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Thrill-seeking American tourists take aim at West Bank firing range

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Norman Solomon is a 65-year-old real estate agent from Los Angeles, a world away from the West Bank settlement firing range where he is spending the day learning to shoot a gun.

“We came to show the kids how the Israelis protect themselves and to have a good time,” he tells AFP in between shots at white target paper and photos of men sporting the chequered keffiyeh scarf worn by many Palestinians.

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Solomon, a Jewish American, is spending a couple of hours of his holiday at the Caliber 3 shooting school in the West Bank settlement bloc of Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem.

The school was set up in 2002 and has for years provided weapons training to security professionals including soldiers and bodyguards.

But in the past three years it has also opened its doors to civilians, offering a two-hour “tourist course” to those seeking an unusual holiday experience.

The company says it offers “the values of Zionism with the excitement and enjoyment of shooting which makes the activity more meaningful.”

Its website touts the course as a “special encounter that can not be experienced anywhere else except on the battlefield.”

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It’s a major draw for American tourists, with hundreds flocking to the site near the settlement of Efrat for a swift theoretical introduction to handling firearms followed by a hands-on shooting session supervised by instructors.

“It’s a fun experience for the whole family,” said Rachel Frogel, a young mother holding a baby in her arms.

Her three other children, all under the age of 10 years, follow the explanations of their instructors carefully before putting them to the test with guns that fire paintball pellets.

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A relative decline in violence in the area in recent years has helped these courses become a local tourist attraction, pulling in entire families.

The local council of the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements, which lies between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Hebron, promotes Caliber 3 in its tourist brochures.

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“It’s a private company but it is also one of the attractions of the region,” said council head David Perel.

Caliber 3 boss Sharon Gat says the centre is “an ‘extreme tourism’ site like many others in the world,” but also “a Zionist attraction.”

“What is key here is not just shooting at targets, but hearing how we fight every day to protect the Jewish state,” says Gat, a special forces reserve major with a pistol on his belt.

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“Contact with real soldiers who have experienced anti-terrorism fighting means that everything shown and taught is authentic,” says the range’s website.

But some local leaders are less than pleased at the attention Gat and Perel attract with the shooting range, which they say contradicts their efforts to soften the image of gun-toting Israeli settlers.

Gush Etzion, which is home to a mixture of secular and religious Jews, is considered by some Israelis to be among the more moderate of the settlements in the West Bank.

Yoram Bitane, a former head of tourism development for the region, says the range sends the wrong message.

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“For years we have been looking to change the perception of Israeli residents of Judaea and Samaria and more specifically of Gush Etzion,” he says, using the Biblical name some Israelis use to refer to the West Bank.

“The image given by Caliber 3 is contrary to that goal,” he said.

Bitane would rather see visitors flock to the annual cherry festival he started, which runs each June and attracts several thousands Israelis.

The festival, he says, is a way to “attract the maximum number of people by showing them that we are not different from the rest of the inhabitants of the country.”

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