For many, the Palestinian territories have become a land to which it is forbidden to travel. This includes Palestinians themselves. In the name of security, interrogations by border officials about visitors' identity and political beliefs make it, if not impossible, certainly burdensome to visit "Palestine".
In many cases, some potential visitors are denied entry if they are suspected of being pro-Palestinian activists who could "pose a threat" in places like Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The lines have become blurred between security and freedom of political thought and ideology.
Support for the non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement can also cost people dear if they are trying to visit Palestine. Even two sitting members of the US Congress, Muslims Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, were affected by an entry ban ahead of a planned visit to the occupied West Bank earlier this year. They became the first members of the US Congress to be banned by Israel, and US President Donald Trump said that the state would show "great weakness" if it let them in. It is no coincidence that Democrats Tlaib and Omar have repeatedly highlighted the injustice suffered by Palestinians at the hands of Israel's occupation forces.
However, following their ban, a high-tech virtual reality app has been developed by 30-year-old Salem Barahmeh, the executive director of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy (PIPD), who was inspired by what happened to the US Congresswomen. The work of the PIPD, a non-governmental organisation, includes the production of short videos for digital campaigns that try to present the human aspect and reality of Palestine.
Using virtual encounters, Barahmeh made those hard borders disappear and took the tour that Tlaib and Omer were scheduled to have to them. His app takes the places they were going to see, and the people they were going to talk to, to the politicians themselves and, indeed, anyone and everyone else.
"We've learnt that people who come here and see the reality of Palestine for themselves, are those who usually leave the most changed and moved, and inspired," explained Barahmeh. "So we wanted to give people the chance to experience that reality; to see the place and be inspired by its people. That was very important for us."
Developed in just three weeks, Palestine VR is an application which includes a comprehensive tour of occupied Hebron guided by a former Israel army soldier-turned activist; a walk through Ramallah with 13-year-old journalist Janna Jihad; and a visit to Jerusalem. Led by locals, the newly launched app includes five- to 12-minute-long 360 degree video clips from those locations, from which viewers can see, for example, how Israeli settlers are forcing Palestinians out of their own homes.
The videos explore places like Gaza, Hebron, Jerusalem, Birzeit University in the West Bank, Ramallah, Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem and Khan Al-Ahmar village. Users can explore each place and its defining features as the guide narrates and leads them through the different communities.
Geographically disconnected from the occupied West Bank, a 12-year blockade imposed by Israel means that adequate supplies of essential goods, including fuel, are prevented from entering the Gaza Strip. Although many of the Palestinians living in the enclave have never been allowed to travel beyond its nominal border, the new app means that they can now at least see their land thanks to virtual reality.
Using VR features with an interactive 360o view made the most sense to Barahmeh because it's a system that would be the most accessible to millions of people around the world. Anyone with a phone or tablet and access to Apple or Android systems can download the app and join the tours. Indeed, many already have, and the feedback from the media and users is very positive.
The latter include Palestinian refugees in the diaspora who have been able to interact with their homeland for the first time. Barahmeh believes that virtual reality can enable users to overcome certain societal, emotional and political barriers by providing context to the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories.
"We were able to show the app to a Palestinian refugee who grew up in Lebanon but lives in London," he said. "She experienced her homeland in virtual reality and was transported there for a short while; she walked through and saw Jerusalem for the first time; saw its people and the city. The expression on her face was worth everything."
The director of the PIPD is at pains to point out that the app is not intended to replace efforts by Palestinians to return to their home. "It's offering them a small glimpse of home and giving them hope."
Barahmeh is enthusiastic about the comprehensive nature of the app due to the videos being chosen intentionally to cover polarised sectors of the Palestinian population where "things are tough and situations are far more complex." The section on Hebron, for example, is guided by the Palestinian activist group Youth Against Settlements (YAS) based in the occupied West Bank. They explore different parts of the city to show the effects of the Israeli occupation. Israel has imposed all sorts of restrictions on the Palestinians in Hebron: forced evictions, curfews, market and street closures, military checkpoints and, arguably worst of all, military law.
Palestinians, say the YAS activists, face frequent random searches, detentions without charge and rampant settler violence. As a result, around 13,000 Palestinian citizens have fled their homes in Hebron's city centre, turning it into a "ghost town".
"People here are so resilient in the face of oppression," said Barahmeh, despite the Israeli army crackdowns and much blood being spilt. "Giving the people of Palestine a platform to have their voices heard by so many people around the world was an inspiring thing for us. Without them, there wouldn't be a Palestine VR, and this is just the start."
Taking the message of the Palestinians to the rest of the world is important. Hence, the critical issue of the refugees' inalienable right to return to their land is discussed on the app by the head of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee in the occupied West Bank, Munther Amira, during his tour of the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem.
More than 5.2 million Palestinians are registered with the UN as refugees. The vast majority live in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territories. Israel rejects the legitimate right to return, and has never paid any compensation to them for the loss of their homes and land.
Amira has first-hand experience of the injustices of the Israeli occupation. He was arrested last year on four charges including "participating in a march without a permit", which is not a recognised criminal offence under international law. He was also arrested by the Israelis in 2017, while participating peacefully in a protest in Bethlehem calling for the release of activists Ahed and Nariman Tamimi.
A major aim of the app, Barahmeh said, is for it to be an instrument for challenging stereotypes of the Palestinians, who are all too often depicted as "violent, backwards, and trying to undermine Israeli security." He insists that this is simply not accurate. "One thing that is really important to us, especially as young Palestinians, is that a lot of people have a stereotypical perspective of what Palestine is and what Palestinians aspire to be."
The bottom line, he concluded, is that Palestinians are human beings who wish for values shared across the world. "We want to be able to show people that we are resilient and want the same things that everyone does, and the fact that we are still living under oppression in 2019 is unacceptable. As such, for us, this app is one way to challenge the narrative that's been so dominant for so long, especially in the West."