STAR OF BETHLEHEM
Inside Banksy’s West Bank Hotel
Irony and riots, puns, and prayers for peace make for a surreal experience in the shadow of Israel’s Great Wall.
BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Last week, small-scale clashes erupted across the West Bank in solidarity with hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. The largest of these riots took place adjacent to the massive concrete barrier in Bethlehem, near Rachel’s Tomb, where several hundred balaclava-clad Palestinian youths squared off against tear-gas firing Israeli security forces.
But just down the road from this traditional flashpoint a curious sort of surrealism reigns and the statue of an ape in a red bellboy outfit stands, fumbling several pieces of luggage, ready to greet visitors to the Walled Off Hotel.
As the name implies, the hotel sits mere steps from the graffiti-tagged edifice erected by the Israeli government around vast swaths of Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank. Alongside simple statements of support for the people here (“Peace for Palestine”), elaborate murals have been painted over the years, meters high, showing prominent Palestinian figures. Airline hijacker Leila Khaled holding an AK-47 is just around the corner from the hotel. In other locales around the West Bank are visages of Yasser Arafat as well as Marwan Barghouti, who is leading the mass hunger strike from inside an Israeli prison where he is serving multiple life sentences for murder.
Matching the motif, if not the mood, outside, inside the hotel’s lobby cherubs fall from the ceiling wearing oxygen masks, a tear gas canister lets out a white feather cloud around the face of Michelangelo’s David, and a “haunted” baby-grand piano plays soft melodies of its own volition.
The Walled Off Hotel is the latest project by Banksy, the world-renowned, still anonymous British street artist (or artists?). Constructed over the past year under Banksy’s traditional cloak of mystery, the hotel only opened to guests late last month after extensive preliminary publicity. It’s not, the artist and his local partners stress, an elaborate joke—the punny name, the ape, and Banksy’s sardonic wit notwithstanding.
“Banksy Denies Messiah Complex, Opens Guesthouse in Bethlehem,” reads the official press release—and it is indeed a fully functioning hotel of three floors, nine uniquely designed rooms, a restaurant, and other modern amenities (with prices to match). There is also an on-site Palestinian art gallery, a museum dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a graffiti supplies store. “An all-inclusive vandals resort,” they cheekily call it, as well as, by dint of its location, a political statement.
Most rooms have a view – touted by the proprietors as “the worst in the world”—of this imposing, now vivid edifice and adjoining Israeli military watchtower. As with everything Banksy, it has already caused a stir, drawing guests, visitors, and media attention from across the globe. On one recent afternoon, a constant stream of tourist buses, taxis and minivans kept dispatching curiosity seekers and art aficionados at the hotel; actual business has been brisk, with staff stating that the hotel was sold out (although they do keep one room open for walk-ins at 3:00 p.m. sharp). After just a few weeks of operation, the Walled Off Hotel is already arguably the biggest tourist draw in Palestine—which was, for Banksy, likely the point.
“Banksy always shared an interest in this region, going back to 2005 and his first time painting on the wall,” the manager, Wisam Salsaa, told me in the lobby-cum-restaurant as he sipped from a velvety-pink, cabbage-based drink called Mayfair Lady.
By design, the place has the feel of a colonial era English gentleman’s club: plush leather couches, afternoon tea, and a bookshelf with titles like “Cricket Country” and “Painting in Britain 1530-1790.” British complicity in the current state of affairs in the Holy Land is a running theme, right down to the life-size mannequin of former British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour at the entrance to the museum.
The hotel’s opening was meant to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the June 1967 war when Israel conquered and occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, but also a century since Balfour’s 1917 declaration of support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine.
“We do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country,” reads the quotation behind the mannequin. Banksy is clearly attempting to remedy the situation, a point the notoriously elusive artist can only make via proxy.
“Banksy is a shadow, no one meets him,” Salsaa, 42, said with a wide smile and soft voice, before explaining that his collaboration with Banksy on local project goes back a decade. “It’s risky to hit on this conflict, and many artists avoid taking sides,” he went on. “But Banksy hasn’t taken a side, he emphasizes [through the hotel] the negatives on both sides, the wall on both sides.”
The hotel, in Banksy’s conception, is a place for “peace between people, understanding, and respect.”
The hotel’s website actively encourages Israelis to visit, and the museum—which admittedly tilts heavily on the side of the Palestinian “narrative” to the conflict—has explanations in Arabic, English, and Hebrew. “We definitely need to be rational, this is a business,” Salsaa said. “As a hotel, I wouldn’t put up a sign saying [someone is] ‘not welcome.’ We are looking for a different approach to discuss the future of Israel-Palestine, and art is a great way.”
