It was the last place, doing the least likely thing, I'd ever imagined: amid the ruins of an unfinished, abandoned Israeli settlement on a bone-dry West Bank hilltop, undergoing some seven hours of intense firearms training in blazing sunshine and 95-degree heat. On holiday.
Well, not technically on holiday, as I was just playing tourist and was actually undergoing the training in my capacity as Travel Weekly's destinations editor. But if the minds behind new Israeli military and extreme-tourism operator LionOps have their way, more and more Americans will follow in my dusty footsteps, paying to spend their next vacation in the Holy Land firing Uzis, jumping from airplanes at 12,000 feet and embarking on mock spy missions.
Granted, it's a niche type of traveler who would fly more than 10 hours overseas to spend anywhere from one to 10 days learning the "top-secret techniques" of the Israeli Defense Forces' Special Forces units, something that LionOps founder and business development manager Eldar Bar-Or -- a 26-year-old triathlete and army reserves captain in an elite commando paratroopers unit -- readily admits. But, as he explained to me, this is a sort of military tourism "lite," a thought-provoking and quite doable taste of what it's like to serve in the armed forces in one of the world's most volatile regions. It's also, I found out, a lot of fun. (View a slideshow of Kiesnoski's "training" here or by clicking on the first image.)
"There are some situations where you need a bit of mental toughness, but we focus on the experience," Bar-Or told me. "We don't market just to 'tough guys.'"
I, for one, am certainly not a tough guy. Although my father was a U.S. Navy SEAL, I never served in the U.S. armed forces and in fact would describe myself as a pacifist. Before my trip with LionOps, I'd never held a gun, much less fired one. In fact, I'll admit that I feared and even loathed weapons. And while several family members occasionally hunt game for sport, I never understood the appeal.
In short, I was one of the least likely candidates imaginable for a LionOps trip. Yet I was also intrigued by, and oddly drawn to, the proposed itinerary. Whether it was wanting to connect with my inner "macho man," curiosity about the lives and livelihoods of those deployed in the ever-tense Middle East, the chance to revisit Israel or all of the above, I was hooked on the idea. As it seemed an ideal kind of male bonding experience, I asked my younger brother, Jeffrey, to accompany me.
Of course, there was much more to the trip than just gunplay and grenade-throwing. Over the course of four days, we skydived; underwent a mock interrogation; "infiltrated" a top Tel Aviv hotel on a "spy mission"; learned camouflaging and surveillance techniques; took a beachfront lesson in the Israeli martial art known as krav maga; fought a paintball battle with young Orthodox Jewish settlers; and hiked up towering Mount Carmel. We even managed to squeeze in a little sightseeing to the Roman-era seaside ruins at Caesarea and the Judean hills outside the strife-torn Palestinian city of Nablus, some fine dining and, on our final day with LionOps, a night out at one of Tel Aviv's trendiest clubs.
Throughout our stay, we were taught, guided and minded by the youthful, affable and yet highly professional Bar-Or and his team of instructors. Although we were working off of a prearranged itinerary that he had put together as a sampler of LionOps product, Bar-Or and colleagues gauged our ability and comfort levels all week, consulted us as to our wants and needs and tailored and adjusted the program accordingly. It's a tactic, he said, that guarantees that LionOps' military tours are accessible to most travel types.
"I don't want someone to fly all the way to Israel and have a bad experience," he said. "Our approach is that on the first day of each trip, we start on a very basic level to see with our own eyes, regardless of the package picked, the ability level of the participants."
If arriving clients are "not up to" the planned activities, LionOps suggests some tweaks, as diplomatically as possible. "We're not trying to make their experience difficult for them," Bar-Or said.
When crafting LionOps tour product and assessing clients' skill levels, Bar-Or brings to bear his own considerable experience, gained both in his army days and later as the founder of Excellent Training, one of Israel's premier military "special operations unit assessment and selection" firms.
Born and raised in Kiryat Motzkin, a town north of Haifa where his leisure tour firm is now headquartered, Bar-Or started LionOps in 2009 as a way to share with the civilian population the "unforgettable experiences" he and his friends had in the Israeli army. In the company's official vision statement, LionOps states that it exists "to serve anyone who wants to acquire the skills of the IDF's Special Operations Units." (That said, potential clients sometimes undergo a background check to ensure their interest is benign.)
In fact, despite the machismo factor inherent in its offerings, LionOps' potential client pool includes women. Israel, after all, requires both male and female citizens to serve in the armed forces.
