From The Promised Land To The Golden Land
31 August 2004
Srinagar: Nineteen-year-old Dikla from the Israeli city of Yoknem is visiting Indian-administered Kashmir for the third time in three years. Israelis top the number of foreign visitors This time she is accompanied by her mother, Shosh, who had initially been nervous of her daughter's choice of holiday destination. They are part of a growing number of Israeli tourists visiting the troubled region, which is disputed between India and Pakistan. Official figures reveal that Israelis top the number of foreign tourists who have visited Kashmir this year. Most of them are young people travelling on their gap year after finishing their compulsory military training. No fears The choice of Kashmir as a destination for many Israelis seems particularly incongruous given the fact that Islamic militants battle Indian security forces almost on a daily basis. When I am here, it is like family Shosh Paradise regained? Israel is not very popular among the state's Muslim majority who strongly sympathise with the Palestinians. But for Dikla and Shosh, relaxing in a house-boat on Srinagar's picturesque Dal Lake, it appears to be far removed from violence. The two women have even stepped out of the heavily-guarded capital, visiting the scenic tourist resorts of Sonamarg, Gulmarg and Pahalgam. The only precaution they take is to avoid visiting central Srinagar, for fear of being hurt in a bomb explosion or caught up in an exchange of fire between militants and the Indian police. 'When I am here, it is like family,' Shosh told BBC News Online. 'I know they are Muslims. When you know each other from inside, it is easy to be friends.' A house-boat owner, Bilal Baktoo, explains that his community, who live off tourism, have to make their guests feel at home. Dikla is on her third visit in three years 'They are tourists to us. We have nothing to do with their faith.' Another young Israeli, Danny, suggests he would not feel as safe in an Arab country as he does in Kashmir. 'Even though I am in a Muslim part of India, it is still India. 'The presence of the army in the streets contributes a lot to the feeling of security I have here.' But another young Israeli, Eran, says he was upset by the sight of the army and the police when he arrived in Srinagar. 'Not because I am an Israeli, but because I don't like seeing people with guns. But when you come to the lake and rest here, everything looks different.' Targets But it can be a risky business. In the early 1990s, Muslim militants kidnapped seven Israeli tourists in Srinagar whom they suspected of being on a spying mission. Five of the hostages freed themselves after a scuffle in which one hostage and one militant were killed. Danny feels safer in Kashmir than in an Arab country The other hostage was rescued by members of the separatist Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. But that incident did little to slow down the influx of Israeli tourists into the Kashmir Valley. Eran's friend, Noam, says a large number of Israelis are keen to visit Kashmir thanks to a recent book in which a young Israeli author, Gabi Nitzan, describes how he was filled with joy by the sight of lotus flowers on the surface of the Dal Lake every morning. Noam has no fears at all but says he takes routine precautions. He stays away from crowded places and avoids going near soldiers. A day after he arrived in Srinagar, he received an e-mail from his mother who warned him that Kashmir was not a safe place. 'I wrote back saying that I am in Ladakh,' he says laughing. Many of the Israeli tourists appear to think that the violence in Kashmir is no worse than that in their own country. They do draw a parallel. 'Life here is not quiet inside. It is like Israel,' says Shosh.