How the Separation Wall in Betlehem Became a Political Art Gallery

Just half an hour south from Jerusalem, the holy city of Betlehem welcomes visitors.

Well, almost all of them.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert on the Israel-Palestine conflict nor do I have strong opinions about it. I support the Palestinian cause for independence but also understand why Israel is worried. Anyway, this post is only scraping on the surface of the politics of the situation – later on January, I have another post coming out that describes the conflict and travel in the West Bank in more detail.

 

I stand in the shadow of the separation wall. The concrete beast looms eight metres above me, its fringe decorated with barbed wire and every corner adorned with a military watchtower. Here art has become a powerful way of political expression.

The trip from Jerusalem to Betlehem only takes half an hour but it might as well take you to a whole another country. (According to many people, it does.) As you leave behind the central suburbs of Jerusalem, you are soon driving through no-man’s-land, the little sliver of land near the disputed city that was established as a de-militarised zone in the 1940s and claimed back by Israel during the six-day war in 1967. While the valley now hosts a mostly Jewish neighbourhood – and the new American embassy, whose move from Tel Aviv has caused major criticism – the traces of the conflict can be all but forgotten as the dull grey border wall looms above the area.

As we drive into Betlehem, I start spotting large, red signs by the side of the road. In three languages – Hebrew, Arabic and English – they read: “This road leads to area “A” under the Palestinian Authority. The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against the Israeli law.”

 

Make hummus, not walls

Palestine was a name used to refer to the whole area west of Jordan before it was split up to create Israel, the only Jewish nation in the world. Since then, Israelis and Palestinians have been involved in a plethora of violent clashes. Little by little, the Israeli army has diminished the Palestinian area,  annexing land areas like the seaside region of Acre in the North. Now Palestine refers to the tumultuous Gaza Strip – an active warzone – and the West Bank, that’s safe to travel as a tourist.

The deal with the West Bank borders is not as straight-forward as a grey wall between the two regions. In reality, the Palestinian section is divided into three parts: A, B and C. Area C is under Israeli control; while on paper still Palestinian, Israelis have freedom of movement around the region, and basically full rights on development on that land. Area B is in joint custody between the two, and area A is controlled by Palestinian authorities. Currently area A makes up a little less than 20% of the whole West Bank. Betlehem falls under this area A.

 
Portrait of Razan al Najjar on the right

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the very wall separating the regions has been harnessed for political activism.

A large, realistic portrait of a young, fair girl with gentle blue eyes stares at me from above. The girl is Ahed Tamimi, a 16-year-old who was convicted to eight months in jail after hitting an Israeli soldier during a protest. (The Italians artists responsible for the graffiti were deported and prohibited from returning to Israel for 10 years.) Next to her is a smaller, smiling portrait of Razan al Najjar, a nurse killed by an Israeli sniper in Gaza.

Donald Trump is featured, too; a large cartoon of him kissing the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has now been mostly erased but at least two larger-than-life images have already sprung to life around the wall. One of them is accompanied by figures of Bernie Sanders and Nelson Mandela, although the two bear more resemblance to Woody Allen and Morgan Freeman.

A local artist known as Cake Stencils draws connections between the conflict and the everyday: children playing jump rope with barbed wire, Jesus hung from a cross shaped like a military jet, Virgin Mary cradling a missile. Higher up, stories written by locals have been translated into English and glued to the wall; all tell of the life in the West Bank now and in the past. Messages of support are left in tens of languages, some artists even taking the chance to promote their own crises: Viva Catalonia! reads one scribble, and another one encourages support for the Hong Kong protesters.

Of course politics are not always displayed with grave seriousness: possibly the most famous piece on the wall reads MAKE HUMMUS NOT WALLS.

Portrait of the Ahed Tamimi
Stencils by Cakes Stencils

The creation of the wall

Israeli military had had its grasp in the Palestinian territories for years. As the conflict drawled on, with a satisfactory solution far off, the Israeli government proposed building a separation wall between the Palestinian territories and Israel.

The building of the wall was started in 2000, during the Second Intifada, which was a period of heightened violence and conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. (Naturally, both sides blame each other for starting it.) Nowadays the wall stretches for over 7000 kilometres. The Israeli government sees it as a “security wall” as a protection against Palestinian terrorism, and while attacks have decreased since building the wall, Palestinians consider it a separation or even a segregation wall. In a region under the heavy hand of Israeli military, the purpose of the wall is not so much to separate the two regions but to isolate Palestine, making their movement outside of the wall more difficult with all the control in Israel’s hands.

Many Palestinian farmers have been cut off from their fields, and it has made Palestinian access to hospital care and education harder with doctors and teachers having been left on opposing sides of the wall from their clinics and schools.

