PASSING THROUGH Israeli checkpoint 300 from Jerusalem into Bethlehem, the lights of the Walled Off Hotel pierce the darkness, illuminating the way to the doorman and a life-size plastic monkey-bellboy.
The antique British decor and classic Arabic music make for a comfortable atmosphere – a sharp contrast to elusive graffiti artist Banksy’s grim, avant-garde art. In one corner, several large security cameras are mounted as animals’ heads would be in a hunting lodge. In another corner, a Greek-style marble bust wears a mask as crystal tear gas spirals around him. Several paintings are masked by cages, or void of paint entirely, instead stating what should be painted on them. A secret door disguised as a bookcase leads upstairs to the rooms. The entry-level room, which costs $60 per night, is a military- style bunker, which sleeps up to eight and is decorated with antique maps and potted plants. The other rooms are private suites and range from $200-$900 per night.The suites feature art by Banksy, Sami Musa, and Dominique Petrin.Why so expensive? For one, The Walled Off Hotel offers “the ugliest view in the world,” which is a novelty. Looking out from the windows of the lobby or one of the rooms, guests are forced to face the separation wall – the controversial barrier that Israel has built in and around the West Bank.For Israelis, this is a security wall, which protects them from Palestinian attackers trying to enter Israel.For Palestinians, this is the cold reality: a concrete, 430-mile, 25-feet high cement barrier demarcating what they see as apartheid. The wall was built in 2002 after a series of Palestinian suicide bombings in Jerusalem, during which 1,100 Israelis, 880 of whom were civilians, were killed.Thousands of Palestinians also died during the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising from 2000 to 2005.Despite Banksy’s stated intention of showing the harsh reality of Palestinian life, the hotel is rather luxurious, and includes complimentary breakfast as well as tea and cookies all day. The upstairs gallery displays Palestinian modern art. Banksy prints and souvenirs are for sale in the gift shop next to the museum. The piano plays recorded music from exclusive live concerts held in the Walled Off. There are many live events hosted here, such as the ‘Alternativity,’ Banksy’s satirical Christmas special, where two new Banksy pieces were unveiled.Banksy’s welcome letter reminds guests to conserve water and to turn the lights off upon leaving the rooms, since Palestinian water and electricity supplies are limited by the Israeli government. The elevator is currently experiencing technical difficulties, so pack lightly.Next door to the Walled Off Hotel is “Wall Mart,” which allows guests to buy paint as well as rent ladders and any other materials necessary to deface the wall with art. Art is one of the ways in which Palestinians, and the international community alike, can show their disdain for the occupation.The art does not have to be political, though most spray “Free Palestine” and/ or the country they are from to show their solidarity.Heart-wrenching masterpieces done by local Palestinians are scattered along the wall, reminding viewers of the reality of the issue and the history of Israel-Palestine.In Bethlehem, the wall is almost completely covered in street art, some of which was done by Banksy in the early 2000s.More recently, artists such as Lush have dominated the wall with large controversial political pieces. The art is always changing and reflects the contemporary political climate, so every visit to the Walled Off Hotel offers a new view.Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel has been under close scrutiny since it opened last year.Some say it trivializes the Israel-Palestinian conflict by making it a tourist attraction.However, the ‘dystopian’ feel of the hotel seems to have been precisely Banksy’s aim.The type of tourists that the Walled Off Hotel attracts are often already educated on the issue or are eager to learn about it.Many expressed concern that Banksy is making money from the hotel, and therefore profiting from the occupation; however, these allegations are false. The Walled Off Hotel is officially owned by a Palestinian man, and after the hotel breaks even, the profits from the hotel will go to the city of Bethlehem. It is not a business, rather it is a museum with a few bedrooms.SOME PALESTINIANS have spoken out against the hotel, while others have praised it for drawing attention to the conflict. Most tourists visit the famous Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born, without noticing the ominous wall only two kilometers away. Now, thanks to Banksy’s hotel, a younger and not necessarily religious demographic is flocking to Bethlehem to see the wall and visit the small museum, which offers the Palestinian version of the creation of Israel and the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.“When I told my friends I was going to Israel, they said, you have to go to the Walled Off Hotel. The museum is really impactful, it’s heartbreaking. I grew up with one view on this, and to hear another view is really important,” said an Israeli-American who chose to remain anonymous.“Here it reframes everything. It puts the protests in context, which I’d never been able to understand before. It shows that Israel has been oppressive, and that’s a perspective I’d never listened to before,” he said.Critics often also blame tourists for crude, irrelevant art, or mock tourists for taking pictures with the wall. Many characters from the popular American TV show “Rick and Morty” have been painted on the wall by the artist Lush, as well as immense and occasionally lewd figures of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton,and Benjamin Netanyahu, which to some are not welcome on the wall.“Since when are there rules?” asks an American street artist who goes by the name ‘Masala.’ “The whole point is that there are no rules.” The wall’s large blank cement panels are perfect canvases for street artists.Many artists believe that the Palestinian cause needs more exposure, and that’s exactly what artists like Lush give it, by merging American/International pop culture with local satire. Even those generally uninterested in politics will find Lush’s ‘Rick and Morty’ pieces humorous. By posting pictures on social media, tourists bring attention to the wall and the conflict in general.“The Banksy Hotel is a new experience for tourists in Bethlehem... It helps show the conflict our people are facing” said Bethlehem’s mayor Anton Salman. Whether or not he personally liked or agreed with the hotel’s establishment is unclear, but regardless, the Walled Off is bringing more tourists to the area.More tourists mean more business for the city of Bethlehem. The Walled Off Hotel provides unique accommodations that will keep tourists in Bethlehem overnight, which is one of the problems the city faces, as most tourists only visit Bethlehem for the Church of the Nativity, and then return to Jerusalem.The local economy is benefitting from the Walled Off Hotel too. Restaurants and shops have appeared in the area, which up until then had been mostly abandoned residential buildings.Since the hotel is roughly a kilometer from the Jerusalem-Bethlehem checkpoint, and over two kilometers from Manger Square, guests with luggage often take taxis to and from the hotel, so the demand for taxi drivers has increased. The majority of Bethlehem’s usual tourists, large international groups who travel on tour buses, have no need for such services.When tourists exit the Walled Off Hotel, they leave with a new, more developed view of the conflict. The Walled Off Hotel, Wall Mart, and local street artists encourage visitors to be more active and informed about the situation in the West Bank.
Welcome to the wall: artist Banksy opens Bethlehem hotel (credit: REUTERS)