Israel’s separation wall snakes around Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp in the West Bank. Solidarity graffiti is spray-painted all over the concrete slabs. Black water tanks, some of which are riddled with bullet holes, dot the roofs of the tightly-compacted homes. A military watchtower, equipped with a surveillance camera, protrudes from the barrier.
“For people who have never visited a refugee camp, they might have an image that it’s just rows of tents,” said Munther Amira, a social worker and human rights activist in the camp. Israel has arrested Amira many times, including in 2017, during a nonviolent demonstration against President Trump’s declaration to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and in support of Ahed Tamimi. Strapped with a selfie stick, he is now inviting viewers on a virtual tour of the camp, which is home to some 3,000 Palestinian refugees — including their descendants — who were displaced during the war that preceded the establishment of the State of Israel.
Israel has barred many from seeing Aida Refugee Camp, by denying entry to Palestinian refugees who were expelled from historic Palestine in 1948 and to foreign activists.
A new app is attempting to challenge this. Palestine VR takes viewers on a 360 virtual tour of the West Bank and Gaza. The app is available on smart phones; users can use virtual reality headsets to create a more immersive experience.
Salem Barahmeh, the 30-year-old executive director of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy (PIPD) — the NGO that developed the app — said the inspiration for the idea came when Israel decided in August to bar Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American, and Ilhan Omar from entering Israel. The two congresswomen were planning to participate in a landmark delegation to the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, but were denied entry because they have expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
“We wanted to bring that tour they [the congresswomen] were supposed to participate in and the people they were supposed to meet to the broader world,” said Barahmeh. The app, which was released on Oct. 30, “is an immersive way to come to the place, hear from the people and really get a glimpse of the Palestine that they would have seen,” he continued.
The tours are led by locals who take viewers to six different regions in the Palestinian territories — from Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem with Palestinian anthropologist Ali Qleibo, to Hebron’s Old City with a former Israeli soldier and a Palestinian human rights activist. In Khan al-Ahmar, where the Bedouin are resisting an impending Israeli demolition of their entire community, Ramallah-based activist Fadi Quran introduces users to members of the community. In Ramallah, Janna Jihad, often referred to as the “world’s youngest journalist,” leads the tour. Carmen Keshek invites users on a virtual visit to Birzeit University — the second largest university in the West Bank.
Palestine is not an easy destination to visit. All borders in the occupied Palestinian territories are controlled by Israel. Visitors often undergo hours-long interrogations at the Israeli airport and border crossings if they are suspected of planning to travel to the West Bank; if they express support for the Palestinian struggle they are commonly slapped with a decade-long ban and deported. A 2017 bill allows Israel to deny entry to individuals who back the BDS movement.
Access to Gaza, which Israel has held under blockade since 2007, is limited to international NGO workers and journalists.
“We find that people’s minds and hearts are changed and impacted when they come and see the reality on the ground,” explained Barahmeh. “We wanted to bring this reality to people and inspire them to stand with Palestine — even if they don’t have the ability to come here.”
Nadim Nashif, the executive director of the Palestinian digital rights group 7amleh, told +972 that the app is also important in what he called the Israel-Palestine “content war:” many pro-Israel or right-wing groups use the digital sphere to spread misinformation, he said, including campaigns to remove Palestinian content.
Nashif added that the app has the ability to challenge right-wing Israeli talking points in the digital world and obfuscate online campaigns that push the narratives of the Israeli government.
The app also aims to connect Palestinians to each other. For decades, the Israeli army has restricted travel between Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians in Gaza, especially, face tremendous difficulty trying to leave — even to seek medical treatment.
Now, Palestinians can get a rare glimpse into life in the Gaza Strip.
Barahmeh posted on his Facebook a video of his 82-year-old grandfather from Jericho in the West Bank taking a VR tour of the downtown market in Gaza City — a site he hasn’t seen since 1973.
For Palestinian refugees and their descendants, this app might be the only way for them to see their homeland. Some 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes 1948 and scattered in refugee camps across the Middle East. Israel has barred the refugees from returning to their homes, or from visiting.
The app does not include tours of Palestinian locales within the 1948 borders, although it is the territory from which most Palestinian refugees were expelled. Barahmeh said they excluded Palestinian areas inside Israel because they were focused on replicating the tour Tlaib and Omar had planned to take, which was only in the West Bank (the blockade precluded them from visiting Gaza, but they planned on speaking with residents there remotely).
Rowaida Abu Eid is a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon who has never been able to travel to Palestine. “I think it’s even one more creative way of resisting occupation,” said Abu Eid in a video uploaded by PIPD, reacting to her first virtual sighting of the occupied territories. “It’s amazing. Just being there and feeling the people walking by, feeling the streets. It’s amazing.”
Barahmeh said he feels it’s his “responsibility” to show Palestine to those who have never been or who can’t visit.
“For a lot of people around the world, they are stuck with a certain image of Palestinians and what we’re struggling for,” he said. “With this app, you’re not hearing the same narrative that you hear on the news. You’re hearing it directly from the people.”