Bar-Or aims to make LionOps accessible to all. "We thought it would be rather fun to do the sort of stuff we did as soldiers and army officers; not in the difficult way we did while in the army, but in an experimental way, a fun way," he said. "We started doing it with a couple of guys and then we grew and grew, and then we started doing it as a serious business. And now we're trying to make it even bigger."
Many of the activities offered by LionOps would be "very hard to come by unless you actually join the army," Bar-Or said, though most Israelis might be familiar with them, since they are obliged to serve two to three years in the country's military. But curious Americans, relieved of military conscription since the Vietnam War era, represent a big, untapped potential market. So Bar-Or is turning to the U.S. travel trade to reach them (see report below).
A menu of options
Hence, my time with LionOps in Israel. As Bar-Or wanted me to experience as many of the company's activities as possible, I engaged in a wider selection of experiences than might be typical, though some of them were abbreviated.
While LionOps, working with travel agents, can tailor customers' experiences to fit, it also offers a menu of prearranged itineraries and scheduled departures at a set cost, ranging in length from one to 10 days. For example, during the one-day Plan A itinerary, participants spend an entire day at LionOps' private West Bank training facility (the aforementioned unfinished settlement).
There, they spend the morning learning how to shoot long-range weapons and handguns and then are trained in krav maga techniques. After a lunch break, the focus shifts to indoor urban fighting, hostage rescue and team building before all those newly acquired skills are put to the test in a final "advanced drill" using paintball guns. Plan A, available as a day trip from Tel Aviv and other locations, is priced at $324 per person and includes transportation, instruction, facility entrance fees, weapons and safety equipment rental, ammunition, insurance, lunch, a light dinner and snacks and drinks all day. Plan B, which adds a second day trip that includes skydiving and a Jeep rally competition, is priced at $1,320 per person.
At the other, more intense end of the scale, LionOps offers the four- or 10-day Multiday Excursion, an activity-filled tour of training sites around Israel. Priced at $3,281 and $5,890 per person, respectively, the trips are all-inclusive, "from the moment a client lands at Ben Gurion [Airport]," including food, beverages and accommodations. First and last nights are spent in four- or five-star hotels, Bar-Or said, but "in between, clients sleep outdoors, in tents or in barracks."
"It depends on where we are staying, since every day, we do [activities] in different places," he said. "We want them to taste, a little bit, some hardcore adventure."
The company is also planning one-day Ultimate Showdown events, the first tentatively scheduled for this October, which, Bar-Or said, "will be around 100 people fighting each other with paintballs in a compound facility."
Shooting and skydiving
Our itinerary was a compromise, combining elements of Plans A and B, the Multiday Excursion and the Ultimate Showdown, conducted as four day trips from our hotel, the boutique-style Artplus Hotel Tel Aviv. The play-by-play, recorded in a loose military style, follows:
10:30 hours: Jeffrey and I arrive at Ben Gurion, where we're greeted by Bar-Or. After a quick hotel stop to drop off our bags we have lunch at a nearby Thai restaurant before setting off for an orientation tour of the West Bank, where we'll be conducting some of our training over the next few days.
14:00: For a unique perspective on the geopolitical landscape of the West Bank, Bar-Or has engaged Avi Lourie, an Orthodox Jewish resident of the Itamar settlement, as our guide. We pick him up and head for windswept Mount Gerizim above Nablus, an ancient, historical and sometimes violence-plagued town that's currently off-limits to non-Palestinians, for spectacular views and some historical context.
We next drive up Mount Kabir, an important archeological site associated with biblical prophets. For proponents of Israeli expansion in the West Bank, it is also a site of political and sometimes even religious significance.
Lourie is at turns thoughtful and passionate. Although a faith-driven Israeli settler living on highly contested land, he provides what strikes me as largely balanced commentary on the struggles between local Jews and Arabs.
16:00: We head back into Israel proper. Bar-Or takes pains to stress en route that despite having hired a settler as our guide today, LionOps does not espouse or strive to impart any political agenda.
"We are a military tourism company that touches on the fighting, combat and training aspects without trying to address political views," he reiterated in a later interview. "I just want people to have a good time and a special experience. If they want to address the political aspects, too, fine, but this product is not a propaganda tool."
17:00: We arrive at the Chof HaSharon Reservoir park north of Tel Aviv for a seaside krav maga lesson. Our amiable instructor is Shai Fargian, a two-time Israeli national champion in this relatively new martial art. We're joined by Natan Levi, a college intern from Toronto serving as LionOps' operations manager for the summer.
