Can suffering be sexy? Pitfalls in monetizing the Palestinian struggle

Suffering is packaged and sold in Palestinian areas as one of the main commodities for tourists.

A portion of the separation wall in Bethlehem has become a destination for graffiti artists (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
A portion of the separation wall in Bethlehem has become a destination for graffiti artists
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
"The tour will include a chance to graffiti the wall and a visit a refugee camp,” reads the advertisement for a tour in Bethlehem. It’s Christmas season in the Palestinian city and thousands of tourists are flocking to see the sites. For many that will mean a chance to check out the separation wall, refugee camps and other symbols of the conflict with Israel.
Suffering is packaged and sold in Palestinian areas as one of the main commodities for tourists. A trip to an “exotic” refugee camp is one such experience. The fact that tours of the separation wall now include the ability for tourists to “contribute” to it by drawing on it has turned the whole wall into a stage. It’s one of the great canvasses now in Bethlehem.
During a recent trip to the city I wandered along the wall, past the giant pillbox towers and concrete slabs that have become so iconic.
It’s almost as though if Israel had not built this wall during the Second Intifada, someone else would have had to. Throughout the world this wall has become infamous, emblazoned on the cover of numerous books and a constant cliché in photos from the area. There have even construction of “mock” versions of the wall at events in Europe and the US. At UCLA in 2012 during “Palestine Awareness Week,” students built a fake “apartheid” wall.
The graffiti that keeps being added to the actual wall is a welcome distraction from its dull gray. It is a reminder of the Berlin Wall, but its unclear if the message the graffiti is supposed to convey actually resonates. I wandered along it and enjoyed the artwork. At one place there is a giant elephant. At another, near the main checkpoint entering the city, someone has written “Bethlehem Land.” A couple kissed and embraced in front of it. Nearby is the famous “Walled Off Hotel,” which opened in March 2017 in partnership with the British artist Banksy.
This represents an attempt to capitalize on suffering in a sense, to monetize the Palestinians as a product. The hotel ostensibly has the “worst view in the world,” but when I was walking by a plethora of journalists sipped tea and giggled outside it. If it’s so bad then why were the Western tourists so happy?
When you monetize suffering the people who take part in the neoliberal endeavor don’t actually suffer. Instead suffering becomes a kind of theme park, like an “Occupation Disney Land.” One is a bit surprised that there are not organic boutique hotels with artisanal hummus being opened in the refugee camps. Probably that will come next.
Selling copies of Banksy art seems to be one of the main occupations of several businesses near the wall. But lost in all this seems to be the point. Because the wall has become art, and the art is being packaged and sold, the visitor almost thinks what they are buying is “cool.” But it’s a bit unclear whether visitors internalize the message Palestinians would like to convey.
They’d like to say they don’t want the wall there, that they want freedom of movement, they want a state. But is that articulated when you come as a tourist to Bethlehem and pose in front of the wall as if it’s “cool”? When it is colorful, it becomes a neat piece of modern art. It becomes like the Berlin Wall, in the sense that people visit the Berlin Wall today after the reason for it is long passed. Visiting the wall in Bethlehem has become post-historical, like the conflict is over and we are visiting it to see the past. Yet it is in the present.
Confused? You should be, because the experience is confusing.
After monetizing suffering, why stop there? Downtown in Bethlehem I also found keffiyeh-themed umbrellas. The keffiyeh is also a symbol of the Palestinian struggle. But when the keffiyeh becomes a yuppie statement of college kids pretending they “struggle,” hasn’t it lost its meaning? Again the question is what are those who identify with the “struggle” taking away from it?
It seems that increasingly people aren’t taking anything away from their experience in the Palestinian territories. They go, they check off the list the refugee camp, the wall, and then they go home. Palestinian UNESCO sites such as Battir go almost unvisited. No one seems to go to Sebastia, the ancient city near Nablus. It’s a bit bizarre.
The West Bank has a lot to offer tourists, but it seems that a chance to take a few cliché photos of the “conflict” is one of the main things people come for. From Israel’s point of view this is OK. As long as people are distracted by chic, cool hotels near the wall, the less they want to tear it down. Roger Waters is doing an event on December 22 in Bethlehem, via a giant screen. I’m surprised they aren’t projecting it onto the wall. Someone will make money off it, probably. And nothing will change.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman