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Thursday, August 19, 2004

Israeli tourists flock to Islamic revolt-torn Kashmir

SRINAGAR, India, Aug 19 (Reuters) - Gulzar Ahmad, owner of a handicraft shop near scenic Dal lake in Srinagar, the main city of Muslim-majority Kashmir, recently changed the language of his outlet's signboard from English to Hebrew.

It was another sign of the new acceptance of visitors from Israel. For the second successive year, Israelis top the list of foreign tourists visiting a region where tens of thousands have been killed in a revolt by Muslim militants against Indian rule.

"Seventy percent of my customers are Israelis," 50-year-old Ahmad, a Muslim, told Reuters. "So I changed my signboard to attract more Israeli customers."

On the face of it, Kashmir, once a tourist haven but now the centre of a bloody Islamic insurgency, seems like a most unlikely destination for Israelis who are themselves battling Palestinian Islamic militants at home.

However that, and the fact that Kashmir is now one of the most violent regions in the world with daily gun battles between troops and militants, grenade attacks and bomb blasts, has not apparently reduced its attraction to Israeli tourists.

"Kashmir is an amazing place and so are its people. They are Muslims but not hostile to us," said Rita Katzir, a 28-year-old computer software engineer from Israel.

"Now, violence can touch you anywhere, in any part of world. I can die anywhere -- in Washington, in Jerusalem, here in Srinagar or in Tel Aviv or any other city.

"Death is destiny."

A Kashmir tourism department officer said 960 Israelis had arrived so far this year compared to 1,097 last year.

The Chinese were second with 700 visitors to the Himalayan region known for its lush pines, snow-capped mountains, lakes and streams, houseboats and picturesque trekking routes.


Most foreigners, including the Israelis, come to Kashmir despite advisories by their countries to avoid the region.

Kashmiri rebels have targeted Israeli tourists in the past. They abducted 6 Israelis from Srinagar in 1991. One of the captives was killed, four escaped and the last was set free.

"I know about the trouble here, but I respect rules and act by the rules. After it gets dark I go to my hotel," said Ronan Madiani, a 32-year old lawyer from Israel, who was staying with his wife on a houseboat on the calm Dal lake.

Visitors say few places in the world can compete with Kashmir for the tag of being a paradise. But locals say that the 15-year revolt, which has killed more than 40,000 people, has turned an idyllic corner of South Asia into paradise lost.

"We know what trouble means and how painful it is when it spills blood," said Adam Koaz, a student form Tel Aviv. "I have full sympathy for the people of this beautiful part of world. I can only pray for them."