each others' backs, looking at small placards with the faces of the people placed at the spots where there bodies were recovered. After long minutes of contemplation, group members walked back down the hill, and got back into their cars to drive to a nearby Italian restaurant for lunch. "Kfar Giladi is a place where you see before your own eyes something that could happen to anyone. I didn't believe the force that the Katyushas have. I saw what was left of the trees, the cars, and realized that it didn't matter where you stood, you had no chance," said Oded, a tour participant from Kibbutz Tzuba, near Jerusalem. "It makes you sad, it makes you angry." Alon said this emotional reaction to the visit was part of the goal in beginning the tours. "It wasn't so much to earn money as to give answers to people who wanted to know about what happened," he said. After lunch, the tour concluded with a visit to nearby Kiryat Shmona, where the members saw two heavily-damaged houses as well as the damage to one of the city's two shopping malls. Then they got back into their cars, with some spending the night at Gonen and others beginning the drive back southward, back to the center and far away from the Katyusha-scarred buildings and hills.