TEL AVIV (Reuters Life!) - Itai Shimon stood transfixed, with his mobile phone pressed tightly against his ear, listening to descriptions of the enormous crater of debris that had been a 10,000-seat soccer stadium in the Gaza Strip.
“Let’s walk in through the gates of the national football stadium and the home of the Palestinian football team. In the dead of night in April 2006, the stadium was bombed by Israeli fighter jets,” says the voice in his phone.
But Shimon is not in Gaza. He is in Tel Aviv “meta-touring” the Palestinian enclave with You Are Not Here (YANH), a “platform for urban tourism” offering users virtual audio tours of cities in conflict zones to foster understanding.
The Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, lies on the coast about 75 km (45 miles) south of Tel Aviv. Israel is blockading the territory and Israelis and most foreign nationals are forbidden from visiting.
You Are Not Here, a play on words of the map marker ‘you are here’, was first launched in 2006 by Israeli artist Mushon Zer-Aviv in New York, allowing people in the city a virtual audio tour of Baghdad.
He partnered with Gaza-born journalist Laila el-Haddad to launch a Tel Aviv-Gaza version.
Users of www.youarenothere.org download a double-sided map, featuring Gaza City on one side and Tel Aviv on the other. The map features 20 sites in Gaza City.
They can then visit the corresponding location in Tel Aviv and dial a free number on their mobile phones to listen to a description of the Gaza site.
“Meta-tourists” can hear Haddad talk in English about landmarks in Gaza City, which include the Palestinian presidential residence, the Saraya prison, the gold market and the city’s most upscale restaurant and best hummus place.
“You do this tour and you see the difficult reality of Gaza, but you also are reminded that regardless of tragedy, people live and love just the same,” said Shimon.
“This realization is beautiful. But from now on my walks through the streets of Tel Aviv are definitely going to be a bit jarring,” he added as he headed to Sheinken, one of Tel Aviv’s main shopping streets, to hear about Gaza’s Islamic University.
Zer-Aviv said: “When Laila says ‘As you can see the horde of young people around you, you know you’re at the Islamic University’, you can see a horde of young people around you shopping”.
“It’s like the people in Tel Aviv are actors, playing students at the Islamic University.”
El-Haddad said she hopes the project will bring Israelis closer to life in the Gaza Strip, pounded by Israel in a military offensive earlier this year with the declared aim of halting daily rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli cities.
“People have a very monolithic understanding of how Gaza operates and what Gazans think and feel. In choosing the locations, we also were hoping to create an association in the mind of the listener,” she said in an email from Maryland.
Zer-Aviv said he launched the project to fight a perception among Israelis who associate the territory with violence.
Israel tightened its blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2007 when Hamas took over the enclave after routing rival Fatah forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The project has emotional significance for Zer-Aviv, a native of Tel Aviv and a former soldier in the Israeli army who spent some of his military service as a medic in the Gaza Strip.
Zer-Aviv and el-Haddad plan to keep the tour active for as long as possible and want to add new Gaza sites.
They say people artists from abroad have shown interest in his idea: “A South Korean artist wants to launch a Pyongyang/Seoul iteration”.
(Editing by Joseph Nasr and Paul Casciato)