In addition, the wall cuts off many holy sites. Betlehem is home to the Church of Nativity erected in the place where Jesus is said to have been born, preventing many Israeli Christians from visiting the site; and the wall in Betlehem is built in an angle as to close access to the Tomb of Rachel, an important foremother in the Bible. The site is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

The wall has been condemned as illegal by the United Nations but so far it doesn’t seem that it’s about to come down any time soon. As Gaza and Israel keep firing at each other, the Israeli government is closing their grip on the West Bank. In the recent years, hundreds of thousands of illegal Israeli settlements have been established in the Palestinian regions, and while Trump has denied them being illegal – USA being a strong ally of Israel – international organisations keep talking about the human rights violations occurring on the other side of the wall. Just a few months before my visit to Betlehem, a Palestinian woman carrying a knife was shot dead at a checkpoint by Israeli sodiers.

 

Controversial art

The artpieces along the wall comment on the long-going conflict with humour, frustration, vigour, hope, hate and love. The wall has become a main attraction for tourists in Betlehem mostly thanks to the mysterious graffiti artist Banksy: apparently the world-famous artist was the first one to paint on the separation wall, drawing after him a long line of foreign and local artists making their mark on the wall.

Not everyone loves it.

‘You have made the wall beautiful. We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home,” a local man is supposed to have told Banksy after watching him spray paint his first image on the concrete.

Many locals seem worried that making the separation wall a tourist attraction might normalise the conflict more than raise awareness of it. “The more we reproduce images of the wall, the more the wall becomes normal in people’s imagination,” Issa, the artist behind the famous hummus graffiti, told the Al Jazeera newspaper. He added that soon they might not be able to even take the hated wall down even if they could if it became a protected site.

The wall has been compared to the East Side Gallery in Berlin where remnants of the Berlin wall are decorated with colourful graffiti, making the site one of Berlin’s most loved attractions. It’s true that the semblance is uncanny, with one key difference: the gallery was opened after the fall of the wall. The first graffiti on the Berlin wall did appear already in the 1980s but on the Western side of the structure. Painting on the East Berlin side was impossible – it was divided into a so called “death strip” where armed guards patrolled for people trying to escape to the West.

East Side Gallery was opened after the fall, in 1990, by German art organisations; unlike in Palestine, where the art initiatives were first taken up by foreigners. In post-wall Berlin, the wall gallery has become a memorial to the division to the city and “the peaceful negotiation of borders and conventions between societies and people”; in Betlehem it only stands to remind of the ongoing conflict.

Possibly the most famous painting: art by Palestinian “Issa”

 

The controversial Trump graffiti, now painted over

Banksy and the foreign impact

Banksy himself has also caused a lot of controversy by spearheading the movement of foreign artists who come and leave their mark on the wall. Some Palestinians feel that their suffering has been diminished into a fun tourist activity.

(Then again, this kind of criticism is always prominent when talking about dark tourism. It’s a hard question since what to one person might seem like trivialising a crisis, for someone else means bringing international attention to it through all good intentions.)

“We don’t have the privilege of writing on the wall, and then going home and never having to see this wall again. We are forced to see it every day,’ Khalifa, a Palestinian activist, told Al Jazeera. 

One international artist in the throes of controversy is Lushsux, an Australian graffiti artist responsible for the notorious portrait of Trump and Netanyahou. His handiwork also includes large Rick and Morty themed pieces and another Trump motif that has also since been erased. He has been accused of alt-right and anti-sematic images, and the kissing Trump image was heavily critised as insensitive and inappropriate in mostly Muslim Palestine, an area lot more conservative than the neighbouring Israel.

Still, Palestinian businesses around the controversial wall are thriving. They don’t seem too worried about the exploitation of the conflict. Little shops sell everything imaginable embedded with famous images of the wall. An older man sitting next to a large plastic thermos offers me coffee and tea for sale with a smile everytime I walk past him. And on the bend of the road I walk past the Walled Off Hotel – a joint business between Banksy and a local entrepreneur.

Walled Off Hotel serves as a Banksy museum while encouraging its guests to spray their own graffiti on the wall. Their staff is all Palestinian and paid above the average wage, and while some argue that the hotel has caused local businesses to lose customers, many others counteract that by saying that the hotel has in fact brought a lot more tourists into the area and helped nearby businesses boom.

A room in this famed hotel sets you back hundreds of dollars. On its website, the hotel boasts: ‘SCENIC – The hotel boasts floor to ceiling views of graffiti-strewn concrete from almost every room.’ Rooms are decorated with original Banksys, and the website refers to the wall as “a piece of art”.

As I’m told, inspired by a Banksy piece but not actually painted by Banksy in Betlehem
The Walled Off Hotel
Banksy’s “Armored Dove”

Souvenir stalling

The positive impact on the businesses nearby is indisputable, although I suspect that tourists might not be leaving behind as much money as locals would hope for.

When we’ve arrived at the gallery, a slim young man with shaved temples and the rest of his hair gathered in a small ponytail has tried to coax me into his souvenir store – aptly named “the Banksy Shop”. The man seems genuinely surprised when we keep our promise.

