Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
The street artist’s latest installation, The Walled Off Hotel, sits just 13 feet from Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
A great deal of work by the artist Banksy is political, from a life-sized sculpture of a Guantanamo Bay inmate to a series of stencils on Israel’s separation wall, which cuts into the occupied West Bank and violates international law. The images, such as a silhouette of a young girl being carried upward by balloons, have become emblematic critiques of the Israeli state’s policies.
The artist’s latest project brought him (or her) back to Palestine. The Walled Off Hotel, a three-story guesthouse, opened in the West Bank city of Bethlehem last week. Starting March 11, guests can stay at the hotel for as little as $30 a night for a berth in a hostel-like space with bunk beds. Nine private rooms, including a presidential suite, are also available, though prices for these have not yet been listed.
The hotel sits just 13 feet from the separation wall. Eight of the rooms are adorned with Banksy’s art, such as a wall painting depicting an Israeli border policeman and Palestinian man engaged in a pillow fight. Other works are also mischievously political: a bullet-ridden tank that empties water into a hot tub; a bust with a cloth covering its mouth while tear gas (made from cotton) envelops it.
The timing of the installation is politically significant as well: 2017 marks the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, through which the British government expressed its support for the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people.” It’s been “exactly 100 years since Britain took control of Palestine and started re-arranging the furniture—with chaotic results,” Banksy said in a statement. The hotel has a small museum with a diorama of Foreign Secretary Balfour signing the fateful document, his hand moving mechanically in repeated circles. An art gallery displaying the works of Palestinian artists is also on offer.
All the hotel’s guest rooms look out onto the separation wall and, according to The Guardian, receive only 25 minutes of direct sunlight a day. As Nigel Parry has written, “In Banksy’s work, location itself is a large part of the message, a key component of the resulting metaphor.” Banksy’s choice of a building across the street from the wall forces visitors to confront the reality of daily life for Palestinians, whose movements are severely curtailed by the barrier and other Israeli measures, such as checkpoints.
Yet Banksy does not want Israelis excluded from the space; rather, he appears to envision it as a medium for bringing together occupier and occupied. “We offer an especially warm welcome to young Israelis,” his website says.
The installation’s location is in an “economic dead zone,” says the Palestinian-American activist Andrew Kadi, who notes that the occupation has impeded Bethlehem’s main industry—tourism. Though Israeli tour buses visit the city, they move in and out quickly so that visitors have little time to spend money. The hotel will fill a need by bringing people to stay and providing local employment.
Indeed, the hotel’s 45 staff are Palestinian, and the manager Wissam Salsah told The Telegraph that the hope is to “generate millions of dollars for the economy of Bethlehem.” It could happen: Salsah also told Al Jazeera that at points Banksy has drawn more tourists to Bethlehem than Christian sites like the Church of the Nativity. “We say more Banksy tourists than Jesus tourists,” he said.
Not everyone is taken with the hotel. While the Israeli government has not commented on the project, Tamara Nassar, a Palestinian studying in the U.S., wrote in Mondoweiss that it exploits the Palestinian experience by putting it on display for visitors’ amusement. At the same time, she says, “Palestinians are denied the agency to speak of their own suffering.” And Yasmine Saleh, a Palestinian based in Ramallah, finds Banksy’s “re-creation of the experience of apartheid” through the hotel’s placement misguided. “We want to imagine a world without the separation wall,” she says.
Kadi also points out that because the hotel is located is in Area C, the 60 percent of Palestine controlled by Israel, Banksy’s invitation to Israelis to visit “means that the people who are militarily occupying that land are being encouraged to go there as occupiers.” Kadi adds that at a time when Israel is expanding settlements around Bethlehem, such encouragement might not sit well with Palestinians.
Yet Kadi says that despite such flaws and concerns, Banksy’s work can have a positive effect. “There’s something to be said for the fact that Banksy’s art not only brings attention to places but also makes a statement about things that are happening there,” says Kadi. “The Walled Off Hotel is a reminder to everyone staying in it of what Palestinians are experiencing.”