War games and settlement excursions: inside a pro-Israel propaganda tour for student activists

ActivismIsrael/Palestine
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BlueStar
Students on the BlueStar trip to Israel and the occupied West Bank participated in a paintball session at Caliber 3, a privately-owned counter-terrorism training facility in the illegal Israeli settlement bloc of Gush Etzion. (Photo via BlueStar)

“‘TERRORIST! GO! BODY!’ I’m sprinting across the rocky terrain to reach safety…Heart racing, out of breath, I’m trying to remember the instructor’s commands. Muscle memory, no time to aim, hurry, hurry…”

So begins one California college student’s first-hand account of a June 2013 “commando tourism” paintball session at Caliber 3, a privately-owned counter-terrorism training facility in the illegal Israeli settlement bloc of Gush Etzion. The student, identified only as “JJL”, was on a ten-day BlueStar Fellows summer tour of Israel, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights with twenty-three peers from five California universities. The trip was part of a year-long program launched by San Francisco-based Israel advocacy group BlueStar PR with the goal of molding students into “powerful pro-Israel advocates, spokespeople and opinion leaders” on their college campuses.

In over fifty entries on the BlueStar Fellows program blog (penned with the assistance of a writing coach) participants from UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz, San Francisco State, San Jose State, and Pitzer College reflect on a trip itinerary that often glorifies Israeli state violence while promoting a dehumanized image of Palestinians. The accounts provide insight into the sensational approach to the conflict pushed by some hardline Israel advocacy groups, and raise questions about the impact of their tactics in the battle for the hearts and minds of US college students.

After visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and flying to Israel, BlueStar participants were first brought to the Museum of Independence in Tel Aviv. Sitting in the flag-swathed hall where the Israeli declaration of independence was signed in 1948, students listened to a tour guide play the national anthem and recount the Zionist narrative of the struggle to create a Jewish state in the land of Palestine, in defiance of hostile neighbors. Absent from accounts of the day is any mention of the 750,000 indigenous Palestinians displaced in the violence leading up to and following the establishment of Israel. In fact, students seem to write Palestinians out of the narrative entirely. After viewing a 1909 picture of the sand dunes part of Tel Aviv would be built on, Qi Li, a Chinese exchange student at SJSU, mused, “isn’t [it] obvious from the barren landscape that [the Palestinians] did not even know or care about this piece of land? How could this land be considered ‘occupied’ when Jewish settlers found this virgin land with no occupants?”

One of the next stops on the trip was the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, which houses a museum and memorial to Israeli intelligence officers killed in the line of duty. There, participants sat through another lecture and viewed rooms full of “weapons and explosives…showing various tactics and techniques that terrorists utilize.” Students also saw videos and pictures of Palestinian youngsters “handed guns and celebrating death.” Deeply unsettled by this imagery, SFSU student Kayla Wold declared that “in the Islamic world children are raised with a mentality for death. Not just death upon Jews, but death to themselves…Coming from a country and culture where I was taught to cherish my life, it’s been a struggle to understand this mentality.” This death-cult image of Palestinian childhood would sharply contrast with the iconic caterpillar-shaped playground bomb shelter participants observed the next day as they toured Sderot, a city heavily impacted by rockets fired by armed groups in neighboring Gaza.

Commando tourism

After visiting the Israeli Holocaust Museum and touring holy sites in East Jerusalem, BlueStar participants journeyed into the occupied West Bank, passing concrete walls and military checkpoints en route to Caliber 3. Located in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, Caliber 3 Academy provides counter-terrorism training to Israeli combat units, private security companies, and SWAT teams from around the world. The training center also offers a variety of what it calls “commando tourism” activities for civilians, ranging from infantry and urban warfare instruction to paintball games to a Bar Mitzvah package. The Caliber 3 website is blunt about the ideological motivations behind its contentious locale, and boasts of an experience that combines “the values of Zionism with the excitement and enjoyment of shooting.” A June 2013 NPR report on Caliber 3 describes instructors demonstrating firing techniques on targets dressed as Palestinians, and telling tourists that they can “help fight terrorism” by promoting a positive view of Israeli soldiers when they return home.

The BlueStar Fellows’ dramatic accounts of their tactical training and paintball session at Caliber 3 resemble a live action version of a first person shooter video game. SJSU student Jaspreet Kaur describes the thrill of learning “how to clear a house of an enemy and…snap into combat mode in less than three seconds.” This creates a chilling image when placed in the context of the frequent night raids the Israeli military leads into the homes of Palestinian families. “JJL” recalls hearing a lecture on the IDF code of ethics the night before the excursion, but admits to being so enthralled that “I did not once think while I was firing at the enemy team whether or not my stray ‘bullets’ might hit an innocent.” While the paintball game was far removed from the human impact of the conflict it mimicked, students felt their experience was authentic, and at times very real. Kaur vividly recalls being shot by a fellow student, saying, “[t]o me that wasn’t a paintball shot by a member of the other team but an actual bullet by a terrorist.”

When the training session was done, students headed north to the settlement of Psagot for wine tasting and a lecture on Israeli agriculture.

Arabs from another planet

Despite the notable absence of Palestinian voices on the tour, over and over again participants cited the region’s diversity as a testament to Israeli democracy. After a day spent touring the holy sites of East Jerusalem, a city whose Palestinian residents lack citizenship and often basic services, UCSB student Melissa Vega gushed,  “I was amazed that so many different places of worship exist within even the city of Jerusalem…Israel seems to be able to maintain a high population of diverse religious practices while in a sense also integrating them all into one living space.” While students certainly saw some Palestinians on their trip, their actual contact with them was extremely limited. The only scheduled visit to an Arab community recorded in the blog posts is an excursion to the Galilee village of Peki’in (known in Arabic as Al Buqai’a) to meet with the community’s Jewish residents and eat lunch at a Druze restaurant.

