02 SEPTEMBER 2016
International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East
AM & PM Meetings
Participants Debate How Virtual Reality Can Trigger Real ‘On-the-Ground’ Change in Israel,
Palestine, as International Media Seminar Concludes
PRETORIA, 2 September — The International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East concluded today, with a panel discussion that explored how virtual and augmented technologies could be used by journalists to help people around the world understand the Israeli-Palestinian story and take action to create change.
“We have heard both inspiring and thought-provoking discussions on the Middle East,” Cristina Gallach, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information said in closing remarks. Participants had explored the prospects for a political solution between Israelis and Palestinians, and the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. They had also learned a great deal about visual media and film technologies, as well as the role of political satire.
“I sincerely hope that, by the time we hold our next annual International Media Seminar, there will have been real progress towards peace,” she said, and that by then, participants would be discussing how peace between the two sides had managed to last for so long.
Echoing that call, Ebrahim Saley, Deputy Director-General of Global Governance, Department of International Relations and Cooperation of South Africa, said some could argue that the world was suffering from fatigue when discussing the question of Palestine. “The international community cannot run away from being engaged,” he said. Without a just and fair solution, “the world will always be assaulted by the grim reminders of the cruelty of a conflict in which the line between right and wrong becomes invisible and crimes of dispossession, racism, anti-Semitism, collective punishment and apartheid become the norm.”
Throughout the seminar, he said he had been reminded of resolution 242 (1966), which stated that the fulfilment of the Charter principles required the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. All efforts — as Governments, civil society and media — must work to bring about the essence of that resolution, which had been unfulfilled for 50 years, he stressed.
The panel titled “virtual reality and the Israel-Palestine conflict: the next frontier in storytelling”, heard from panellist Helen Adamo, new media production manager and creative technologist at Camera Lucida Productions, who asked how much was known about combatants, why they fought in wars that had persisted for generations and how they envisioned freedom.
In any conflict, she said, it seemed impossible for one side to answer those questions for the other. The Enemy, a virtual reality project she had helped to create and manage, challenged the views of both sides, with the aim of humanizing the combatants. The experience was a new way to make audiences care and to feel that their engagement mattered. The question to answer was: “Could I be you if I was on the other side?”, she said.
“What is the best way to get people to care about our stories?”, asked panellist Mohamed Haddad, senior interactive producer at Al Jazeera (English). Virtual reality helped to narrate stories by immersing a user in a different experience. It was able to touch people on emotional, intellectual and aesthetic levels.
Mushon Zer-Aviv, designer, media activist and co-creator of YouAreNotHere.org, a mashup tour of Gaza through the streets of Tel Aviv, said empathy had been taken for granted in what was needed to create change. He had worked with a blogger from Gaza to superimpose map of Gaza onto a map of Tel Aviv. When a person engaged, he would hear the blogger narrate a tour through her city. The goal was to re-engage Tel Aviv residents who had become emotionally disengaged from the Gaza Strip. “You’re not seeing someone on screen, but using sound and space to connect to a story in another city,” he said.
The panel was followed by an interview with Riyad Mansour, Permanent Representative of the Observer State of Palestine, who described the challenges of peacemaking and what it would take to end the occupation. The status quo was unacceptable, he said. Palestinians could not continue to suffer in Gaza, East Jerusalem or the occupied territories, to be humiliated at checkpoints or to see their land stolen. “The solution has to be the independence of our State,” he said. It was a critical moment. He called on the Security Council to lead the way. “Take practical steps and we will follow,” he stressed.
Also speaking on the panel today were Ramzi Hassan, associate professor at the Institute for Landscape Architecture and Spatial Planning at the Norwegian University of Lifesciences and director of Virtual Reality Laboratory, and Anthony Eva, operations and creative director at bizAR Reality.
The final day of the seminar featured a panel discussion on “virtual reality and the Israel-Palestine conflict: the next frontier in storytelling”. It was moderated by Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Cristina Gallach and featured: Helen Adamo, new media production manager and creative technologist at Camera Lucida Productions; Anthony Eva, operations and creative director at bizAR Reality; Mohamed Haddad, senior interactive producer at Al Jazeera (English); Ramzi Hassan, associate professor at the Institute for Landscape Architecture and Spatial Planning at the Norwegian University of Lifesciences and director of the Virtual Reality Laboratory; and Mushon Zer-Aviv, designer, media activist and co-creator of YouAreNotHere.org, a mashup tour of Gaza through the streets of Tel Aviv.
