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Distinctive AP photo project depicts Israelis, Palestinians sharing summer on distant shores

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For years, AP’s Khalil Hamra and Oded Balilty have captured the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through their award-winning photography. This summer they turned their lenses away from the violence and onto a place of refuge for both sides: the stretch of beaches along the Mediterranean Sea.

With Balilty making images from Tel Aviv and Hamra from Gaza, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers produced an evocative essay showing Palestinians basking in the sun, free of the fences and guard towers that define their lives, and Israelis relaxing in the sand some 70 kilometers (40 miles) away, free from fear of the next eruption of fighting.

Hamra, like most Palestinians from Gaza, has never been to Tel Aviv. Balilty, like most Israelis, has not been to Gaza since Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers in 2005. While they’ve covered the conflict for decades, they met in person just once, at a photo exhibition in Europe in 2003. Communicating via Zoom, they talked about what they were seeing, made pictures, shared them and then set out to find similar ones from the their respective sides.

The pair, collaborating with global enterprise photo editor Enric Marti and Mideast photo director Dusan Vranic, aimed to capture a shared reality — the humanity of the people on both sides — as well as the differences.

“On the same day that I was standing with my feet in the water in Tel Aviv, Khalil was standing with his feet in the water in Gaza, and it was the same water,” says Balilty. “I was seeing Gaza through Khalil’s eyes.”

Combo mideast
Three Palestinians men, left, pose for a photograph while enjoying a summer day on the beach of Gaza City, July 30, 2021, and at right, three Israelis spend a day on the beach in Tel Aviv, Aug. 8, 2021, right. – AP Photos / Khalil Hamra, left; Oded Balilty

Hamra was particularly moved by a set of nearly identical pictures from Tel Aviv and Gaza, each showing three young men in their teens or early 20s reclining on the beach. Men that age in Israel are usually doing their compulsory military service. Men that age in Gaza often risk their lives in violent protests along the heavily guarded frontier. “But these guys, they were relaxing, they were swimming, they were having fun,” Hamra said.
 ”At the end of the day there is life,” he added.

The powerful presentation,built by immersive storytelling producer Nat Castañeda,began with a Wes Anderson-esque combo of lifeguard towers — symmetrical and minimal — from each side,their condition revealing the difference in wealth. While building the presentation,Castañeda also created the moving, insightful video accompanying the piece,revealing more about the photographers and how they applied their craft.

For a strikingly unique,creative collaboration that brought,in Balilty’s words,“something positive” from a part of the world beset by conflict, Hamra and Balilty win this week’s Best of the Week award.

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