With Bethlehem as the birthplace of Christianity, it is baffling to observe how a city so central to the faith of more than a billion believers – and some of the most powerful religious institutions in the world – could be allowed to become so squalid and also so abused.
The “little town of Bethlehem” of Christmas carols and nativity plays, so nauseatingly overplayed and over-performed at this time of year, is today a struggling, depressing city.
It’s been turned into a walled ghetto by Israel’s snaking separation wall, cut off from Jerusalem a few kilometres away, and is surrounded by growing numbers of illegal Israeli colonies and outposts that consume its land, its natural resources and its extraordinary potential.
There is one artist, however, who has for more than a decade, been using a spartan arsenal of spray cans and stencils, in conjunction with his trademark simple depictions and blistering wit, to shake loose the scales from our eyes: he is, of course, Banksy, Britain’s favourite “guerrilla” artist.
Ten years ago this Christmas, Banksy gathered a group of 14 international “sissy” street artists together in Bethlehem, and a handful of Palestinian ones, to draw the international media’s attention to the plight of Bethlehem – by transforming it over several weeks into a hip, pop-up street art gallery and marketplace. Anyone wanting to bid on an original work of art from Banksy, Suleiman Mansour, Ron English, Blu or the others, could do so, provided they travelled to Bethlehem in person, experiencing and witnessing Israel’s occupation, checkpoints and towering eight-metre high wall in the process.
It was an exercise in "art for heart's sake", and it worked quite astoundingly: art collectors joined the world's mainstream media outlets in flocking to Bethlehem, generating headlines that spread from Anchorage to Adelaide, and raising more than US$1 million (Dh3.67m) for local charities from the proceeds. What millions around the world took an interest in reading about and watching on television was a sobering glimpse into present-day Bethlehem and Palestine, filtered through extraordinary street art that commented on the injustices the world had turned a blind eye to.
This year, a decade on, Banksy has again managed to provide the plight of Bethlehem and Palestinians struggling under Israeli occupation with extensive headline media coverage, this time by opening The Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, located a frog-march away from the Israeli-controlled checkpoint. Banksy launched it as the hotel with “the world’s worst view”, with each of its 10 rooms looking out onto the grim wall and foreboding sentry towers.
A hotel, art gallery and museum – and organiser of concerts (featuring local and international artists), live football screenings (on the wall, of course) and the occasional large public event – The Walled Off Hotel has, many claim, single-handedly put Palestine on the international travel map as a top destination: earlier this year the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) ranked Palestine as the fastest growing tourist destination in 2017, with an increase this year of international visitors of 57.8 per cent, according to the UNWTO.
This is quite a feat, given Bethlehem’s not infrequent incursions by the Israeli army, and despite United States president Donald Trump’s highly controversial attempt to unilaterally alter the regional map in Israel’s favour, and the Israeli government’s growing legislative efforts to bar its critics from entering the country.
“Most of the tourists come because of the hotel,” says Wissam Salsaa, The Walled Off Hotel’s manager. “You have thousands and thousands of people coming to Palestine and to Bethlehem because of the hotel, and these people would never have dreamed of coming to Bethlehem, or even Jerusalem, if it wasn’t for the hotel,” he claims.
Banksy has largely been responsible for drawing the scores of tourists you can see every day, alone or in small groups, absorbing the street art and graffiti, phone cameras at the ready, tracing the route of the wall from the checkpoint to the wall’s deepest incursion by the grand but vulnerable Jacir Palace Hotel (it is located by a large metal gate through which the Israeli military frequently launches violent incursions). The Banksy pieces, where still extant, are pilgrimage and selfie points – the rest ranges from a mix of some powerful images, statements and apposite quotations, to the silly, banal and vapid words and images of passers-by, compelled to add their voice to an already overbearing, ominous structure.
Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, believes Banksy is doing an extraordinary amount of good for Palestine. “Banksy is highly appreciated by the people of Bethlehem and Palestine in general,” he says. “He has shown his support to the Palestinian people and the righteousness of this cause. He has been treated by the Palestinians as a champion of freedom, and he has been very generous with Bethlehemites through his art and support.”
But how genuinely effective can protest art be? In the decade since Banksy’s “Santa’s Ghetto” stunt, western leaders’ support for Israel has grown stronger; the proliferation of illegal colonies is booming; Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes and the annexation of more land is emboldened and relentless, with many key Israeli politicians openly declaring that Israel should unilaterally annex Area C – which comprises 60 per cent – of the West Bank; the illegal blockade of Gaza continues, collectively punishing up to two million inhabitants there; Israel has launched three deadly major military assaults on Gaza since 2008 – and so on, and so on.