Mr. HADDAD said the Al Aqsa 360 project took participants to Jerusalem, a place he had never been but to which felt a strong connection. In a sense, he felt he had been there through the world he had created. As a Palestinian South African, he had grown up in South Africa, but had visited family in Gaza several times and had experienced what life was like under occupation. As an interactive producer, he and his team in Doha, Qatar, brought technology and editorial to the mission of storytelling. Describing three building blocks of storytelling, he said at the foundation was the story. At the top was the distribution and in the centre was the most powerful form, the narrative. It was in the telling of the story that virtual technology could be used. It was the closest way to immerse people in a story. Journalism’s most important job was to inform and make people care. Virtual reality was able to touch people on emotional, intellectual and aesthetic levels. However, it did not replace reality.
Ms. ADAMO asked how much was known about combatants, why people continued to fight in wars that had persisted for generations and how they envisioned freedom. In any ongoing conflict, it seemed impossible for one side to answer those questions for the other. The Enemy, a virtual reality project she had helped to create and manage, challenged the views of both sides with the goal of humanizing the combatants. The project director, a war photojournalist, had sought a new way to make audiences care — to think differently about war and to feel that their engagement mattered. Launched in early 2014, the project now covered the situations in Israel-Palestine, Democratic Republic of the Congo and El Salvador.
“We provide no answers or explanations,” she said. “We want to stimulate debate above and beyond easy rhetoric.” The goal was to expand people’s moral imagination by deploying new storytelling tools based in neuroscience. The question to answer was: “Could I be you if I was on the other side?”, she said. The director had met two Israeli and Palestinian fighters, from whom he created the fighter avatars. When a user experienced the story alone, for two minutes, he could forget where he was. When there were several users, engaging as avatars neutrally, they behaved like a group. “The brain knows they’re not there, but feels their presence,” she said. The experience could be so immersive that the set, designed to be less stressful for the user, could instead make them anxious and less emotional about the story. A new set would soon be tested. “Your enemy is always invisible,” she said. “When he becomes visible, he ceases to be your enemy.”
Mr. ZER-AVIV said empathy had been taken for granted in what was needed to create change. He had worked with a blogger from Gaza on the YouAreNotHere.org mashup tour, a tourist map of Gaza superimposed onto a map of Tel Aviv. When a person engaged, he would hear the blogger narrate a tour through her city, stopping at the tomb of the unknown soldier, a refugee camp, describing tastes, sounds and its cost in shekels, prompting one to wonder, perhaps why the Israeli currency was used and if there was an Israeli economic engagement there. The goal was to re-engage Tel Aviv residents who had become emotionally disengaged from the Gaza Strip. “You’re not seeing someone on screen, but using sound and space to connect to a story in another city,” he said.
Mr. HASSAN described a capacity-building project that aimed at building the landscape of Palestine. In his visits to Palestine, he had been amazed by the beauty of the landscape, yet several cultural heritage sites had been left to die. They represented the rich history of the country. He started working in Gaza to identify why that was happening. He decided to run a summer course to foster interest among students for their history, and over time, they had digitally documented the sites and created a database. The locals did not know the history of the sites. He made a proposal to the World Bank, together with two universities, arguing why the sites had to be preserved and for the resources to be provided. Eventually, he built a virtual reality lab with a team of historians, architects, planners, archaeologists and students that used virtual reality to reconstruct the sites with three-dimensional models. They published their work in academic journals to foster interest and understanding. The team discovered that no mechanism had been created to convey the important story of the sites to a wider public. They had shown how virtual reality could fill that gap and be used to enhance awareness.
Mr. EVA said augmented reality involved overlaying digital information on actual reality. It was a tool that had proven itself to increase knowledge retention by 90 per cent. It could even be used on a mobile phone. Virtual reality fully immersed a user in an alternate world. “You realize they’re not just tools to showcase things,” he said. They were new communication media to more fully engage people. Architects, for example, could communicate their designs to clients more effectively. Communication through virtual or augmented reality enhanced the user’s experience. Describing virtual reality as “the most boring thing to talk about but the best thing to experience,” he said it used image recognition software to project a three-dimensional model. It allowed the user to be transported anyplace, creating a new way to tell a story. It could also enhance emotion and create urgency. In the Middle East, that urgency could help to create solutions.
When the floor was opened for questions and comments, participants asked a range of questions, including on details of technologies that could enhance story telling.
Mr. HADDAD said consumer-grade virtual reality would be the next step on the technological front, with consumers using goggles or a “360” video on a mobile phone. Technology adoption was about reaching the masses through affordable means. Today, people were using cardboard goggles. Hardware accelerated devices, such as the oculus, was the more exciting and expensive space. Big companies, such as Intel, were investing in the hardware needed to support those technologies.
