For more than 15 months, beginning in December 2015, only a handful of people in the world knew what was going on inside the building at 182 Caritas Street in Bethlehem. Directly across an alley from the security barrier, a once-residential building, vacant for 14 years because of the troubles the wall posed, was undergoing a curious and very thorough renovation.And then in early March, the scaffolding came down and the lights on the marquee at the Walled Off Hotel came on (a pun on the “Waldorf Hotel”).
Banksy, the British graffiti artist whose exact identity remains unknown, had opened a guest house there, branded as “the hotel with the worst view in the world,” due to its proximity to the wall.Because of Banksy’s British background and because the year of the hotel’s opening is the centennial of the Balfour Declaration – Lord Arthur Balfour’s affirmation of Britain’s support for the establishment in Palestine of a “national home for the Jewish people” – the hotel aims to showcase Britain’s role in helping to create the situation on the ground in Bethlehem.As the first sign posted in the hotel’s museum, which aims to highlight the absurdity of continuous Israeli military control in the West Bank, reads, “The wall outside might seem part of an ancient and intractable conflict, but it began exactly 100 years ago with an Englishman and the stroke of a pen.”And did I mention that, at the entrance of the museum there is an animatronic Lord Balfour, the aforementioned Englishman, signing his eponymous declaration. His signature has completely worn away because the pen in his robotic hand has signed the paper so many times. AS A RESULT of the British ties, the hotel is styled as a 20th-century gentleman’s club. Teacups and china with British kings and queens frame the reception desk and all of the hotel’s furniture is original to the time period, either imported from the UK or procured locally.Even so, the hotel retains a Middle Eastern character.A welcome drink was shaken with sumac, giving it a dark pink color, and breakfast featured falafel, hummus and shakshuka options.And while it starts off as a fancy British- Middle Eastern hybrid hotel, things soon get weird. In the corner of the lobby is a small Renaissance-style painting of a native Bethlehemite, Jesus. But as you get closer, you see that what initially looked like birds hovering above the picture are actually three drones; and Jesus’s eyes are crossed, looking upward at the red laser spot fixed on his forehead.To his left, surveillance cameras mounted like taxidermy are aimed at a row of slingshots below.In the corner of the hotel is a Roman- style marble bust, a handkerchief over the nose and mouth meant to protect from cotton clouds representing tear gas, which spews from an IDF gas canister.The centerpiece of the lounge is a remote- controlled Yamaha grand player piano, which performs ethereal and contemporary pieces, giving the lobby something of a dreamlike quality.Each of the hotel’s rooms showcases views of the security barrier designed by various artists. The Banksy Suite ($265 nightly) features a queen-sized bed under a Banksy mural of an Israeli soldier and a masked keffiyeh-wearing Palestinian, engaged in a pillow fight. The presidential suite on the top floor, which has a view nearly over the barrier but not quite, sells for $965 nightly and includes en-suite Jacuzzi with a fountain made from a water tank riddled with bullet holes.Hostel-style dorm rooms provide Israeli military cots and are furnished with surplus items from IDF barracks.A gallery on the second floor showcases paintings for purchase by local artists and next to the hotel is the Wall Mart, where tourists can create stencils, purchase spray paint and use the shop’s ladder to leave their mark on the wall.Wisam Salsah, the hotel’s manager, spoke with The Jerusalem Post Magazine about its genesis. When asked how such a massive undertaking was kept so quiet, in soft-spoken and perfect English, Salsah shrugged and replied, “This is how it works when it’s about Banksy. You have to be very low-profile in everything that you do. So you know, we created stories. I’m in the tourism business and I do some investments here and there. So I said I was building a small guest house for my business.”“During the artwork installation, the building was closed for several months, and no one even noticed there was anything happening here,” he added. “I’ve worked with Banksy for a long time,” he said, hinting that he works as Banksy’s fixer when the artist comes to Bethlehem.When asked how he became involved with the reclusive artist, he demurred: “I really can’t talk about that,” he said with something of a twinkle in his eye.Interestingly, the hotel’s website says that it especially welcomes young Israelis (even though Bethlehem is officially off-limits to Israelis). Sure enough, there are more than a handful of Hebrew entries in the museum’s guest book. “This project is open for everyone,” Salsah says, “because it’s art and because it is Banksy, we know there is lots of interest from lots of people [no matter] their nationality or their faith or whatever.”When Banksy came to Bethlehem in 2007 to paint the security barrier for a project known as Santa’s Ghetto, Wisam says, “The situation was not safe here – lots of tension, lots of problems.But in spite of that, lots of Israelis were coming here... We knew such a project would recruit lots of Israelis to come. Of course they can come – this is art, this is a hotel, it’s open, and we don’t have anyone outside to check ID cards, so anyone can come. Lots of Israelis have come. And not only young people. Families are coming with children. We have lots of seniors coming actually, which surprised me.”Next door, the Banksy Shop – which predates the hotel by seven years – sells local goods and Banksy postcards and other memorabilia. The shop’s owner, Abu Ayyad, says that business couldn’t be better. “All the tourists come over here, want to buy a souvenir, so they visit my shop!” SALSAH SCOFFS at the suggestion that the Walled Off Hotel is creating issues for guest houses that don’t have the financial backing of a millionaire artist.“We have only nine rooms and we are bringing lots and lots of tourists into Bethlehem... The union of the hotels in Palestine gave me five years’ free membership to honor the project. So hotels are so happy, because our rooms are relatively expensive in comparison to the rooms in Bethlehem, so people come here for the experience. They stay a night, two or three maximum, but then the rest of the time they go to different hotels,” he says.For now, the hotel is booked almost completely through the end of September, but plans are to close the hotel at the end of 2017. As Salsah admits, “You never know what’s going to happen.”Recent attempts by the Israeli government to discourage tourists from visiting the West Bank may pose problems. In April, the Interior Ministry issued a directive to Israeli tour companies not to take groups to Area A (which includes Bethlehem) of the West Bank. The order was soon retracted, but if the ministry decides to move forward with the directive in the coming months, it may wall off the hotel from the world all over again.