In addition to this, there are many critics within Palestine and abroad who condemn Banksy’s antics, regarding it as “conflict tourism” which exploits Palestinian suffering and normalises Israel’s occupation.
Karim Kattan is a writer from Bethlehem and a PhD candidate in comparative literature in Paris, who founded an artists’ and writers’ residency in Jericho called el-Atlal (“the Ruins”). He has some respect for aspects of The Walled Off Hotel (its informative museum and its recent public Balfour centenary satire, for instance) but feels that Banksy ultimately exploits Palestinian suffering for his own benefit and feels that the hotel “stinks of humanitarian [expletive]”. Kattan objects, like many Palestinians, to turning the wall into some sort of protest canvas.
“Basically, I don’t know what he’s raising awareness about and for whom: from my experience, tourists who come and take selfies in front of the wall do not turn into political activists. They’ll still have an ‘if only everyone could get along’ discourse, which has no meaning. It’s actually visible on the wall in front of the Walled Off Hotel: tourists will always leave the most watered-down, pseudo-humanist political slogans about peace and understanding, and how absolutely dreadful walls are. Did they need to come to Bethlehem and to Banksy’s hotel to realise that an eight-metre wall and occupation are bad?” he asks.
Kattan also objects to the hotel, and Banksy’s artwork, enticing visitors on a superficial, “Bethlehem-lite” whistle-stop visit. “If the Walled Off Hotel’s audience is a foreign audience [which it is], then they should make sure they integrate all those tourists within Bethlehem and make sure they guide them towards the other art spaces, restaurants, bars, activities, etc, that are popping up all over Bethlehem and run by locals. Because in Bethlehem, this is an integral part of what resisting means,” he says.
As the hotel’s general manager, Salsaa – who previously ran an alternative tourism company for foreigners visiting Palestine – disagrees. “I want to be honest with you. So far, after nine months of running this project, every single Palestinian who’s come into the hotel has left very proud and very positive about it, complimenting the project. This includes ordinary people, political leaders – they all believe this is one of the most important and amazing projects that has happened in Palestine, which makes me really proud and is very encouraging.”
Salsaa says the hotel encourages tourists to scratch beneath the Banksy surface to see the reality, and that their guests support the local economy. “We run two tours a day which take people into Bethlehem, to visit the refugee camps, to see the wall. And most of the people who come to the hotel see more than the hotel – and most of them come because of the hotel.”
A quick skim through the hotel’s reviews on TripAdvisor – which are overwhelmingly “excellent” – suggests that visitors to The Walled Off Hotel often explore Bethlehem and other areas of the West Bank – Hebron, Jericho, the Dead Sea – and become informed about Palestinian history, witness and learn about the humanitarian impact that Israel’s policies have had, and continue to have, on Palestine, and enjoy the local food, hospitality and entertainment.
Many mention how the trip completely changed their understanding of Palestine and their view of Palestinians, and encourage other travellers to visit Palestine to see the reality for themselves.
Despite the predominantly glowing reviews by western tourists, there remains an issue of local involvement and input. Kattan is not alone in his views that much of what Banksy and other well-intentioned western artists crucially forget is that “solidarity” means listening to and supporting Palestinians in their struggle, not making assumptions and speaking on their behalf.
“The Walled Off Hotel is exploitative – and comments on its own exploitativeness in a tongue-in-cheek way; but it’s not because it’s self-aware about its flaws that it makes it OK,” says Kattan.
“Outside of Palestine [the impression] you see is that Palestinians needed a British artist to come into their country to be able to raise awareness for their plight. That’s a Banksy-branded hotel, it’s not a Palestinian hotel that also got Banksy’s backing or Banksy’s work. Foreign artists should work with Palestinians and not think they need to work for them or in their place, which is a humanitarian perspective that’s not conducive to actual capacity building or useful exchanges,” says the writer.
The hotel is fully booked this Christmas. “I think we are doing something amazing for Palestine, for Bethlehem, for the whole region,” says Salsaa. “We are creating a new form of non-violent resistance. We can deliver our message as Palestinians with joy, with fun, instead of putting ourselves in danger, sacrificing our lives.
“Banksy has put the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian struggle on a global level. He has globalised art, raised the awareness to a very high level, and we have been lucky as Palestinians to get such an opportunity. We are very committed, very influential. We believe in the power of art in changing the situation. Art is an amazing way of communicating with people who don’t listen to the traditional voice.”