Covered with graffiti, the West Bank Barrier cuts off the town of Bethlehem from the rest of Israel. Completed in 2003 to huge worldwide controversy. It’s often referred to as the Separation wall. Banksy drew on it for the first time in 2005. His image then of a couple of small children with bucket and spades went viral. It showed them sitting next to a crack in the wall through which could be seen a beautiful sandy beach.
Banksy tells the story of when he first painted the wall. A local man commented on how beautiful he’d made it. “We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall” he added. “Go home”. He did go home. But he came back. Visiting again in 2007 with a bunch of local and international artists. They started to use the wall as a canvas. The concrete facade starting to take on a different identity. Slowly it’s layers of intimidation were hidden by layers of spray paint.
The Walled Off Hotel
Now the site plays host to the Walled Off Hotel. A collaboration between Banksy and Wisam Salsaa, the local man Banksy first met when he showed him around the first time he visited in 2005. Wisam now runs the hotel but is in regular contact with Banksy. His views he tells me, are very specific. Everything needs to be a certain way. Banksy, it would seem, is quite the perfectionist.
The wall is now full of graffiti. All but the top ends are covered. The watch towers which once would have cast a keen eye over the Palestinian side, not quite as intimidating as they once were. Artists from around the world come to paint. Ably helped by the fact that the Walled Off Hotel has provided a handy paint store next to the hotel. Look either side of the hotel and the art runs off into the distance.
Graffiti of the Wall
Banksy’s work can be seen nearby. His two cherubs float high up trying to prize open the wall whilst his ‘Er… Sorry!‘ piece remembers the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Elsewhere his flower thrower has been re-created by an admirer. The original is a little bit further away. On the side of a car wash closer to the town, it’s become a tourist attraction in it’s own right.
The graffiti of the wall has become something to see. Wisam Salsaa credits the art with bringing a whole new audience to this side of the barrier. Without the art, he says, a lot of people just wouldn’t make the journey. You can see what he means just by wandering around. It’s clear that the wall is attracting it’s fair share of graffiti and Banksy tourists. People who perhaps wouldn’t have made the trip had the Walled Off and the associated graffiti not been there.
Political Art and Activism
It can still be dangerous of course. The wall is full of political art. All over are slogans and references to political events. Two Italian artists, Jorit Agoch and Salvatore De Luise , were arrested for vandalism after painting a huge mural of the Palestinian activist Ahed Tamini. Her face having become a symbol of Palestinian resistance after she was jailed for slapping an Israeli soldier. The two had their visas revoked, told to leave the country and banned from visiting Israel for the next 10 years.
A variety of other portraits and political art can be seen on the wall. Razan Al Najjar, a paramedic nurse killed by an Israeli sniper during a protest in Gaza, is shown smiling in her hospital uniform. A long standing mural of Leila Khaled meanwhile can be seen a little further away. A controversial figure, she was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. She was the first woman to hijack an airplane and is shown smiling and holding an assault rifle. Two very different examples of what people might deem to be Palestinian heroes.
Street Art on the Wall
Other artworks can be seen. Australian artist Lush Sux has in particular been very busy. His large scale work can be seen all over. Targetting the likes of Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they are shown in satire often celebrating the wall. His ‘Rick & Morty’ cartoons can also be seen and he’s transformed one of the watch towers into a giant pickle. He claims that one of the guards urinated on him from the window of the watch tower whilst he painted that particular piece.
More artists work can be seen including a number of prominent locals. During our visit, a number of works from local artist ‘Cake Stencils‘ could be spotted. Simple black and white silhouettes they show various images of life played out against the backdrop of the wall. Another Palestinian artist, Taqi Spateen, has depicted Alice looking out through a little door painted onto the wall to the other side. ‘Palestinians in Wonderland’ it says.
From further afield there was also a piece from the Liverpool based ‘Secret Society of Super Villain Artists‘. Their logo having been adapted to include a ‘Palestine Division’. Banksy too has a number of works on the wall which we mentioned earlier. A little further away, not quite on the wall but very close by, his famous dove of peace wearing a flack jacket welcomes people along the road into Bethlehem.
The wall remains controversial. Indeed there are a number of people who would rather no attention be given it at all. As the old man said to Banksy on his first visit, “we hate this wall”. It’s true that there is certainly a group who would find it’s tourist status disturbing. But then that’s the catch. Visitors either who spend the night or who come just for the day, can’t help to take away some added knowledge of the barrier. That’s part of the reason why Banksy wanted to invest so much in the hotel. Even if it’s the graffiti that becomes the draw. This is about learning and experiencing. Then in some small way, being able to take the stories away to the other side.
Bethlehem, the west bank barrier and the Walled Off Hotel were visited on 2nd and 3rd January 2019. You can read more about the Walled Off Hotel here.We are grateful to Laith Subeh from Star B Coffee in Manger Square who took the time to show us around Bethlehem and to some of the best bits of the wall.