Caesarea (CNSNews.com) - An explosion -- then a burst of automatic weapons fire. Five Americans are caught in the middle. This time though, the Middle East "terror attack" is simulated, designed to give these civilians a taste of the real thing in order to teach them how to respond to emergency situations.
A small group of "average" American citizens became the first civilians this week to participate in a new program that trains civilians in Israeli counter-terrorism measures.
Named after a famous Civil War battle, "Operation Shiloh" aims to give participants new skills and an awareness to protect themselves, their families and friends. The exercise also gives them a feel for what it is like to live in an environment where terrorism is a constant threat, organizers said.
During the 1862 battle at Shiloh, Confederate troops forced the retreat of Union soldiers, but the next day, reinforcements arrived and the Union army was able to defeat the Rebel army.
Some 3,000 American soldiers died in that battle, the same number as died in the September 11 terror attacks on the U.S., the Operation Shiloh website notes.
"Operation Shiloh is an intensive, hands-on, 5-day counter-terrorism course, designed primarily for North American citizens," said Yehoshua Mizrachi, the company's CEO.
"The program has two primary objectives: The first is to emphasize the common cause shared between the State of Israel and the United States of America on the war on terror," Mizrachi told journalists at a press conference in Caesarea on Thursday.
"The second major objective of this program is to provide practical, counter-terrorism training to the participants that they would take home and they can disseminate to their own community," said Mizrachi, who moved to Israel from Baltimore with his wife and four daughters a year and a half ago.
The course includes special firearms training; a defensive driving course where participants practice escape techniques; a night in the desert; briefings by Israeli security officials; tours of important sites; and a meeting with the father of a young teenager, murdered in a terror attack.
Most of the training takes place at the Dani Hai Tactical Training Center, dug into the sand dunes at Caesarea, north of Tel Aviv, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The facility is used to train elite Israeli army troops and Mossad (secret service) forces.
The participants are trained by security experts from the M.A.1- an international security firm, established several years ago by three friends who are veteran officers of elite army fighting units.
Ramy Gershon, Vice President of Marketing, for M.A.1, said one of the most important things that the trainees learned was how to be much more aware of their environment.
"They can react more wisely than before... and prevent problems, not just terrorists, but crimes, too," Gershon said.
Also by being in Israel, he said, they can see how Israelis must be searched before entering public places and how Israelis submit to the searches gladly.
There were five participants in Operation Shiloh's first group, which finished up its five-day training program on Thursday. Most of the participants preferred to be identified by their first names only as they described their reasons for coming and their impressions of the course.
Jason, who declined to give personal details, described himself as "an average citizen from Virginia...with a wife and children." He appeared to be in his mid-to-late thirties.
"I felt that we are all responsible now to react as quickly as we can to [avert] terrorism. And by coming here, I received knowledge, which will minimize the chances of me becoming a victim," Jason said.
"I'll tell my friends, my neighbors [about what I learned]...I would recommend this course to every North American citizen," he said.
Jeff, 39, a field technician for a national chemical company, came from the Hampton Roads area of Virginia with his wife Lisa, 37 - the only woman in the group.
"My interest in coming here was to get my eyes on the ground here and see for myself what's going on here in Israel," Jeff said. "Another goal of mine was to get some of the best training in the world by the people who've been doing it probably the longest...It's been a very interesting, demanding but fulfilling course."
What impressed him the most, he said, was that the group was in an environment where people face terrorism everyday.
"We got to see first-hand how a society has to live when they have to face these kinds of dangers every day. We also see some of the things they have to do to protect themselves," said Jeff. Nineteen years ago, as a serviceman in the U.S. Army, Jeff was stationed in the Sinai Desert for six months as an observer.
"I believe that in the future we may see an increase in this type of activity in the United States, and it would be better for us to be prepared to deal with it and possibly work as pro-actively instead of reactively, after the fact," he said.
"After 9/11, I realized that we are very vulnerable in the States and it scared me," said Jeff's wife Lisa, who works in an orthodontists' office.
Although Lisa said she was exhausted in the beginning and had no idea what to expect, she said she's glad she came.
"We got to see a lot of the historical sites and also learn a little bit about what was going on... We talked to officials and people who had been [involved in terror attacks]. It was very moving and sometimes very sad," she said.
The group met Seth Mandell, the father of 13-year-old Koby Mandell, who was bludgeoned to death with his friend Yosef Ish-Ran in a terror attack two years ago near their home in the settlement of Tekoa.
"We were taken down to the cave where he was killed, and that was very moving," said Lisa.
"I could have taken classes in the United States but I would have be sitting under someone [else] who had taken a class ... So by coming here I get to actually interact and hear it from the people who know it best, who live it every day and who fight it everyday," Lisa said.
"I think we've learned a lot. We know we can't go and patrol the streets and pick up Uzis [Israeli machine guns] and defend our neighbors from the bad guys, but what we can do is take that little bit of knowledge they shared with us and somehow prevent a situation. We've learned how to recognize a situation before it happens, how to maybe get out of the area safely," she added.
Don, 36, from Colorado is Jeff's brother and also has a military background. "The training for me, a lot of it is vigilance... I think the traveling around is really important. You see Tel Aviv, it's a city, you can see how close an Israeli, Jewish community is to an Arab [community] and how close they live and why the security needs to be there."
Reuven Steinberg, 41, is a systems administrator, who moved to an Israeli settlement last summer from the U.S.
Having come here at a "later stage in life," he said he didn't have the opportunity to learn what most Israelis learn in the army, so the course helped him to learn "specific skills that will help me in my daily life.
"There's nothing theoretical about terrorists where I live. On the road from my home to Jerusalem since the war started, nine people have been shot and killed," Steinberg said.
Journalists in Caesarea watched as the five Americans slid down a wire from an 80-foot cliff and then participated in a live fire exercise.
"I feel good because I was afraid of it, and once I got up there it was OK and it wasn't scary and it was actually fun and I'd do it again actually," said Lisa of her slide down the Omega wire.
Then running from around a corner, one at a time, the Americans followed closely by an Israeli trainer, picked up a 9 mm handgun, approached a shield and fired around it at a paper target, ran to the next shield, reloaded and fired again.
Participants in the program, which costs $5,500 including round trip airfare from New York, are screened for security clearance, must be Americans, over 21 years old and healthy.
"This is not for crazy people," said Mizrachi. "[We're] looking for stable, real human beings." Mizrachi, who said he was very satisfied with their first group, said they hope to bring a group of up to 20 Americans each month.
Jay Greenwald, president of Operation Shiloh, said it's obvious that the people won't become expert marksmen in just five days, but he hopes they will return home and practice what they've learned, sharing it with their communities and maybe even working with their local police and fire departments.
"They're going to take [a new awareness and skills] home with them, with the express hope that they're going to introduce it to their communities, not to make militias and not to create gangs of roving armed individuals in the States, that's not what this is all about," said Greenwald who moved here more than seven years ago from Pittsburgh.
"It's about empowering people to take effective training for themselves, go home and share it with their friends and loved ones," he said.