Anonymous British street artist Banksy made headlines in October when his $1.4 million artwork Girl with Balloon self-destructed by passing through a shredder concealed in its frame at a London auction moments after it had been bought.
But in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, a much larger Banksy art project -- a hotel boasting "the worst view in the world" -- appears to be unexpectedly saving itself from similar, planned destruction.
When it opened in March last year, The Walled Off Hotel -- hemmed in by the eight-meter-high concrete wall built by Israel to encage Bethlehem -- was supposed to be operational for only a year. But nearly two years on, as I joined those staying in one of its nine Banksy-designed rooms, it was clearly going from strength to strength.
Originally, The Walled Off Hotel was intended as a temporary and provocative piece of installation art, turning the oppressive 700-kilometer-long wall that cuts through occupied Palestinian land into an improbable tourist attraction. Visitors drawn to Bethlehem by Banksy's art -- both inside the hotel and on the colossal wall outside -- are given a brief, but potent, taste of Palestinian life in the shadow of Israel's military infrastructure of confinement.
It proved, unexpectedly, so successful that it was soon competing as a top tourist attraction with the city's traditional pilgrimage site, the reputed spot where Jesus was born, the Church of the Nativity. "The hotel has attracted 140,000 visitors -- local Israelis, Palestinians, as well as internationals -- since it opened," says Wisam Salsa, the hotel's Palestinian co-founder and manager. "It's given a massive boost to the Palestinian tourism industry."Exception to Banksy's rule
The Walled Off Hotel was effectively a follow-up to Banksy's "Dismaland Bemusement Park", created in the more familiar and safer setting of a British seaside resort. For five weeks, that installation in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, England, offered holidaymakers a dystopian version of a Disney-style amusement park, featuring a nuclear mushroom-cloud, medical experiments gone wrong, boat people trapped on the high seas and the Cinderella story told as a car crash.
But unlike Girl with Balloon and Dismaland, Banksy appears uncharacteristically reluctant to follow through with the destruction of his Bethlehem creation. Some 21 months later, it seems to have become a permanent feature of this small city's tourist landscape.
Given that Banksy is notoriously elusive, it is difficult to be sure why he has made an exception for The Walled Off Hotel. But given his well-known sympathy for the Palestinian cause, a few reasons suggest themselves. One is that, were he to abandon the hotel, it would delight the Israeli military authorities. They would love to see The Walled Off Hotel disappear -- and with it, a major reason to focus on a particularly ugly aspect of Israel's occupation. In addition, dismantling the hotel might echo rather uncomfortably Israel's long-standing policy of clearing Palestinians off their land -- invariably to free-up space for Jewish settlement.
Israel strenuously claims the wall was built to aid security by keeping out Palestinian "terrorists". But the wall's path outside The Walled Off Hotel seals off Bethlehem from one of its major holy sites, Rachel's Tomb, and has allowed Jewish religious extremists to take it over.A rare success story
In sticking by the hotel, Banksy appears to have been influenced by Palestinian "sumud", Arabic for steadfastness, a commitment to staying put in the face of Israeli pressure and aggression. But significantly, there is a practical consideration: The Walled Off Hotel has rapidly become a rare success story in the occupied territories, boosting the struggling Palestinian economy. That has occurred in spite of Israel's best efforts to curb tourism to Bethlehem, including by making a trip through the wall and an Israeli checkpoint a time-consuming and discomfiting experience.
Israel's attitude was highlighted last year when the interior ministry issued a directive to travel agencies warning them not to take groups of pilgrims into Bethlehem to stay overnight. After an outcry, the government relented, but the message was clear.
Salsa notes that The Walled Off Hotel has not only attracted a new kind of visitor to Bethlehem, but has also persuaded many to spend time in other parts of the occupied West Bank, too.
Salsa understands the importance of tourism personally. He was an out-of-work guide when mutual friends first introduced him to Banksy in 2005, shortly after the wall cutting off Bethlehem from nearby Jerusalem had been completed. The city was economically dead, with tourists too fearful to visit its holy sites as armed uprisings raged across the occupied territories. The Second Intifada from 2000-2005 was the Palestinians' response after Israel refused to grant them the viable state most observers had assumed was implicit in the Oslo Accords of the 1990s.
Banksy arrived in 2005 to spray-paint on what was then a largely pristine surface, creating a series of striking images. It unleashed a wave of local and foreign copycats. The wall in Bethlehem quickly became a giant canvas for artistic resistance, says Salsa.
Much later, in 2014, Banksy came up with the idea of the hotel. Salsa found a large residential building abandoned for more than a decade because of its proximity to the wall. In secret, The Walled Off was born. "It was a crazy spot for a hotel," says Salsa. "It felt like divine intervention finding it. It was close to the main road from Jerusalem so no one could miss us."
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