The art work familiar from the walls decorates every item in the small store. There are t-shirts, mugs, stickers, fridge magnets, posters, postcards, even full canvases adorned with the most famous Banksy pieces but also notable artwork by local artists. Among the postcards I find one that would surely get a tourist in trouble at a border check: a black-and-white illustration of children riding in a flying carousel around a watchtower, and the text underneath reads Visit historic Palestine; the Israeli army liked it so much they never left! I get one and a beautiful blue bracelet for my mum. My friends buy t-shirts, tote bags and earrings.

The sun is starting to set when we finally leave the wall gallery and head towards the city. There should be two original Banksy art works on the way back, and we locate the first one – a dove wearing a bullet-proof vest – next to a busy road, but the second one seems elusive. Pacing back and forth between two hotels, I finally point to a small souvenir shop.

‘Maybe it’s inside the building?’

The place looks like a small mall, like one of those dark, simple clutters of stalls that often gather in underground tunnels and metro stations. A man comes out of a store to greet us.

‘Are you looking for the Banksy? Come here.’

His shop is more glossy than the last one we’ve visited. I <3 Betlehem, declare the plastic keyrings dangling from display cases. The shopkeeper walks towards the side wall and pushes aside a shelf of postcards – revealing the artwork we’ve been looking for, safely encased behind a glass wall.

The artwork in question is the girl frisking a soldier. ‘No photos’, the shopkeeper warns as we crowd closer.

He explains that he has built his shop in this location to protect this graffiti. According to him, the city is not doing much to preserve these pieces that he deems valuable.

‘Most of the other graffiti that Banksy painted are not original anymore. They are famous, so people come here and paint over them, or add their own things on them.’

I can’t help but wonder out loud about the absurdity of it all. After all, we are talking about an artist whose piece “Devolved Parliament” has sold for over 10 million euros just a month earlier. The man shrugs. While the painting holds a lot of sentimental value to him (or he likes it for attracting customers,) he doesn’t seem to care about its potential monetary value.

We chat for a while about the wall and the city, and after a while he changes his mind and urges us to take a photo of the wall. Before we leave, he slides the postcards back in place, hiding the piece from view again. We thank him profusely before continuing on our way.

Life in the separated Palestine is strange. Here even a perfectly normal shopkeeper can have an original Banksy on his own wall.

 

 

 

The future of Palestine

While the Middle East slowly continues to boil, it seems unlikely that a solution to the conflict would be found any time soon. A Palestinian man we made friends with during our day in Betlehem talked to us for a while about the crisis and added: ‘Ever since I was little, my family has been saying that there will be a new war in 2025. I don’t know why they said it would be that year. But everyone believes that there will be war sooner or later.’

An escalated conflict does seem likely unless the Israeli government can reach some sort of a conclusion with the Palestinian authorities. One thing is for sure: it can’t go on like this forever. As for now, though, Betlehem is still a safe curiosity for tourists, whether travelling for religious or political reasons, and despite controversy, local Palestinian businesses will continue to welcome them with warmth and hospitality. And the wall? It isn’t going anywhere.

To quote a graffiti on the wall: ‘Nope! Going to need more than three wishes  to sort this illegal wall out.’

Betlehem 101

Getting there:

Betlehem is a part of a so-called A-zone which means it’s controlled by Palestinian authorities and Israeli citizens are prohibited to enter (although some still do.)  That’s why you have to take a Palestinian bus to get there.

The bus station is by Damascos Gate next to the Old Town in Jerusalem. Take bus 231; the one-way fare should cost 7 NIS (a little less than 2 e.) The buses run more or less regularly although without a set timetable; just the last bus from Betlehem to Jerusalem leaves at 7 p.m. from the same place where the bus drops you off.

Remember to take your passport and blue visa slip with you!!

Getting around:

The attractions in Betlehem are quite wide-spread so if you want to see everything and don’t feel like walking, you can hire a taxi to take you around. There will be many waiting for you as you get off the bus and some of the drivers can sell their services very aggressively so it might be better to try and book beforehand.

We walked everywhere, and even the distances can be long-ish, it wasn’t impossible.

What else you should know:

The money used in the Palestinian areas is the Israeli shekel (NIS).

The most widely spoken language is Arabic, although many people also speak Hebrew and excellent English. (Learn to at least say ‘shukran’, ‘thank you’ in Arabic.)

Palestine is mostly Muslim but you are not required to dress in any certain way.

Because of the strained relationship, DO NOT MENTION if you’re planning to visit the West Bank when you enter the country. While it’s perfectly legal and safe for tourists to visit the West Bank (and highly encouraged!), the Israeli border control is always on high alert for possible terrorism threats and becomes suspicious of anyone who wants to spend time in the Palestinian territories. It might not get you denied entry – but it might lead to a lengthy questioning.

 

Thanks for reading!

Are you planning to visit Israel and/or the Palestinian regions? What’s your take on the wall art?

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