This dearth of alternative perspectives was not without consequence. The BlueStar fellows’ accounts of their trip reveal confusion about even the most widely accepted historical events and facts on the ground. Reflecting the rhetoric of Israel’s hard right politicians, participants almost universally refer to both the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights as part of Israel, treating the internationally recognized 1967 borders as a historical afterthought. Students also grossly underestimate the number of Palestinians living in the West Bank by over a million, parroting a figure refuted by the Israeli military but pushed by hardline pro-settler figures, like Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennet.

One of the only references to the Palestinians displaced in 1948 eschews any mention of the role Zionist forces and Israeli land laws played in driving refugees from their homeland and later keeping them out, simply stating that “Arabs fled the region due to their leadership’s commands and when they were unable to return, became refugees.” This selective presentation of the violence surrounding Israel’s establishment renders the history and experiences of the Palestinian people invisible. The Palestinian term for their own displacement, Al Nakba, the catastrophe in Arabic, is never mentioned in the blog posts. Also absent is any informed reflection on the impact of Israeli military occupation on Palestinian civilians, or the efforts of Palestinian communities to protest human rights abuses nonviolently. Trip participants are instead left with a view of Palestinians that presents them as overwhelmingly hostile, faceless, and even alien in their own homeland.

After driving past impoverished Bedouin communities on the way out of the West Bank, one student remarked, “My mind skipped immediately to sci-fi Star Wars desert tribes on Tatooine.” When viewed through the lens of BlueStar’s itinerary, it is not surprising that trip participants might have seen Palestinians as something akin to the Tusken Raiders: a masked and marauding tribal species, not-so-affectionately referred to as “sand-people.”

Following the money

Far from creating any financial problems for the organization, BlueStar’s hardline programming seems to have thus far been a potential draw for financial support.

Much of the organization’s funding comes from charitable foundations that support an unlikely mixture of generally uncontroversial civic projects, Israel advocacy groups, and known funders of illegal settlement activity. Between 2009 and 2010 BlueStar PR received $110,000 in grants from the Koret Foundation, an organization best known for its large grants to California schools, hospitals, and community centers, but that also contributes to fundraising groups for Birthright, AIPAC, and Commentary Magazine, as well as the infamously Islamophobic David Horowitz Freedom Center and admitted settlement financier Central Fund of Israel. An even greater contributor to BlueStar’s efforts is the Avi Chai Foundation, which between 2010 and 2011 awarded the group $272,763, while also supporting the David Project, the Central Fund of Israel, and American Friends of Bnei Akiva Yeshivas in Israel, which has several West Bank settlement locations. In 2010 yet another major BlueStar PR funder, the Irving and Helen Bitz Foundation, awarded a $161,000 grant to the pro-settler Israel Independence Fund, stipulating that the money should go to Hashomer Hachadash (the New Guardians in English), a Zionist militia group that ostensibly operates in the Negev and Galilee but has been recorded leading settler incursions into private Palestinian land in the south Hebron hills.

Intervening in student democracy

So what will the students do with the perspectives they gained on the trip? An April 18 BlueStar PR fundraising email titled “Draw the Line at UC Berkeley” positions the BlueStar Fellows program as an answer to the wave of Israel divestment resolutions presented by Palestine solidarity groups at UC campuses that year. Sent the same morning as the passage of the divestment bill, the message urged donors to help BlueStar “prepare students at other campuses to fight against future resolutions before it is too late.”

Several trip participants are RAs at their universities or hold leadership positions in their student governments, placing them in potential positions of influence during future divestment debates on their campuses.

Both the trip and such direct intervention in student affairs appear to be a relatively new tactic for BlueStar PR, which prior to 2012 limited its activities to distributing propaganda materials online, running billboard campaigns, and coordinating the San Francisco version of the “Write on for Israel” program. However, BlueStar is far from the only pro-Israel group seeking to stem the tide of divestment from the Israeli occupation on college campuses. Organizations like StandWithUs, Hasbara Fellowships, and the ADL provide programs that also seek to utilize student voices to influence how Israel is discussed in academic settings. The Jewish Agency is also working on a plan to spend $300 million dollars over five years on similar projects.

While the BlueStar Fellows trip was certainly successful in shaping a hardline pro-Israel narrative for participants to bring back to their respective institutions, the wider impact of doing so in this fashion remains unclear.

After being exposed to such a hostile and cartoonish view of Palestinians, it is hard to imagine these students seeing their Arab, Muslim, and pro-Palestinian peers as anything other than enemies of Israel and supporters of terrorism. One also has to question the efficacy of a program that leaves participants with such a limited view of the conflict, even in terms of achieving BlueStar’s own stated goals. If students believe the West Bank is part of Israel, how will they explain the 2.5 million Palestinians who live there under varying levels of military rule with no Israeli citizenship or right to vote in Israeli elections? Further, how will they defend Israeli policy towards these same people when they don’t even know what it entails? Perhaps one of the strongest critiques of BlueStar’s methodology lies in the skepticism of its own fellows. Self-described “right-wing” participant Sachar Ben-David bemoaned the obfuscation of many of the trip’s speakers, asking “If we don’t let ourselves hear every side of the truth, even the ugly parts, how can we truly advocate for Israel?”

About Rebecca Pierce

Rebecca Pierce is a recent graduate of the University of California Santa Cruz where she studied film production and was active in student media and Palestine solidarity organizing.

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