Israel's Latest Tourist Attraction Is Kind of Gross

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The news: A new report in Haaretz sheds some light on a disturbing new phenomenon popping up in Israel: war-watching from mountaintops on the border with Syria, where tourists can actually look directly on battles between forces loyal to Alawite dictator Bashar al-Assad and rebels fighting his regime.

Haaretz's Judy Maltz writes that three specific locales in the Golan Heights are attracting the majority of the onlookers. She found four men camped in Quneitra Overlook, from which a UN peacekeeping base captured by al-Nusra rebels last week could be seen. One regular told her that watching the conflict was a good way to kill time, adding, "The other day I saw lots of rebels hiding out over there. It's like watching a game. One side shoots at the other." Others were drawn to Mount Bental, where Maltz found two large groups of travelers who reported the fighting was so close they could hear bombs going off. Finally, locals and tourists were also visiting the Oz 77 Military Outpost, where an audience could see smoke rising from mortar shells falling in the distance.

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The background: The conflict many are watching from the safety of Israel had now killed more than 191,000 people as of late August, and the UN recently announced that the Syrian refugee crisis had now become "the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era." The number of refugees fleeing the country surpassed 3 million at the end of August, or more than 1 in 8 Syrians. From the Golan Heights, Maltz writes this devastating conflict is sometimes reduced to popcorn fare:

They wait for signs of the rebel forces darting in and out of abandoned buildings below. When gunshots are fired, they search for the direction they came from in order to figure out whether the attackers were government troops or rebel forces. They look to see which flags are hoisted on the poles near certain buildings – a key indication of which side has prevailed that day or hour. They watch to see where mortar shells and rockets land and where sniper fire hits. They point out plumes of smoke from recent hits, and when a particularly loud explosion is heard, they sometimes burst into applause.

Though it's hard not to reach the conclusion that taking a picnic basket up to the Golan Heights to watch the two sides duke it out is pretty distasteful, Maltz is quick to point out most of the viewers are concerned that the violence seen from afar could spread into Israel:

For some, with no vested interest, it's become a sort of spectator sport. Others – and these clearly represent the majority – are deeply concerned that the radical Islamic rebel forces will topple the Syrian government, threatening what has long been Israel's safest border.

This situation is a bit different from the one that transpired during the recent IDF invasion of the Gaza Strip, which the New York Times reported involved crowds of mostly right-wing Israelis flocking to places with a good view of the bombing for a sort of 'Sderot cinema.' For one, Israel isn't a direct party in the conflict, and watching skirmishes from the border is much different than cheering on the bombing of an impoverished urban area. But it's still pretty gross, and hopefully most of those joining the spectators walk away realizing how ugly war-gazing feels.

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For context, war-watching nothing new: Before you assume this is something unique to Israel, just look at the history of the United States. Americans famously rushed to watch the First Battle of Bull Run during the American Civil War, only to be surprised by a robust Confederate victory and flee into the path of the retreating Union army. In 2003, intense media coverage of the invasion of Iraq spilled over into propaganda, with events like the famous toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad's Firdos Square actually staged by the military. And networks like Fox and CNN streamed live video of bombs and missiles streaking over Iraq for Americans to watch en masse, raking in massive ratings.

As it turns out, war may be humanity's favorite spectator sport.