To travel to Bethlehem from Jerusalem, a common travel itinerary, one has two options: either the Beit Jala bus or the N° 234 that stops at Checkpoint 300. The best way to pass the 8 metre (25 feet) high Separation Wall between Israel and the West Bank is to venture to Checkpoint 300 via bus and walk the remainder along the deserted street, eventually reaching the wall, situated next to a shop that sells wooden cribs. On the connected concrete wall segments, hidden by parked cars, visitors, local Palestinians from Bethelehem, artists, children, and teenagers have engraved their messages - bits of history and memories, slogans and cartoons, but mostly pop culture references. Among the messages is an entire building inspired by one of the first artists to come to Bethlehem with the aim of protesting the very physical violation of international law with a great deal of cynicism: The Walled Off Hotel by anonymous British graffiti artist “Banksy” - which claims proudly to be the tourist accommodation with the “worst view in the world”.
The Walled Off Hotel and the Wall (Photo: Alaa Nafea)
The Walled Off Hotel is the peak of a new wave of West Bank tourism that has developed since the first “Banksy” graffiti arrived in Bethlehem. The British artist’s initial iconic wall art included a pigeon wearing a bulletproof vest and another of a small girl searching a soldier. The implicit messages found in his artwork shows solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Consequently, several “Banksy Shops” have emerged in the territories over a period of eight years, within reach of the now colorfully painted wall. In fact, in addition to visits to the Church of Nativity and the Chapel of Milk Grotto, many tourists add Banksy wall graffiti photoshoots and a visit to The Walled Off Hotel to their agendas. The hotel has much to offer tourists, even those without hotel room reservations at their facility. It boasts four main facilities: the guest rooms, the conflict museum, the art gallery, and the piano bar. Throughout the entire Walled Off Hotel, the whole flair of British colonial chic is mocked by ripped Union Jacks and humoristic Lady Di china, which is exposed next to oil paintings that show refugee life vests on a deserted beach.
Of the hotel rooms, visitors can decide between four types of rooms, each varying in price according to how terrible one wants the view to be. The “Artist” and “Scenic” suites, many within range of a military watchtower, allow visitors to book rooms authentically designed and decorated by Banksy and other socially motivated graffiti artists. Those seeking luxurious amenities, despite being in occupied territory, can find refuge in the “Presidential” suite. Finally, those seeking affordable or “authentic” experiences may book a “Budget Room”. This room type resembles the hostel styled experience - the catch - individuals are surrounded with remains from old Israeli army barracks.
Museum about the Palestinian and Israeli Narratives
To appease and spread awareness to those with little to no knowledge about the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict that surrounds them, the hotel offers an internal museum free for guests (fifteen shekels for non-guests). This little exhibition provides a glimpse into the conflict through various means of presentation. For example, halfway through the museum, visitors view an animated narrative that begins with the emergence of 19th century Zionism and the stirrings of Arab-Palestinian nationalism. The brief animated presentation concludes with the modern day threat that expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank pose for a solution to the conflict. With regards to concrete items, visitors see retired security cameras, remnants of bombed facilities, protest signs, and more. Likewise, the museum uses artistic figures to present data, facts, and quotes. Interactive elements to engage visitors are offered as well. For instance, visitors can listen to a fake phone that simulates a conversation between an Israeli Defense Forces soldier and a family of a Gazan home being targeted for an airstrike. “Hello, my name is Dani. I am a secret intelligence officer. We are going to bomb your house. You have five minutes to get out,” are the words uttered by the telephone, leaving listeners speechless. At the end of the museum, a guest book allows visitors to leave messages of solidarity, reactions to the museum, and/or opinions about the conflict. Glancing at a couple pages of the guest book, individuals see overwhelming support for the Palestinian cause.
A room in the Walled Off Hotel Museum (Photo: Alaa Nafea)
Though not a critical element to the success of the hotel, an art gallery upstairs bears numerous paintings and other forms of artwork from local Palestinians. Visitors may purchase original artwork and posters of the various pieces. Likewise, just downstairs, in the piano bar, one can enjoy a drink or meal with a view of the Separation Wall which is situated just meters away from the window.
A view from the lounge of the Walled Off Hotel (Photo: Alaa Nafea)
Although the Walled Off Hotel has, since its opening, attracted a great deal of new “wall tourists”, not everyone is content with the hotel’s context. Among those dissatisfied with the hotel is the local Palestinian population who must endure the hardships of living with the wall and the associated humiliating procedures at its checkpoints on a daily basis. Adnan, a Taxi driver, states: “Of course I want people to see more than the wall.” He proposes several times to drive out to the Church of Nativity in the nearby city center and King Herod’s Grave - sights that Bethlehem and its surroundings have been famous for, long before the construction of the wall in 2003.
“Museums usually show things lost or far away, not things outside the window. But this museum remembers the wall for the day when it is no longer there.” - a plaque near the exit of the museum.
Controversy and about the Museum and Hotel
It is an issue of controversy for whom exactly the museum and hotel has been built. Although Palestinians are employed at the hotel and the linked graffiti workshop that is part of the hotel, it is aimed to attract tourists. Besides, all are invited to make contributions to the artworks on the wall. In the Graffiti shop, one can fabricate his own template to leave a message: a small template costs 50 shekel, the large one 70 shekel. The irony behind selling resistance and anarchy could be part of the entire cynical philosophy behind the hotel - but rather to some it seems to be another cheap trick to extract money from tourists, while giving the illusion of contributing, when what really happens is the transformation of a wall from a violation of international law into an artwork that one can buy copies of.
Shopping for “wall art” (Photo: Alaa Nafea)
People like Adnan and the shopkeepers of the Banksy shops are confronted with the dilemma of wanting to bring tourists to Bethlehem and showing them all of their city while living with eight metres of concrete over their heads every day. A risk of normalization prevails: the shop next to the Hotel has been there for 8 years and has had a 60% increase in sales since the Hotel opened up next to it in March 2017. “Most of the tourists are German”, the owner states, and laughs when a reference about the Berlin Wall is made. On 20 square meters, he sells literally everything with Banksy motifs on it: mugs, plates, stickers, postcards, shirts, bags, posters, magnets and even necklaces with a Banksy print.
A German tourist groups enters and their presence seems to emphasize what just had been said. It seems absurd to see so much joy and thoughtfulness at the same time in tourists arriving alongside the wall, stopping by the Hotel on their way to the center. Some realize the luxury they are in, while leaving Bethlehem again, flipping their passport cover to the checkpoint soldiers and being let through without further control. In that sense, the Hotel might have gone beyond its ironic and fashionable outlook, and actually could have an effect on those coming for the first time and being uninformed about the whole situation. A tiny picture of reality has been shown to the visitors - how they cope with the impressions made is up to them.