JERUSALEM — What two Democratic congresswomen couldn't see of the West Bank and Gaza when they were denied entry to Israel last summer, they can now see on their phones. And if they have a pair of specialty goggles handy, they can see it in swooping, pivoting virtual reality.
So can anyone else who downloads a copy of Palestine VR, an iPhone- and Samsung-ready app released Wednesday, Oct. 30, that delivers a 360-degree digital walkabout of the Palestinian territories based on the aborted itinerary of Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.
The pair, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress and sharp critics of Israeli policy, had been scheduled to be part of an August delegation visiting parts of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
But before they arrived, Israel revoked permission for them to come, citing their support for a boycott against Israeli goods and services. The move, a reversal, came hours after President Donald Trump tweeted that allowing the visit would "show great weakness" on the part of Israel.
Israel's decision, which sparked criticism from Democrats in Congress and even from pro-Israel lobbying groups, denied the two a chance to see conditions for themselves. To fill that gap, a group of young tech-oriented Palestinians covered the same ground with a GoPro Fusion 360 camera, often with the same guides who were scheduled to show the Americans around. With help from a Netherlands-based app developer, they produced a VR rendition of the canceled tour.
The viewer is led through the narrow lanes of Jerusalem's old city with a Palestinian anthropologist and the streets of Hebron with a former Israeli soldier who is now a peace activist. Segments include a visit to Gaza narrated by a university student and a walk through a refugee camp near Bethlehem, the golden Dome of the Rock and the high concrete security wall that isolates much of the West Bank from Israel.
"We wanted to bring everything they would have seen and the people they would have spoken with," said Salem Barahmeh, executive director of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, an advocacy group that specializes in digital information campaigns. "We can share with them and with anyone around the world who wants get a glimpse and hear the sounds of Palestinian life."
When watched on a phone, the viewer can manipulate the scene by tilting the device, panning right and left, up and down at will. On a computer, the mouse allows the same control and a pair of virtual-reality goggles will render it all as an immersive setting. There is no charge to download the app.
"We are trying to get our message to new people beyond the echo chamber," said Barahmeh, who grew up in the West Bank but went to college in Wisconsin.
Barahmeh, who was one of the local activists scheduled to meet with the congresswomen, said he had not been in touch with them about the project. A spokesman for Omar said her staff was unaware of the app. Tlaib's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The videos have quickly proved popular, he said - not just with the curious but with local Palestinians. Because their movements are restricted, many have never seen their own cultural highlights, such as the Old City, East Jerusalem or Gaza.
"I live here, but I'm not allowed to visit Gaza," said Barahmeh, who lives in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "When I saw the scenes of the beach and all the Palestinians there, it really moved me."
This article was written by Steve Hendrix, a reporter for The Washington Post.