Mr. ZER-AVIV said people sought empathy. A humanoid robot, for example, looked realistic, but not realistic enough for the human eye, which created the opposite feelings of disgust and fear. If he had a teddy bear, it might be cute. With humanoid robots, people were not sure what they were seeing. “It disturbs our idea of what we think a human looks like,” he said. “Our eyes are sophisticated and it is hard to fool them. Virtual or augmented reality were not convincing in depictions of humans and space, which generated extremely emotional responses. But, the technology would evolve. In that context, he cited psychologist Paul Bloom who stated: “Our best hope for the future lies in an appreciation of the fact that even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.”
Mr. HADDAD said the story, regardless of the narrative used to convey it, was the most important element. People often mistook the idea of entertainment with the concept of fiction. If a journalist’s goal was to mislead, that was the core of the story. “You can manipulate people in any form, through audio, for example,” he said. “The technique was not the issue. The issue is the intention of the author.”
Ms. ADAMO agreed the same problems could happen in any media. Virtual technology was often used to create a lie, but by creating it, visitors could find something true about themselves.
Mr. ZER-AVIV said ethical questions should be asked about empathy and impact, especially over the long term. While some manipulations were legitimate, he said, “we need to be clear about what manipulations we are choosing and are being built into the technology.” Developers often sought to create a seamless experience so users would not see how virtual realities were constructed. However, he said he always sought a “seamful” design. Step into a manipulation and one might not experience something that shocked them on a physical level, he said. At the same time, there was more honesty about the manipulation and the user could reflect upon that.
Mr. HASSAN said he had worked with virtual reality for 18 years. It had evolved during that time and today, was reinventing itself to be used by the masses. There were big players in the market and there were concerns to consider, especially around ethics. At the same time, that should not prevent its use. “We need to know how far we can go,” he said. “We need to know the limits.” Potential impact was another important aspect to consider.
Mr. ZER-AVIV responded to a question about whether a Palestinian might defer his or her own liberation by delivering catharsis to those in power who might have reached a point of empathy had they not experienced a virtual reality. In that vein, he said the phrase “I wish there was something I could do” could mean “I would like to act” or “I have internalized the fact that I have no power over this situation”. The mashup project challenged the way empathy presented Palestinians by overlaying their stories over someone else’s life. However, the project had not succeeded in spurring action. He would extend the criticism to say that it was better not to experience than be put in a position where there was nothing one could do to change the situation. The goal was not only to say “I am raising awareness”, but rather “this is a stepping stone to change”.
Mr. HASSAN said everything he was doing with virtual reality was totally new. There was nothing written about how to do things. A project in Ramallah had presented an emotional challenge for him. An organization operating centres in Gaza, Beirut and elsewhere that provided a creative environment for children had asked about connecting children in Gaza with the rest of Palestine. It challenged him to find a way to engage them. He said he had had mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was technically challenging project, however, it meant he had to accept that he could not physically connect the groups, which was a sad fact. Virtual reality offered a new way to access inaccessible locations. “There are so many of them in Palestine,” he said.
Mr. ZER-AVIV added that the technology presented opportunity. The United Nations itself was using it for fundraising, which was a valid call for action.
The seminar then held a dialogue with Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the United Nations, who was interviewed by Ahmed Shihab Eldin, Senior correspondent at AJ+.
Mr. MANSOUR, responded to a various questions, including one about the challenges involved in the current peacemaking efforts. He said that aside from the political challenges, Palestinians faced those of being able to stay on their land and not being forced to leave. There was also the frustration of young people, unleashed over the fact that in East Jerusalem and the occupied territory, “we are living in a big prison”, he said.
For the 300,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, displacement had created a very real economic hardship, he said. There were 50,000 people alone living inside the walls of that city, faced daily with racism and discrimination. It made sense that they would explode against anything, especially the occupation. That was a huge challenge. Young people’s concerns had to be addressed. Another challenge was the collective failure to end the suffering of the 2 million people in Gaza by not breaking the blockade. They deserved access and movement in and outside that area to escape their misery.
He went on to say there was a history in the national liberation struggle. “Everything we do is transparent,” he said, which was a sign of strength. For example, he recently attended a meeting at the foreign ministry of Palestine in Ramallah, which was covered by live television. The agenda was about the first report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The female minister from Gaza had given the official report of the Palestinian Government, which had noted that Palestine’s basic law was secular, but also guided by sharia. A barrage of women’s groups had said it did not fully reflect Palestinians women’s rights. “We cannot pretend our situation is rosier than it is,” he said. “Our beauty is to tell it like it is.” He had informed the High Commissioner for Human Rights that the report would arrive and that the Government was encouraging civil society groups to submit a parallel report.
Also, there were complaints that Palestinians officials had more privileges than others, he said. “We need to be humble and sensitive to the suffering of our people,” he said, noting it would be better not to enjoy those privileges to show people “we are with you in the trenches”. The goal was to end the occupation. Upon his return to New York, he would propose a resolution that would call for 2017 to be the International Year to End Israeli Occupation of Palestine. In 2017, there would be 50 years of occupation and 70 years since General Assembly resolution 181 (II) of 1947, which had given birth to the State of Palestine. “How long do we need to see us living in this miserable situation?”, he asked.
