It was January 2009 and photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa was visiting the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of Cast Lead, Israel’s first large-scale anti-terrorist operation since its unilateral withdrawal from the Palestinian territory four years earlier.
He was meeting an Islamic Jihad fighter in a bombed-out building when he noticed a gaping hole – about nine meters wide – in one of the walls. “What is this,” Khelifa, a veteran war photographer, asked the man he was photographing.
“It’s from a bomb that landed here a few days ago,” the masked Islamic Jihad fighter responded.
Something about the moment shook Khelifa. Here he was, taking photos in the aftermath of another deadly war.
On the surface it was nothing different than what he had done for the previous 15 years, during which he crisscrossed the globe, racing from one war zone to the next, spending time on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Congo, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere.
In March 2004, for example, he happened to be in the Iraqi city of Karbala when insurgents launched one of the deadliest suicide bomb attacks in the country, killing more than 140 people.
War and bloodshed were not new to him.
But at that moment, in the Gaza Strip, Khelifa felt he could not just take another standard photo, the likes of which he had published countless times in newspapers and magazines like Vanity Fair
and Le Monde
Another photo of another bombed out house with another fighter on another side of a conflict, Khelifa decided, would not be enough to tell this story.
So he turned his camera vertically and decided to take a head shot, a portrait, of this Islamic Jihad fighter. He then asked the fighter six questions: Who is your enemy? Why do you fight? Did you ever kill? What is peace to you? What is violence to you? And where do you see yourself in 20 years? “I had a moral contract with the people who were welcoming me in to tell their stories, because they thought I could make a difference as a journalist,” Khelifa told me a few days ago. “The reality, though, was that I wasn’t making a difference and I hated to think that.”
A man walks through “The Enemy” during a recent exhibit (Credit: Courtesy)
Khelifa decided that day to recharge his reporting and to take journalism to a new and deeper level. It would take some time, but his project – now called “The Enemy” – was born and Khelifa embarked on a journey to push the limits of journalism and storytelling in a way possibly not seen since print media turned digital.
To tell “The Enemy” story, Khelifa – who I have known since we spent a year together at Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism – decided to make innovative use of virtual reality. Participants wear Oculus virtual reality headsets and are thrown into a 16-minute virtual tour.
The first striking part of the experience is the room. It is peaceful looking but also clearly computer generated. On the sides of the walls are photos of Israel and the Gaza Strip opposite one another.
Suddenly two 3-dimensional life-size figures appear on opposite sides. One is Abu Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the Gaza Strip. The other is Gilad, an IDF reservist. As you approach, they begin to answer Khelifa’s six original questions. They tell their story – who they are, what they do, and why they fight. If you move, their eyes follow you.
They always look right at you.
For an Israeli, particularly one who has served in the military, it’s quite remarkable to stand face-to-face and just inches away from the lifelike version of the person who is supposed to be your enemy. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that, if this were real life and not virtual reality, this type of close engagement would not be possible. If you ever got so close to Abu Khaled it would only be in war.
Is this journalism? Some might say no. It’s not hard news and the use of virtual reality makes it seem, at times, more like a movie. I would argue that it is journalism, although a new form – one that tells stories through an experience.
Participants feel the story and see it play out before their eyes.
Khelifa’s vision is similar to that of traditional journalists – to tell a story, to educate an audience and to make readers/ viewers better understand opposing sides to a conflict. He wants participants to understand that so-called enemies actually are not that different from one another. He wants to personalize conflict.
While Gilad and Abu Khaled fight today, their dreams and aspirations seem quite similar.
Khelifa knows what it means to have a split identity. The son of a Tunisian father and Belgian mother, he was born in Europe but, later in life, found himself drawn to the Middle East and spent time living in Yemen. The first conflict he has profiled for “The Enemy” is Israel and the Palestinians. In a few weeks, he will travel to El Salvador and then to other conflict zones “I am not here to tell people what to think,” Khelifa says. “I want them to rethink what to do. I want to shift perception.
To think about humanity in a new way. To look at people and see that they are similar.”
Khelifa plans to bring his installation to Israel sometime in the coming year.
In a single month, some 9,000 participants will be able to experience it. The next stage is to measure how participants respond physiologically to the experience and then use neuroscience to discover how much empathy, if any at all, has been created.
“You don’t get to choose your enemy,” Khelifa explains. “When you are born, you are told, for example, that the Palestinian is your enemy and then the violence and the bombings confirm that.”
Khelifa wants to take us back to the core of these conflicts. He wants us to understand that there are humans on both sides and that while we are all scared, we also have more in common than meets the eye.
IF YOU are a regular reader of this paper, you may have noticed over the past two weeks, a series of articles and opinion pieces focused on Hamas and Twitter.
It all started the night of the terrorist attack at the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv when an account named @IsmailHaniyyeh – the same name as the Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip – praised in a tweet the attackers and their success in murdering four Israelis. In a subsequent tweet, he called one of the attackers a “hero” and said he was praying for his soul.
Here at the paper, we found it strange that a Hamas leader was permitted to maintain a Twitter account. We asked ourselves if Osama bin Laden would have been allowed to keep an account on Twitter to use to spread his ideology and praise al-Qaida terrorists.
Officially, Twitter’s own rules ban terrorism or its promotion. Nevertheless, many Hamas accounts remain untouched which seems strange considering that the Palestinian terrorist group has been listed in the US as a foreign terrorist organization since 1997.
Khaled Mashaal, the group’s leader, has had an account active since last May, now with over 45,000 followers.
The main Hamas Twitter page, active since October 2010, has 239,000 followers.
It even has an English-language account to helpfully convey the organization’s support for shooting innocents at a shopping center, dubbing it “a natural response to Israeli crimes.”
While the Haniyeh and Mashaal accounts are unverified – meaning that it is not immediately clear whether they run the accounts – our business reporter Niv Elis reached out to Twitter to receive clarifications.
They were slow in responding. When we finally received an answer, a Twitter spokesman referred Niv to the company’s rules against promoting terrorism and violence, adding: “We don’t comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons.”
It seems that more needs to be done.
While we have no doubt that Twitter does not support terrorism, we do believe that there needs to be some sort of accountability when these platforms are used to radicalize youth, to incite violence and to help perpetrate terrorist attacks. This requires a serious debate about the level of responsibility – if at all – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others have when their platforms are used by the wrong people.
This week, we received reassuring news when Twitter suspended the most recent iteration of an account for Hamas’s armed wing, the Izzadin Kassam Brigades, which had been up and running under the handle @ALQassamilitary.
While this is an important step, it seems that more can be done.
I was reminded of Twitter when speaking this week with Khelifa. While he created “The Enemy” to promote understanding and tolerance between different sides of a conflict, the installation also gives participants a clear understanding of who is whose enemy.
In the case of Israel, for example, it is Abu Khaled, a Gaza-based PFLP fighter, standing opposite Gilad, an Israeli reservist.
With terrorism on the rise in places like Orlando, Paris, London, Sydney and Tel Aviv, social media companies need to consider drawing clearer lines of who they give a platform to. In a world so dangerous, sometimes the responsible thing to do is to simply define your enemy.