Chinese artist Ai Weiwei visits Gaza and the West Bank
The Chinese artist and human rights activist received a permit to enter Gaza during a surprise visit to Israel, which he posted about on Instagram. Ai's tour is part of a documentary he is working on about refugees.
Since his arrival in the Gaza Strip this week, the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has created a social media stir, continuously posting pictures and videos to his Instagram account from various checkpoints, refugee camps, abandoned streets and border controls - but also from beaches, playgrounds and crowded markets.
The human rights activist landed unannounced at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport last Sunday, letting his followers know about his visit through an Instagram post showing his passport together with a valid stay permit granted by the Israeli border control.
After spending a few days in Jerusalem and in the West Bank, Ai continued his journey to the Gaza Strip, where he had planned to film parts of his documentary about refugees, which is scheduled for release at the end of the year.
Israeli authorities had initially refused to let him in, claiming that the visit would pose a threat to his life.
On Wednesday, however, the spokesman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories said that, after failing to do so at first, the production company working with Ai had submitted an entry request and thus his visit to Gaza would be permitted.
Ai greets children on the streets of the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip
During a visit to Jerusalem, Ai met with the head of the Joint Arab List, MK Ayman Odeh, with whom he discussed the current situation of Palestinians, as well as their commemoration of the Nakba (Day of Catastrophe) - which in Israel is celebrated as Independence Day.
"If we are doing a documentary film, we have to search (for) what happened in this refugee situation in the global sense, and Gaza is a very, very important location we have to film in," Ai told the French news agency AFP. "We are living in the 21st century," he said. "We have to accept that all humans are equal. We are not different from each other."
Ai's pictures from his journey have generated a lot of comments and remarks on Instagram, both from Israelis and Palestinians.
"Welcome to Israel!" one user commented on the first picture Ai took in the country. "Hope you will be fair enough to ask the people in Gaza about the terror and rockets Hamas are sending and that all the money they got goes to build terror tunnel underground."
In response, a Palestinian living in the West Bank wrote: "Nice try. Ai Wei Wei is gonna dig up all the crimes your awful country has been committing. And the war crimes against the people of Gaza."
Ai shares his contact details with girls at the Gaza City seaport
This is not the first time that Ai has had trouble with Israeli officials. In February, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art canceled an exhibition by Ai and the renowned Israeli photographer Miki Kratsman.
According to the museum, there was a scheduling problem. However, Kratsman told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the event was canceled for political reasons.
So far, Ai has posted more than 200 pictures and videos from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and it is yet to be known when his visit to the region will end.
"The Palestinian refugees really play a very important factor in the whole refugee situation," Ai told the Associated Press news agency. "The condition here is unbelievable," he added.
"Gaza is really suffering from this isolation and blockade from all over," Ai said. "We have to come here to interpret this into our film."
Because Ai generally writes little - and often nothing - for his photo descriptions, many of the images are left open to interpretation by followers of his account. The same thing happened when he posted a difficult scene of dead animals, completely burnt and sooty.
"What is this dreadful picture about?" one user commented. "What am I looking at?" another asked. "Maybe the animals from the zoo?" a third wondered. A fourth user explained - albeit unconfirmed by Ai - that the picture is of "zoo animals that have died of starvation. It has been reported in the international press but nothing has been done."
Ai with his filming crew at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip
That wasn't the only picture that many of Ai's followers found disturbing. Long debates unspooled in the comments sections of many of his posts - especially under the ones in which he posted photos of young armed men from Gaza.
"You should write that [these are] Hamas terrorists," an Israeli commented. "Otherwise, people who follow your Instagram would think [you are] glorifying terrorists." That created a string of comments about the legitimacy of Israel's army and its presence in the West Bank.
Despite all he has taken in on his trip and the controversies in the comments, the artist Ai remains optimistic: "We have to coexist," he told AFP. "We have to understand and to be inclusive to other people - different types of people - because humanity is the only thing we have."