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An Israeli-government appointed committee ruled July 9 that the West Bank was not “occupied” land, something Palestinians who live there — and, indeed, much of the international community — consider it to be ever since Israeli troops seized control of the territory in 1967. The report reaffirms the longstanding view of the Israeli government, particularly the right-wing-led coalition currently in power, and pushes for a number of measures further supporting the presence of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It’s news that can only deepen the sense of outrage and dispossession harbored by Palestinians, who have cause to feel exasperated with the current state of affairs: the peace process with Israel has gone moribund; the Palestinian leadership’s feeble attempt to unilaterally bid for statehood at the U.N. was brushed aside last year, all the while as Israeli settlements further entrench themselves on West Bank soil under the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Every May 15, Palestinians commemorate Nakba day, which marks the “catastrophe” that was the creation of the state of Israel and the subsequent loss of their homeland. In the weeks leading up to Nakba day this year, hundreds of Palestinians in jail had gone on a mass coordinated hunger strike in protest of Israeli detention laws. Scores took to the streets once again, clashing with Israeli security forces. As ever, images of burning tires and stone throwers were beamed around the world.

But American photographer Adam Golfer’s images of the West Bank look beyond the hurly burly of one of the world’s intractable conflicts, past what he terms “the theater of war” and the almost “ritualized” scenes of violence that seem to shape the outsider’s view of the Middle East. Golfer, who is Jewish, has an art background and does not consider himself a photojournalist. He spent three weeks roaming the West Bank last November and five more this February. The resulting photographs are, as he puts it, “not a documentary, but rather something far more personal,” tied to his own meanderings across a land over which “every aspect is disputed.”

Golfer’s photos, he says, “are vignettes of an experience.” They are bathed in a painterly glow, dwelling over terrain that is at once stark and desolate but suffused with centuries of accrued history and memory. In one, three foreign journalists stand atop the stony earth, at the center of the narrative they seek to tell. In another, an Israeli  “Center for Tolerance and Human Dignity”—built despite local protests and appeals—emerges from what is the site of a 7th century Muslim cemetery. A gnarled tree rises out of the foreground, its leafless branches pointing limply at the new construction.

A photo poised on a kitchen counter shows three men whose ties date back to this land well before 1948. “It’s a mixture of nostalgia and also a proof of life,” says Golfer. “I don’t want to sound dramatic, but not long ago Newt Gingrich was saying there’s no such thing as the Palestinian people. Here we have a portrait of a family, a sense of roots, a sense of place.”

That idea of place and of a moment interests Golfer, who hopes to expand his work with field recordings and other media. He says he’s not keen on “running into the line of fire.” Too often, says Golfer, our vision of this region gets represented by a “tableau of violence.”  Instead, he is curious about “how the Palestinian way of life has taken shape”: families negotiate real and imagined boundaries; a line of gorgeous woven rugs airs out in the early evening half-light. “There is a quiet about a lot of the stuff I was looking at,” says Golfer. If so, it’s a silence full of meaning.

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Last week, seven Palestinian men sat for Pulitzer Prize-winning Israeli photographer Oded Balilty in a home in the West Bank village of Bilin. Against a black backdrop, one man posed with a taut slingshot, two small pebbles resting in the sling. Another stared defiantly through a gas mask. A third carried a tire.

Balilty is no stranger to his subject matter. Based in Tel Aviv as an Associated Press photographer for more than a decade, Balilty has photographed daily clashes as well as the longer-term friction between Israelis and Palestinians. In 2007, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his image documenting a lone Jewish settler challenging Israeli security officers in the settlement of Amona.

Although his subject matter is familiar, his portraits transcend the ongoing conflict.

Clad in checkered kaffiyehs, masks and flags, they carry with them the objects of protest used in resistance against Israeli soldiers. Their improvised arsenal of everyday objects echoes the ongoing conflict—a struggle temporarily put on hold while Balilty photographed the men.

“The clashes have been going for years and years and it’s become repetitive, all these clashes every weekend,” Balilty told TIME. “But, this time I said, ok, I want to do something a little bit different. How am I going to show the conflict in a different way?”