(View a video of Kiesnoski's krav maga session with instructor Shai Fargian.)
After warming up, Jeffrey and I don some protective gear and boxing gloves and are shown how to take repeated blows to the stomach without complaint. We then learn how to both neutralize an attacker armed with a handgun and break a chokehold, all against the stunning backdrop of a slow sunset over the Mediterranean Sea.
Never having been in a fistfight in my life, I struggle but manage not to humiliate myself. My brother, a 6-foot-1 former rugby player, does better from the get-go.
08:00: After breakfast at our hotel, Bar-Or drives us to Jaffa, where we meet with instructor Ori Ben-Hemo, security expert and former sniper, for a morning "spying, detection and observation drill."
We're given three increasingly daring, and seemingly impossible, tasks: In Jaffa's Clock Square, talk a clerk at the grocery store of our choice into giving us free ice cream; case the David InterContinental Hotel as if we were spies, make a date for the next evening with a female employee and get her phone number; and persuade a random apartment dweller in the Yemenite Quarter to let us into his home so Ben-Hemo can take a photo of us standing on the apartment balcony from the street.
What's more, we have to find our own way to each location, memorizing the Hebrew name of each street we navigate, while evading Ben-Hemo, who says he will try to tail us. We also have to pump the store clerk and hotel employee for some personal information that we can report back. Horrified and more than a bit nervous, at first we balk. But in the end we succeed in each task (apart from the phone number), much to our own relieved disbelief.
13:00: Bar-Or and Levi pick us up for lunch and a drive north to the wooded slopes of gorgeous Mount Carmel National Park for lessons in camouflage, as in both face-painting and constructing convincing "hides" for long-term stakeouts.
17:30: After a hillside Turkish coffee break, we drive around Mount Carmel for our most grueling activity yet: a two-hour hike with Bar-Or up 1,200 feet of the famed mountain ridge, a set of massive, above-ground water pipes serving as our trail. At the summit, we're rewarded with spectacular views, and we toast our achievement with more shots of strong coffee.
07:30: We drive 45 minutes north of Tel Aviv to Habonim Beach for one of our most highly anticipated activities -- and the most worrisome: a tandem jump from 12,000 feet with skydiving firm Paradive. Neither Jeffrey nor I have skydived, and we're both a bit, well, jumpy.
Bar-Or, an untold number of skydives under his own belt, sits this one out and turns us over to the Paradive trainers. We're briefed, suited up and hustled onto a small plane, with Jeffrey and his tandem partner, seated next to the airplane door, the first in line to jump.
I'm strangely calm until the plane climbs past 4,000 feet. This altitude already looks sufficiently high for a jump, yet we still have 8,000 feet to go. Fifteen minutes later, a red light at the back of the plane turns green, the door is rolled open and Jeffrey is shuffled to the exit. In the blink of an eye, out he goes. Two individual skydivers casually leap past me out the door, and then my tandem partner and I are out in open air.
As I plunge through the atmosphere, an initial flurry of butterflies in my stomach quickly disappears and all I feel during our surreal, 45-second freefall is the rush of wind, at first cool and then warm, against my body -- along with exhilaration and amazement at both my predicament and the awesome views of Israel's Mediterranean coastline below. At 4,000 feet, my tandem partner pulls the ripcord and, thankfully, the chute opens. I'm allowed to steer the parachute through puffy, humid cumulous clouds before my partner takes over to bring us to a safe landing on terra firma. Adrenaline still pumping, Jeffrey and I wear grins for the rest of the morning.
10:00: We make our way slowly back toward Tel Aviv, spending a few hours learning off-road wilderness navigation in a hilly, arid area called Chof HaCarmel, using Bar-Or's four-wheel-drive vehicle. As I can't drive a stick shift, my brother takes the wheel and I observe from the back seat. It's a bumpy ride, but Jeffrey skillfully navigates the rocky, challenging course.
13:00: We arrive in Caesarea for a tour of its Roman-era ruins, a multimedia show and lunch at the HaMetzuda restaurant, set in a reconstructed fortress.
