In the quiet of a cease-fire, Israelis explore sites of war
War tourists visit 'Katyusha trail' to understand Israel's latest battle with Hizbullah.
KFAR GILADI, ISRAEL
A kaleidoscope of dried flowers, tire rubber, mattress foam, and Israeli flags is framed by two charred trees and cordoned off by a white ribbon.
It is the remains of a rocket attack that killed 12 soldiers during last month's war between Israel and Hizbullah – and now it draws hundreds of Israeli sightseers a day on the weekends.
"This has become the central memorial for the war," says Amnon Loya, a tour guide who gets several requests a day to tour Katyusha rocket sites. "People want to feel the war and touch it."
A steady stream of curiosity seekers is making pilgrimages to bomb-scarred sites that, until a couple of weeks ago, were danger zones. It may seem like a macabre sort of voyeurism, but the new war tourism reflects one way in which Israelis are trying make sense of the most recent foray into Lebanon that has prompted a nationwide soul-searching.
For almost all, the visits are an act of solidarity with countrymen who have suffered through a month of unrelenting rocket attacks. And although at first they were disturbed by the idea of planning such a tour, guides like Mr. Loya consider it a form of postwar therapy – a way to confront a new fear of helplessness in the wake of Katyusha strikes.
"As long as the war is still in our memory, with lots of commissions of inquiry, there will be demand. There is a strong trauma," says Gidon Adar, a tour guide who joined Loya recently for a dry run of the tour in preparation for a group of 350 students. "To sit in shelters for a month is something unbelievable. People want to understand what happened."
That quest for understanding is being felt throughout the country. On Tuesday, Israeli army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz heard pointed criticism over how the war was handled during a meeting with dozens of former generals. And as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert fends off criticism for resisting an independent state commission of inquiry on the war, his ruling coalition has nearly unraveled.
Reviving businesses and rebuilding infrastructure in northern Israel has become an issue at the top of the domestic agenda. Some Israelis who come on the tour say it helps assuage their guilt from watching the war from cities out of the range of the rockets, the guides say.
"It's quite a natural curiosity. Look at how many people went to see the site of 9/11. But whether they will feel better afterward, I don't know," says Alan Cohen, a psychologist from the Community Stress Prevention Center in Kiryat Shmonah, the hardest-hit Israeli city.
"People have been coming up and going away disappointed, because they didn't see anything like Beirut," he notes. "From that point of view, people aren't getting their money's worth."
Nicknamed the "Katyusha trail," Loya takes clients from demolished apartments in Kiryat Shmonah to bomb shelters to the border. But the tours also offer a healthy dose of history, from the origins of the Shiite communities that neighbor Israel to the stories of how the French and British came up with the existing border.
"I didn't want to show just death and destruction. I wanted to show the problems of living near the northern border, and how a dispute over a couple of meters can cause a war," he says. "In the Middle East, there's nothing black and white, there's only a gray zone, and that's what I try to show."
There's a similar curiosity across the border, and both Lebanese and Arab tourists have stopped in Beirut's Shiite neighborhood that was left in ruins after four weeks of bombing by Israel's air force.
"They come to look at the destruction because there's never been anything like this before," says Asmaa Hanaf, an Islamic scholar from the Haarat Hreik, a district that was completely destroyed.
In Israel, war tourism is a stark change for a tour guide who specializes in ornithology and the nature reserves of northern Israel. Best known as a mountain getaway, the Galilee ranges of northern Israel emptied of tourists during the war.
With the summer high season wiped out, families who rely on the tourists have been left without the lion's share of their annual income. The infant trend of war tourism is helping guides recover some of those losses.
On a recent Friday, Loya led a group of 20 Israelis from Tel Aviv. Ariel Winter, who organized the group, says he wanted to come with a group to Kiryat Shmonah to spend some money up north. Hiring a guide to see the sites of the war seemed logical. "When you see with your own eyes what the border is like, and you talk to the soldiers, and the businesspeople, it leaves an impression," he says.
While Kiryat Shmonah residents say they see the new tourism as an expression of support in a town that has suffered millions of dollars in physical and economic damage, resident Yossi Suleiman admits that the sight of war tourists strikes him as a bit odd. "People ask, 'Where did the rockets fall?' and they say, 'We are with you,' " he says. "We are used to it, but there should be tourism without all this."