Banksy's Bethlehem hotel draws about 700 people a day

Opened more than a month ago, the Walled Off Hotel faces the West Bank separation wall.
Opened more than a month ago, the Walled Off Hotel faces the West Bank separation wall. PHOTO: REUTERS

BETHLEHEM (West Bank) • The two tourists were from Berlin, so they knew something about walls.

There they sat - one with tea, another with cappuccino - on tasteful patio chairs, across an alley from the ugly 8m-high symbol of all that separates Israelis from Palestinians.

This section of the West Bank separation barrier was built 15 years ago, as violence raged.

It is now a quiet tourist destination in the city where Jesus Christ was born: a hotel, gallery, museum, bookstore and spray paint shop by elusive British artist Banksy. It is part whimsy and spectacle (note the plastic greeter chimp), part serious (note the very real Israeli security cameras).

"Weird," said Ms Nadja Miller, 38, one of the Berlin tourists. "It's voyeuristic. At the same time, it raises awareness that it exists and discussion about it."

It has been just over a month since Banksy opened the Walled Off Hotel here - and, unsurprisingly, it is proving popular: Its nine rooms are booked through June, for rates from US$30 (S$42) a night to US$965 for the "presidential suite".

About 700 people visit a day, the owner says, 200 of them Palestinian. Many arrive on tour buses passing through checkpoints.

Some art is meant to inflict discomfort. Banksy's hotel - which brags of the "worst view in the world" - falls clearly into that category, though visitors say the discomfort comes in awkward waves.

There is the wall itself, endlessly debated over whether it comprises cell walls for Palestinians, a security measure that worked or 644km of proof of the failure of negotiations.

That is enough for some visitors.

"All the world must see what is happening in the West Bank," said Mr Emad Khleif, 50, a Palestinian banker who brought his family to visit from Nazareth.

But not all locals are happy with the hotel. ("Who is this for?" barked a Palestinian woman, Ms Sowsan Hashem, 49, standing just outside.)

Some foreign visitors said it made them a little queasy.

Part of the blame might come from Banksy's unsubtle, commercial style. Part is from a feeling of "oppression tourism", which allows those who pay US$20 or so to stencil political messages on the wall with spray paint. Part is that the hotel is just, well, pretty nice, given everything.

Banksy has a long history in Bethlehem: Four well-known works are here, including Girl And A Soldier and a dove protected by an armoured vest.

The artist has said the separation barrier "essentially turns Palestine into the world's largest open prison", though several e-mail messages sent to an address for Banksy were not answered.

Yet, he has not become an internal symbol of anti-Israeli activism, which is encountering growing legal resistance inside Israel.

A major retrospective of Banksy's work that opened a week ago just outside Tel Aviv is to run through Tuesday.

His website says of the hotel: "Operated by the local community, we offer a warm welcome to everyone from all sides of the conflict and across the world."

It is not as easy, though, for those on the Israeli side to visit.

Technically, the area is under Israeli control, but the roads and checkpoints place the trip itself in a legal grey zone. Four admittedly scared Hebrew University students persuaded an Arab friend to take them the other day.

"It's Palestine," said student Shaya Bon Stein, 29. "It's dangerous."

All but one were art students, who all consciously tried to dress like Europeans, and they conceded that the danger might be more perceived than real.

They were eager to see the hotel itself and its statement about the wall - something they do not get to see from the other side.

"Is this a joke?" is first on the questions section of the hotel's website. The answer is perhaps the business' least ironic aspect: "Nope - it's a genuine art hotel with fully functioning en suite facilities and limited car parking."

It is also not meant as a money-maker: The hotel, on the site of a former pottery workshop, is owned by a local businessman, Mr Wissam Salsaa. The website says all profits will be returned to the community.

Still, it has a feeling both of humour and commercialism: The coffee is excellent and the hotel serves the "best hummus in the region" (according to the kitchen staff, the website jokes).

Finally, there is the wall itself: The concrete - visible from most parts of this hotel only metres away - is covered with graffiti.

The Berliners finished their drinks as they gazed at a stencil reading: "Mr. Trump. Walls = Hate." Doves perched on barbed wire.

Ms Saher Touna, 17, one of the Palestinian tourists from Nazareth, bought a stencil from the "WallMart" next to the hotel, which sells spray paint and offers a ladder.

"My home is here, my land is here," she sprayed in Arabic.

"It's racist, and it's here," she said of the wall. "Might as well make something beautiful out of it."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2017, with the headline 'Banksy's Bethlehem hotel draws about 700 people a day'. Print Edition | Subscribe