The scene is surreal. A pair of young tourists lean a ladder against the separation wall in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. They take it in turns to climb a few metres up to spray paint a stencil of a bear’s paw print that they have cut out themselves.
When they’ve finished, they ask the Palestinian woman who sold them the material to take a photo of their work. They are all smiles.
“Consciously they are definitely pro-Palestinian. But unconsciously it is a way of leaving their mark and perhaps of feeling less guilty about the suffering of the Palestinians,” comments Ayed Arafah, a Palestinian artist based in Bethlehem.
“They were smiling because they had fun painting the wall. They said they hoped that one day, maybe, a bear would destroy it,” says the Palestinian woman who took the couple’s photo. She manages the shop opposite, an annex of the Walled Off Hotel, a hotel created in front of the wall in Bethlehem by the British artist Banksy.
“Tourists take time to choose the symbols they are going to paint to show their support for the Palestinian people,” she says, not wishing to give her first name. The employees of the Walled Off have orders not to answer journalists’ questions.
The separation wall, about 700 kilometres long and eight metres high, was built by the Israeli government to stop any “incursions by Palestinian terrorists” into the Jewish state.
The route of the wall, which crosses over into Palestinian territory in several places, is condemned by the international community, and is criticised as inhuman by human rights associations.
Ever since work on building the wall began in 2002, this symbol of Israeli occupation has become a space for expression. Many anonymous artists, or foreign artists like Banksy, have left their own messages or artwork on the wall, some political, some trivial.
In the last few weeks, the Australian graffiti artist Lushsux has painted a series of works, depicting several well-known personalities such as the US President Donald Trump and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
One of his paintings shows the US head of state wearing a yarmulke and saying to the wall: “I’m going to build you a brother…” in reference to the wall that the Republican president wants to build along the Mexican border.
“Art is something everyone can connect to, it speaks to the people of the United States and throughout the world. It can have a political influence,” says Jake and Kayla, two American tourists from San Francisco visiting the region.
Like a “painting that’s nice to look at”
Now commonplace, the phenomenon has in fact been imposed on Palestinians without them encouraging it.
“In our view, the wall should have stayed as it was, it should not be turned into a painting that’s nice to look at,” says Jamal Juma, coordinator of the Palestinian
Stop the Wall Campaign, which campaigns against the separation wall and the colonisation of the West Bank.
“But we can’t stop people expressing themselves,” explains the Palestinian activist. “To tell the truth, the graffiti brings so much business that we can’t really oppose them,” adds Ayed Arafah.
Nonetheless, some Palestinians accuse professional artists such as Lushsux of taking advantage of the situation for personal ends. In Bethlehem, several of the graffiti artist’s works have recently been painted over in red, with Arabic wording that says, “Palestine is not your drawing board”.
“Palestinians have been fighting against occupation for 70 years. The artists are using our cause for their own interests, to become popular,” protests Soud Hefawi, a Palestinian film director living in Bethlehem.
The Palestinian employee of the Walled Off Hotel, however, who is a fan of Lushsux, refutes that criticism, pointing out that, “Lushsux was already famous before he came here!”
In a post on his blog, Hefawi wonders about the relevance of the messages delivered by the Australian graffiti artist, when he uses, for example, images that are taboo in Palestinian society.
The film director refers to one of the paintings by the artist that shows Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahou kissing. The work was quickly removed from the wall, but it isn’t known whether it was a private initiative or the intervention of the municipal authorities.
In an interview with the Reuters press agency, Lushsux defends himself saying, “the wall is a message in itself” and that he therefore has “no need to write ‘Free Palestine’”. According to him, a “really direct” message might be ignored, while his work “could have a better chance” of reaching people’s conscience.
The opening of the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem in March 2017 was also controversial. A room with a view of the wall will set you back between US$ 225 and US$965 a night. “They say they opened the hotel so that tourists can help the Palestinian economy, but there are lots of shops and local restaurants that have lost customers,” says Hefawi.
“I don’t think that’s true,” counters Arafah. “The hotel attracts people from different horizons. Thanks to the Walled Off there are more tourists than before. It brings work for taxis and the neighbourhood shops.” The artist also recalls that the hotel’s employees are all Palestinian and are paid well above the local average.
When told of the criticisms of the Palestinians, Kayla, the American tourist we came across, had second thoughts: “The graffiti attracts attention but it is true that it does not necessarily make things change in the right direction,” she admits.
At the end of the day, the good intentions of the artists and foreign tourists have little impact on the daily reality faced by the Palestinians. You only have to take bus 231 from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to get an idea.
Mid-journey, at the checkpoint, all the Palestinians on the bus have to get off. They are crowded in behind security barriers and have to show their identity card to an Israeli soldier before they can continue on their way.
In the meantime the tourists can remain comfortably on the bus.