He responded to a question about the incentive for the major players to end the occupation, especially after hundreds of United Nations resolutions had been passed without action. He said his main responsibility was to defend the national rights of Palestinians at the United Nations. His Government had legislated those rights through resolutions that had been adopted each year. As to why Israel was not upholding its international legal obligations, he said a powerful country was shielding Israel in the Security Council by using its veto power or not permitting other countries to behave towards Israel the way they should.
He then turned to a question on what the Palestinian Authority could do to pressure Israel, and further, why it had continued to cooperate with Israel when that Government had not abided by its agreements. He said that, on the issue of security cooperation, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Central Council and Executive Committee had taken a decision to stop such cooperation. There was now an expectation that the decision would be implemented.
If ending such cooperation, he said, meant not working with the occupying army when it came looking for people to arrest, Palestinians were not obliged to facilitate that search. If it meant stopping Israeli forces from entering Area A, then it should be implemented. Palestinians were not raising white flags. “I have to have hope,” he said, and to tell the story of Palestinians in the most effective way. That was part of the struggle.
As to whether he felt there had been progress, he said the current situation was unsustainable. Palestinians could not continue to suffer in Gaza, East Jerusalem or the occupied territories, to be humiliated at checkpoints or to see their land stolen. “The solution has to be the independence of our State,” he said. It was a critical moment. To the Security Council, he said, “show us the way. Take practical steps and we will follow. It is your duty to deal with the situation.” He believed a just solution would be found, which would be a significant contribution to fighting extremism.
EBRAHIM SALEY, Deputy Director-General for Global Governance, Department of International Relations and Cooperation of South Africa, said the status of the stagnant Middle East peace process could be a depressing topic. Some could argue that the world suffered from fatigue when discussing the question of Palestine, which in turn, was detrimental to peace, stability and the dignity of the region’s people.
“The international community cannot run away from being engaged and must find a just and fair solution,” he stressed. “Otherwise the world will always be assaulted by the grim reminders of the cruelty of a conflict in which the line between right and wrong becomes invisible and crimes of dispossession, racism, anti-Semitism, collective punishment and apartheid become the norm.” The world owed it to the people of Palestine and Israel that they lived in peace.
It was apt, he said, that the first panel had been on “prospects for a political solution of the Israel-Palestine conflict and deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory”. What had stood out was the sense that the two-State solution, as envisioned by the Oslo Accords and United Nations resolutions, was in danger, as one side continued to change the facts on the ground through occupation and illegal settlement-building. Describing the ensuing discussions, he said that participants had noted the pursuit of peace had become “ritualized”, with the United Nations described as the “centre of gravity” in resolving the question of Palestine. Yet, in fact, the global and geopolitical power balance, as reflected in the Organization, had allowed one party to act with impunity. “What made this event unique is that the focus was not only on the traditional political process, but it also examined the innovative initiatives of the media and civil society in seeking alternate and new ways of finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict,” he said.
The second panel, on “the Israel-Palestine story in documentaries and films”, he said, had offered moving personal accounts, with participants arguing that descriptions of the situation in the Middle East as a “conflict” were mistaken in that Palestinians had no military or other armed forces for it to be considered a conventional conflict. The struggle of the two narratives of the conflict had been stressed, namely that the mainstream corporate media had its own agenda and news was often biased. There was a view that the mainstream media acts often as the propaganda arm of one party predominantly.
The third panel had focused on “TV shows and mashup videos: when political satire becomes a peacemaker”, he said. Participants had seen that on occasion, facts and realities on the ground were less important than perceptions. An issue that had stood out was the challenge in presenting narratives that humanized Palestinians. Panellists had noted it was always important to consider a story from both sides, or indeed, multiple sides and perspectives. “It is only in so doing that we can fully begin to understand the complexity of the Israel-Palestine situation,” he said.
Discussion on the question of Palestine had been taken a step further with the virtual reality tour of Gaza, which he had found to be useful in recalling the suffering of ordinary people who lived in dire circumstances, “but are no different from you and me”. It was true to assume that everyone would leave the seminar challenged in their perceptions regarding this perplexing situation.
Throughout the seminar, he said he had been reminded of resolution 242 (1966), which stated that “the fulfilment of the Charter principles requires the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East”. All efforts — as Governments, civil society and media — must work to bring about the essence of that resolution, which had been unfulfilled for 50 years. “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another,” he said, quoting former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela. Mr. Mandela’s vision, he said, was as true for South Africa as it was for the people of Palestine and Israel.
For information media. Not an official record.