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Photo essay

One sea, worlds apart: Summer days at the beach in Tel Aviv and Gaza

Photographers capture shared reality, as well as the differences, of those who live just 70 kilometers apart on the Mediterranean coast

  • Heart shapes drawn in sand as the sun sets over Tel Aviv's beach, Israel, June 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
    Heart shapes drawn in sand as the sun sets over Tel Aviv's beach, Israel, June 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
  • A Palestinian man works on a sand shape of heart on the beach of Gaza City,July 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
    A Palestinian man works on a sand shape of heart on the beach of Gaza City,July 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
  • A Palestinian man wearing a necklace with a pendant symbolizing Palestinian national identity poses for a photo on the beach of Gaza City, Sept. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
    A Palestinian man wearing a necklace with a pendant symbolizing Palestinian national identity poses for a photo on the beach of Gaza City, Sept. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
  • An Israeli beach worker wears a necklace with the Star of David pendant poses for a photo on the beachfront early morning in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
    An Israeli beach worker wears a necklace with the Star of David pendant poses for a photo on the beachfront early morning in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
  • Palestinian children react as they ride a camel on the beach of Gaza City,Aug. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
    Palestinian children react as they ride a camel on the beach of Gaza City,Aug. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
  • An Israeli family enjoy the day on a dog friendly beach in Tel Aviv, Israel,  July 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
    An Israeli family enjoy the day on a dog friendly beach in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
  • A Palestinian boy uses empty plastic bottles to flood while swimming, rests on the beach of Gaza City, July 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
    A Palestinian boy uses empty plastic bottles to flood while swimming, rests on the beach of Gaza City, July 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
  • A wooden lifeguards station is seen on the beach of Gaza City, Sept. 27, 2021, left, and a lifeguard station is seen on the Mediterranean Sea beachfront early morning in Tel Aviv, Israel, Aug. 17, 2021, right (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, right, Khalil Hamra, left)
    A wooden lifeguards station is seen on the beach of Gaza City, Sept. 27, 2021, left, and a lifeguard station is seen on the Mediterranean Sea beachfront early morning in Tel Aviv, Israel, Aug. 17, 2021, right (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, right, Khalil Hamra, left)

Though the beaches in Tel Aviv and Gaza City look out on the same cresting waves of the Mediterranean Sea, they are worlds apart — and not just because they sit on opposite sides of a century-old conflict.

In Tel Aviv, Israelis wear bikinis, shorts and tank tops that show off their tattoos. Bottles of cold beer sweat under the sun as golden retrievers race after frisbees and surfers carry their boards out to the breakers. At first glance it looks like San Diego or Marseilles, a wealthy seaside metropolis where the Middle East and its various catastrophes can be comfortably ignored.

Gaza, just 70 kilometers (40 miles) away, is a crowded Palestinian enclave that has been cut off by an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas terrorists seized power in 2007. The beach is one of the only open spaces where families can breathe — a rare vista without fences or guard towers.

Oded Balilty, like most Israelis, has not been to Gaza since Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers in 2005. Khalil Hamra, like most Palestinians from Gaza, has never been to Tel Aviv.

The two Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers have been covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for The Associated Press for two decades but have only met in person once, at a photo exhibition in Europe in 2003.

For this project, they communicated by Zoom and spent months taking pictures, sharing them, and then trying to find similar shots from the other side. After covering four Gaza wars from opposite sides of the battle lines, they tried to capture a shared reality.

A Palestinian boy uses empty plastic bottles to fill while swimming, rests on the beach of Gaza City, July 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

“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,” Balilty said.

The differences were just as clear.

Balilty described how the project made him feel as though he was “seeing Gaza through Khalil’s eyes.” 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.

Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since 2008, the most recent one in May. Rockets fired from Gaza crashed into Tel Aviv and locations to its south and set off air raid sirens. Israeli airstrikes toppled multistory buildings in Gaza City and the navy shelled the coast.

Ultra-orthodox Jewish men and children enjoy the day on a beach segregated three days a week for men and three days for women, in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The wars and the blockade have battered Gaza’s infrastructure. Untreated sewage has poured into the sea in recent years, polluting the coastline and drifting north into Israel.

Palestinians routinely refer to Gaza as an open-air prison for its 2 million residents, most of them the descendants of refugees from the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation. Many Israelis view Gaza as a den of terrorists, whose rockets have been sowing fear in neighboring Israeli communities for more than a decade.

But a typical summer day at the beach reveals shared humanity.

Israeli boys and Palestinian boys can spend the whole day horsing around, scrambling up rocky jetties and plunging into the water again and again and again. Older boys try out parkour — urban gymnastics best attempted on soft sand. Israeli and Palestinian parents tenderly attach floats to their little ones, who squeal with glee each time the waves rush over their tiny toes.

Everyone basking in the same Mediterranean sun, watching the waves break off in the distance, savoring the long summer days while they last.

A Palestinian man works on a sand shape of a heart on the beach of Gaza City, July 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Heart shapes drawn in sand as the sun sets over Tel Aviv’s beach, Israel, June 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Palestinian children ride a camel on the beach of Gaza City, Aug. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
An Israeli family enjoys the day on a dog friendly beach in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Two Palestinians prepare their fishing nets before throwing them into the water, on the beach of Gaza City, July. 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Two Israelis prepare to throw their fishing nets into the Mediterranean Sea on Tel Aviv’s beach, Israel, Aug. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Three Palestinians pose for a photograph while enjoying a summer day setting on the beach of Gaza City, July. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Three Israelis pose for a photograph while enjoying a summer day setting on the beach in Tel Aviv, Israel, Aug. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
A Palestinian man wears a necklace with a map of Palestine poses for a photo on the beach of Gaza City, Sept. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
An Israeli beach worker wears a necklace with the Star of David pendant poses for a photo on the beachfront early morning in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Palestinians jump into the water as they enjoy a summer day on the beach of Gaza City, Aug. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Israeli kids jump into the Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv’s beach, Israel, July 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
A wooden lifeguard station is seen on the beach of Gaza City, Sept. 27, 2021, left, and a lifeguard station is seen on the Mediterranean Sea beachfront early morning in Tel Aviv, Israel, Aug. 17, 2021, right (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, right, Khalil Hamra, left)

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