For emphasis, Salsaa pointed to two guests on a nearby couch, a redheaded Jewish-Israeli woman and an Arab-Israeli man chatting away in Hebrew. “We raise lots of big issues for Israelis to think about, but there is no incitement against Israel—just against the wall and the occupation, which is illegal and needs to end,” Salsaa stated flatly.
Truth be told, there was some Palestinian criticism early on against the hotel for this perceived “normalization” with the other side. Yet even Salsaa admitted that the hotel’s accessibility to Israeli citizens was problematic, located as it was through a checkpoint and beyond the wall inside a Palestinian city.
In legal terms, the Walled Off Hotel sits in a grey zone of competing jurisdictions: de facto part of the Palestinian Authority, with licensing from its Ministry of Tourism, and yet de jure part of the West Bank’s “Area C” which (theoretically) means it comes under Israeli security and administrative control.
Sitting in the lobby, surrounded by some of Banksy’s most well-known stenciled works (the flower bomber, the rats), the website’s warning to guests came to mind.
“Any person found attempting to steal [the valuable works of art]… will be arrested, transported to the police station in Ramallah and prosecuted to the full extent of local law.” In practice, the Palestinian Authority’s security forces require permission from the Israeli military to enter Area C, and this part of Bethlehem is not unique. There are many of these legal “no-man’s lands” in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, relics of a stalled peace process now in its third decade. The question therefore needs to be asked: which security force will be doing the arresting, and under whose local law will the transgressor be prosecuted?
For locals, such political and legal questions are secondary to Banksy’s most significant contribution: economics.
Even before the Walled Off Hotel was a twinkle in Banksy’s wildly imaginative eye, his contribution to Bethlehem’s economy was significant. His distinct graffiti murals around town became an industry unto themselves—“Banksy Tourism” – with cab drivers offering visitors guided tours. (Indeed, there was already an unsanctioned hotel and graffiti store bearing Banksy’s name prior to the opening of the Walled Off Hotel.)
As Salsaa explained, these works “made people walk through the streets and actually speak with locals”—as opposed to simply popping into Bethlehem to see Jesus’s birthplace at the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square and then returning to Israel. Now, with the new hotel, foreigners have a unique reason to stay in town overnight, to take tours of the nearby refugee camps, to spend money at local establishments. And it seems to be working.
Later in the afternoon, two fashionable British women in their 20s were waiting to check in to their rooms, flustered after having to walk with their luggage through the checkpoint half a kilometer away. They had been in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv prior, and were planning on spending the next two days in Bethlehem.
“This is our first time really in Palestine,” they told me, “we wanted to see it.” Their introduction to the neighborhood was colored, somewhat, by the massive road renovation project going on outside. It was clear that the hotel’s stealth opening had caught the municipality unprepared. It was now trying to bring the infrastructure up to snuff to accommodate all those buses and taxis and minivans.
Even Banksy’s immediate competitors viewed this new activity with unalloyed glee. In a restaurant down the road from the hotel, Samer Khoury, 51, the proprietor of the nearby Bethlehem Inn, was adamant that the Walled Off Hotel was a positive development for both the city and his business. “It’s not an issue of competition,” he told me as he drank a beer and smoked a cigarette.
“They have 52 employees. That’s 52 families [being supported]. And if they have children then you times that by four.” Moreover, he observed, the Walled Off Hotel only has nine rooms. “When they run out I have 50 rooms and I’m higher, the view [of the wall] is better,” he said. When it was delicately pointed out to him that his hotel lacked his neighbor’s main draw—original Banksy artwork—Khoury was undeterred. “I invite him to come do my hotel too!” he said laughing.
The playfulness and whimsy of Banksy’s art notwithstanding, it was impossible to avoid the main point of the hotel and the looming edifice which drew him to this part of the world. The West Bank wall, erected by Israel to stop the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada (2000-2005), also in many cases divides Palestinians from each other and Jerusalem, stifling movement and suffocating economic life.
Banksy is now using this symbol of regression against itself, turning it into a spur for people to come see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with their own eyes, and to do so in style. As one of the British tourists told me after she came back from Bethlehem, the dissonance of sleeping in fur-lined sheets while looking out at the conflict’s most tangible representation was deeply unsettling.
“It made me question my own privilege and comfort,” she said. Banksy, if he deigned to give a public interview, would likely argue that this was the surest sign that his latest project was a success.
Or, as the narrator to the museum’s video history of the long-running conflict put it in an exaggeratedly posh British accent: “If you’re not completely baffled then you don’t fully understand. Goodbye.”