Visit the heart of Gaza without going there

Virtual tour of the Strip aims to put a human face on its inhabitants and elicit sympathy for their plight.

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TEL AVIV // The tourist holds up a map, punches in a phone number and soon hears a description of the strictly guarded building of the United Nations relief agency for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. "No, we're not at Saraya prison, though one might think so from the barricaded and barbwired walls. Please hand your IDs to the security guard to obtain a visitor's permit - security is very strict here."

While this sounds like any other walking tour, albeit of a city that does not usually feature on lists of top 20 holiday destinations, there is a twist: the walking is actually done in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. Visitors can download a double-sided map from the website of You Are Not Here, a tour agency with a difference, set up by a Palestinian and an Israeli. Holding the map up to the light, the sites of Gaza appear marked on a street map of Tel Aviv, meaning that instead of looking at the grey monolithic structure of the UNRWA building in Gaza, they are staring down the cafe-lined Rothschild Street of Tel Aviv.

There are 20 sites on the map and at each visitors find a sticker with a phone number on it which connects them to an audio message recorded by Laila al Haddad, a prominent Gaza-born author and activist. The sites include the Palestinian parliament, the Great Omari Mosque and the Gaza harbour, as well as the home of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. But Ms al Haddad is quick to point out that those who take part in the tour, both Israelis and foreign tourists, are not just visiting sites.

"We are inviting people to enter the consciousness of the average Gazan," she said. For each destination, Ms al Haddad offers vivid, personal impressions of Gaza, eliciting its sounds, smells and sights. She chose sites such as popular restaurants, markets and recreational spots that did not just represent the ongoing conflict. The idea is for the virtual visitors to walk away with images of Palestinians eating, playing and socialising, making it harder for them to consider the people of Gaza as a faceless entity.

"People have a very monolithic understanding of Gaza," Ms al Haddad said. "I wanted to challenge that." Mushon Zer Aviv, one of the co-creators of You Are Not Here, and a native of Tel Aviv, said the tour wanted to show Gaza as something more than a tragedy. "Tragedy doesn't always lead to empathy", but showing the humanity of the "other" does, said Mr Zer Aviv. "It blurs the lines." Mr Zer Aviv, who was an army medic in Gaza during his mandatory national service, also hopes it will challenge Israelis' own perceptions of their country and identity.

As a young soldier, Mr Zer Aviv would stand in the back of the army ambulance as it drove around the Strip, looking out at Gaza from the open doors. "I remember this incident when some kids on a donkey cart rode behind us. Being super young and naïve, I waved hello to them and I was surprised when they didn't wave back. I couldn't understand the divide between my own self image - a friendly 19-year-old teenager - and the image the kid was seeing: a soldier, symbol of oppression and occupation. But that's exactly what we're trying to address, these schizophrenic personal and political identities."

The tour does not try to blend the two cities. Rather, its intention is to momentarily disorient the tourist and then reorient them with a new perspective - one that includes Gaza as part of their consciousness. "I don't have very lofty expectations, nor am I under any illusions about what this project can achieve," said Ms al Haddad. "But if I am able to re-engage a single person, to personalise the situation and create a permanent attachment to [Gaza] in their minds, then I have done something."

The tour was first launched in 2007, but was updated this year with explanations of how the Israeli blockade has continued to affect the daily lives of Palestinians, and the impact of this year's war. Ron Ozery, a 30-year-old Israeli who has served in Lebanon, said he did the tour in the hope of gaining a deeper understanding of how Palestinians live, but was disappointed by how political it was. "Israel bombed this, Israel trashed that. We have the Goldstone report for that.

"Arabs have an amazing culture, and they could have focused more on that." Sharon Pinsley, an American-Israeli who immigrated to Israel as a young adult in 1977, agreed. "If [Ms al Haddad] had been a little less eager to push her agendas, you could really get a sense of what the people in Gaza are going through now and [you could] feel the asymmetry." But Shani Ronen, 29, who is also involved in several different grassroots movements and did the tour out of interest in the issues, disagreed. "Things are political today, especially after the war. To make [the tour] apolitical would be unrealistic."

Ms Ronen is so enthusiastic about the project that she is planning a group tour to the sites in Tel Aviv. "It gives us a chance to see a place we have no access to. The distance to Gaza isn't far, but it is very far emotionally. People are disconnected. [This] brings it very close." Simone Stirner, a 24-year-old tourist from Germany, accompanied an Israeli friend on the walk. She described the tour as "dislocating".

"It's a weird feeling," she said. "You feel like you are in Gaza City right now - it makes it something more than the place you hear about." * The National