He arrived at the idea of shooting portraits, but consulted with his colleague, Nasser Shiyoukhi, the AP’s Palestinian photographer from the West Bank, for help with the access.

“I asked him if it’s even possible for me, as an Israeli,” he said.

Shiyoukhi helped Balilty get in touch with the organizer of the weekly street demonstrations, who gave his consent for the photos to be taken—even arranging for the portraits to be shot inside the organizer’s house in Bilin, a village in the West Bank.

“The Palestinians are definitely not like the Israelis—they are aware of the power of the media. And any exposure for them, in any way, is an opportunity to explain their situation and to talk about the conflict. They are very open minded—they cooperate for a specific reason,” explained Balilty.

Despite the serious nature of the shoot, the atmosphere inside the studio lacked the conflicted tension Balilty expected.

“It’s a very serious issue. But mainly for me, I was trying to focus on the person and to tell like the general story through a few individuals,” said Balilty.

“On the weekend, they are in those protests, but other than that, they are totally normal people—they live normal lives, they go to school, they work, they have families. But yet these guys are always standing on the front lines of the protest and some of them get injured, some of them get arrested, some of them get killed,” he said.

Looking back on the shoot, the photographer was surprised by the way the day turned out.

“At the end of the day, we became like friends. We spent the entire day together, sat together and smoked a cigarette together, and we [shared] some common jokes and it was a very cool day. I wish, you know…it was like that all the time and everywhere. The experience I had that day…for me was one of the best things.”

Oded Balilty is a photographer for the Associated Press based in Tel Aviv. LightBox featured his work earlier this year in The Art of Storytelling.

LightBox updated the story at 3pm Saturday with comments from Oded Balilty. 




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ESSAY CONTAINS EXPLICIT CONTENT

Amnon Gutman

The Promised Land

play this essay

 

In June 2002, the government of Israel decided to erect a physical barrier to separate Israel and the West Bank in an attempt to minimize the entry of Palestinian terrorists into the country. This has partially solved today’s terrorist infiltration problem but has caused grief and pain to innocent Palestinians in every area in which it was constructed, along the 1967 Green Line. In the southern region of Mt. Hebron, the movement of Palestinians who are coming into the country to find work has been disrupted. These people and their families are paying the price for the system of collective control that Israel has decided to implement with the erection of the Separation Barrier. Typically, a day’s work in the West Bank for a builder usually comes to about $18, while a day’s work in Israel brings them $60 – $110. Their families have come to rely on this income. Ironically, these Palestinian men, who are determined to keep providing for their families are the ones who are physically building the State of Israel. They endure terrible conditions as illegal workers, sleeping rough in river creeks, under bridges, on building sites and under highways in the Beer Sheva area, trying to avoid getting caught. If the Palestinians are apprehended, they go through a security check and when found innocent of terrorist intentions, they are sent back to their homes. And so the wearisome cycle continues. Israeli border patrol police and the army are in a constant but only partially successful race to apprehend these Palestinians. Every wall has its weak points. For a young man determined enough, it becomes a way of life- waiting for the right moment, for the prepaid accomplice driver waiting on the other side, depending on his faithful cell phone and on his buddies, all of whom are adjusting strategies to accommodate for the Separation Barrier.

 

Bio

Growing up in a war conflicted region, I have always been deeply aware of the possibility of loss. Photography empowers me to share this insight, demonstrating the horrible, equalizing moment of the possibility of loss, the universality of vulnerability. There is nothing clearer, nothing more precious than the preservation of the life force in the face of violence and disease. This is what I am attempting to articulate with my black and white images of the world.

 

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Amnon Gutman

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Photojournalist Uriel Sinai has been covering the West Bank for Getty Images. He’s spent time documenting the Jewish Settlement outpost of Havat Gilad, Migron and Beit Horon among others.

The photographs show the sometimes peaceful, other times turbulent nature of the West Bank where life between the Israeli’s and Palestinians often clash.

Jewish Settler Yehoda Shimon and his wife Ilana spend the afternoon with their children at their home at the Jewish Settlement outpost of Havat Gilad in the West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will formally submit the application for Palestinian statehood to the 66th United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 20th. The Palestinian bid arises from two decades of on-and-off peace talks that have failed to produce a deal.