15:00: We're joined by Sharon Vollmark, a former IDF interrogator. He and Bar-Or bind our hands with plastic cuffs and place produce sacks over our heads. This is our interrogation exercise. We're hustled into Bar-Or's vehicle and driven around, seemingly in circles, while Vollmark informs us he's discovered our alleged recent meeting with a Palestinian terrorist leader. We come to an abrupt halt in what I later discover is a grove of fruit trees, and Jeffrey and I are separated for individual interrogation. Not able to see, hands numb from the tight cuffs and in sweltering heat, I soon find it hard to answer Vollmark's sharp questions coherently, even though I'm telling the truth about who I am and what I'm doing in Israel. In the distance, I hear Jeffrey (allegedly) being beaten. He, it turns out, was playing along with our "captors." As I scramble for answers amid Vollmark's fictional threats and queries, I think how difficult enduring an actual, real-world interrogation must be, whether you are guilty or wrongly accused.
06:00: We rise early for the crescendo of our military tour experience: a full day of gun training at LionOps' West Bank facility, followed by a mini-Ultimate Showdown (a paintball match with the emergency early-response team from the nearby Orthodox settlement of Peduel).
(View a video of Kiesnoski learning first basic and then advanced shooting.)
We are met at the facility -- skeletal, warzone-like settlement remains -- by LionOps' chief instructor Doron Balachsan, who arrives with a carload of weapons, ammunition and safety gear. We spend the entire morning learning first basic and then advanced shooting, using handguns such as Glock pistols and longer-range weapons, including American M16s and the Israeli Tavor assault rifle. We also learn to throw smoke and concussion grenades.
For a firearms neophyte, I take to the long day of shooting surprisingly well, firing off dozens upon dozens of rounds so eagerly that I don't notice I'm contracting the worst sunburn of my life.
13:00: Hiding from the sun, we recline in the shell of a half-finished condo strewn with bullet casings and dig into a surprisingly sumptuous takeout lunch of Israeli delicacies -- pita bread, hummus, tabouli, stewed chicken and beef, pickles, you name it -- while rehashing our new "war stories."
15:00: We're joined by more than a dozen young men from Peduel for our paintball war. After donning significant amounts of protective gear and loading our paintball guns, we're split into two teams and charged with capturing each other's flags, which are hidden in houses at opposite ends of the facility.
During the grueling but entertaining match, I successfully dodge most of the painful paintballs. However, a point-blank "enemy" shot to my face from around a windowsill at the 1-hour, 45-minute mark brings my paintball career to a slightly premature end. (Despite my mask, after impact I momentarily fear I've lost my upper lip.) The team Jeffrey and I are on is declared the victor, and we exchange heartfelt goodbyes and Facebook addresses with our settler teammates.
22:00: As is typical after LionOps' longer itineraries, Bar-Or, my brother and I head out on the town in Tel Aviv for a final night of celebration. We're joined at Ya Ya, the city's newest dance club, by krav maga expert Fargian and a coterie of other new Israeli friends. Although exhausted and sunburned, we're somehow also exhilarated and dance, eventually on tabletops, into the wee hours.
LionOps on mission to recruit U.S. agents
TEL AVIV -- Eager to market its military training and "extreme tourism" itineraries to the widest possible U.S. audience, Israeli tour operator LionOps is turning to what it regards as the most historically reliable resource: travel agents.
According to LionOps founder and business development manager Eldar Bar-Or, retailers are "the most important link in the chain" as he looks to build a client base of Americans interested in exploring what company literature calls "the fascinating world of Israeli special operations units."
Apart from a nascent partnership with another Israeli tour operator, LionOps has been trying to reach new customers "firsthand," via its LionOps.com website and by distributing brochures at Tel Aviv hotels. Now Bar-Or is thinking bigger.
"My hope is to meet American travel agents with vision who understand that there could be a lot of cooperation here," he said.
"I need agents to sell these packages and services," he said. "I hope that there will be good, reliable partners whom I can collaborate with in the U.S. so that we can operate on a daily or monthly basis with high volume coming to Israel, whether it's for one day, four days or 10 days."
To incentivize potential travel agent partners, LionOps is offering a two-tier "revenue-share" structure: 12.5% commission for retailers booking occasional small groups and 17.5% for bigger producers who regularly send larger ones.
Demonstrating an acute familiarity with global travel market trends despite LionOps' mere two-year pedigree, Bar-Or noted that unique, niche tourism product can be a real moneymaker for agents in a harsh economic climate.
"It's a very hard job to do right now; agents live on niche travel, and we want to compensate them as much as we can," he said. "Hopefully, both parties... will make money on this."
With typical Israeli casualness and entrepreneurship, Bar-Or added that "it's always OK for travel agents to give me a call at (011) 972-50 578-7555 or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
to say: 'Hey, what's up, I want to work with you, so let's do business together.'" -- K.K.