 Life in the West Bank

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A Jewish bride prays ahead of her wedding near the Jewish Settlement of Migron in the West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formally submitted the application for Palestinian statehood to the 66th United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 23rd. The Palestinian bid arises from two decades of on-and-off peace talks that have failed to produce a deal. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men are seen as they arrive at the tomb of the biblical Matriarch Rachel in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. As little as one hundred years ago the tomb was a small isolated building on the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem while today it is inside a heavily secured Israeli army enclave on a road that penetrates deep into the Palestinian town. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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The Israeli separation barrier is seen as as it surrounds the tomb of the biblical Matriarch Rachel in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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Jewish Settler Yehoda Shimon and his wife Ilana spend the afternoon with their children at their home at the Jewish Settlement outpost of Havat Gilad in the West Bank. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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A settler boy plays with goats at the Jewish Settlement outpost of Havat Gilad in the West Bank. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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Jewish settler children spend the afternoon at their home at the Jewish Settlement outpost of Havat Gilad in the West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will formally submit the application for Palestinian statehood to the 66th United Nations General Assembly in New York. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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A boy plays outside his home on July 26, 2011 at the Jewish Settlement outpost of Havat Gilad in the West Bank. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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Jewish Settler Ilana Shimon and her children play outside their home at the Jewish Settlement outpost of Havat Gilad in the West Bank. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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Jewish Settler children play outside their home at the Jewish Settlement outpost of Havat Gilad in the West Bank. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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A Jewish Settler and her son at their home at the Jewish Settlement outpost of Havat Gilad in the West Bank. The Palestinian bid arises from two decades of on-and-off peace talks that have failed to produce a deal. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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Jewish Settler children play at the Jewish Settlement outpost of Havat Gilad in the West Bank. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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Jewish Settler, Yehoda Cohen from Havat Gilad swims with his son in a pool on August 13, 2011 near the Jewish Settlement of Har Bracha, West Bank. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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An Israeli soldier flashes the victory sign as the Israeli army secures and area at the Tapuach Junction north of the Palestinian town Nablus in the West Bank. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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A Palestinian man shepherds his goats near the Tapuach Junction north of the Palestinian town Nablus in the West Bank. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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Israeli children play at the Juwish settelmnt of Shvot Rachel in the West Bank. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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Guests celebrate during a Jewish wedding near the Jewish Settlement of Migron in the West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will formally submit the application for Palestinian statehood to the 66th United Nations General Assembly in New York. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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A Palestinian man rests after crossing from the West Bank town of Qalqilya to work in the Jewish state in the early morning near the Israeli army's checkpoint at Kibbutz Eyal in central Israel. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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Palestinians stand beneath flags decorating a main a round-about in Ramallah, West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is reportedly told United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon September 19, that he will seek full membership for a Palestinian state during the UN General Assembly this week in New York. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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Palestinians stand in line for an ATM in Ramallah, West Bank. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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A Palestinian soldier stands behind the tomb of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is reportedly told United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon September 19, that he will seek full membership for a Palestinian state during the UN General Assembly this week in New York. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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Israeli children wave Israeli flags as settlers participate in a protest march against Palestinian statehood from the West Bank Jewish settlement of Itamar to the Palestinians town of Nablus, West Bank.(Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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Soldiers stand guard as Israeli settlers with Israeli flags participate in a protest march against Palestinian statehood from the West Bank Jewish settlement of Itamar to the Palestinians town of Nablus, West Bank. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said that he plans to apply for full membership for a Palestinian state after he speaks at the UN General Assembly this Friday in New York City. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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Israeli children sit next to an Israeli army post as Israeli settlers participate in a protest march against Palestinian statehood. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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A man carries his son as Israeli settlers participate in a protest march against Palestinian statehood. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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Thousands of Palestinians attend in support the Palestinian bid for recognition of statehood at the United Nations in Ramallah, West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to submit a letter to the U.N. Security Council to petition for statehood during the UN General Assembly. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

 Life in the West Bank

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Palestinians attend a demonstration in support the Palestinian bid for recognition of statehood at the United Nations in Ramallah, West Bank. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) #

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