Anonymous British street artist Banksy just opened “The Walled Off Hotel” four yards from Israel’s apartheid wall in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. It is marketed as the hotel with “the worst view in the world.”
The hotel is only Banksy’s latest artwork in the occupied Palestinian territories. He made his first mark on the wall in 2005, when he painted nine scenes that depict trompe l’oeil escapes from dust and cement to blue skies and green landscape. Banksy also snuck into the Gaza Strip ten years later, after Israel’s Operation Protective Edge leveled and devastated the territory, leaving in its wake a death toll of more than 1,500 Palestinian civilians. On this latter trip, Banksy painted murals amongst the razed infrastructure and made a two-minute satirical video that advertises Gaza as a unique travel destination while drawing attention to Israel’s siege and violence on the open-air prison.
While Banksy’s new hotel has drawn much praise from the international community for its initiative to attract tourists to the West Bank and educate them through space as a medium and an object of art, I would like to push against that and offer my two cents on the classic quasi-masturbatory nature of war tourism and art, and its unsurprising prevalence in the Palestinian Question.
This found art capitalizes on an occupation of a people that was founded by and maintained through violence; violence is thus its bedrock. Palestinian suffering becomes an exhibit to a very specific class of tourists who are able to enter the West Bank—to begin with—essentially reproducing the image of struggle in landscape and completely robbing it of its ability to speak for itself. It normalizes its public image and renders it pornographic, educational, amusing, and excessive. The initiative thrives on the continual existence of such violence, and therefore, through the artistic statement, ensures its eternity. The exhibit depends on the maintenance of apartheid, effectively rooting for its prolonged, permanent existence. The hotel begs the presence of the wall.
While the hotel is oiled with political commentary through its grotesque view of the wall and its militarized aesthetic and charged artwork, it fails to make any official political statement that recognizes the perpetual current of ethnic cleansing manifesting itself in the illegal occupation, Israeli apartheid, and the continued demolition and annexation of Palestinian land.
In a statement, or a disclaimer, placed at the museum’s entrance inside of the hotel, Banksy writes:
“You made it! Welcome to the West Bank – a place steeped in history and conflict. Now might seem a good time to pick a side – except don’t. The Wall is a lie. It sells the idea there is a simple divide between the people here, but there isn’t. Most Palestinians live in great disadvantage to their neighbors. Many Israelis are opposed to the cruelties inflicted by the wall, but other Israelis are deeply fearful for their security. This exhibition looks at the wall from many angles, and so contains material some people may find upsetting.”
Not only does Banksy’s language undermine the Palestinian struggle and reduce it to a mere “disadvantage” in comparison to Israelis, but it also encourages this false non-partisan silence when it comes to the Palestinian Question, falsely depoliticizing it and misleading his guests into assuming this pseudo-neutrality, and effectively siding with the oppressor. It encourages a veiled forgiving attitude towards what is, in fact not “a simple divide between the people,” as Banksy writes. Rather, it is simple and present and material.
Contrary to Banksy’s statement, this “simple divide “is not a “lie” but a very material illegal barrier wall that in its total constructed and projected length reaches 440 miles (708 km), with 62 percent of it already erect, isolating and annexing large chunks of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Banksy’s lack of a political commentary is a statement of its own, an audacious exploitation of Palestinian suffering that manages to negate it and market it as art.
The consumers of such a commodity are those who are able to enter the territory, a discriminatory process of its own. Banksy makes no mention of the Palestinian refugee population in the diaspora that can never visit his hotel, furthering the motif of only being interested in those who can travel to see the display. In the FAQ section on Banksy’s website for the hotel, entry into Israel is addressed:
“Do I need a VISA?
You don’t need a visa to enter Israel as a tourist and you can stay for up to 3 months. Visitors entering via Tel Aviv airport are given an entry card in their passport. So, unlike the locals, you’ll be permitted to travel wherever you wish.
Airport security at Tel Aviv, however, is legendary. Expect to be asked about the purpose of your stay and if you intend travelling to the West Bank. If you answer ‘yes’ you may be held up for some time, consequently many visitors choose not to highlight that particular part of their holiday.”
It would have been productive and crucial for Banksy to fulfill his educational mission and make mention of the millions of Palestinians in diaspora, unable to return to their homeland. This monumental experiment with a site drenched in biblical and contemporary history in the making dismisses the reality of living in those circumstances today. In a commentary on geography, another question on the page reads:
“Why open a hotel there? What’s wrong with Shoreditch?
This place is the center of the universe – every time God comes to earth it seems to happen near here. The architecture and landscape are stunning, the food delicious and the current situation remarkable and touching. This is a place of immense spiritual and political significance – and very good falafel. We guarantee you won’t be disappointed*.
**not actually legally enforceable”
Banksy’s hotel is a form of gentrification that exploits Palestinian suffering and imposes an “art space” that thrives on fulfilling an example of white fantasy in travel, in order to witness war zones as an educational and historical amusement when in fact it is very present and happening in real-time. As usual, Palestinians are once again denied the agency to speak of their own suffering. There is an orientalist notion in this denial. And it renders visiting the site a form of rejuvenation, regeneration.
I will conclude with Mahmoud Darwish’s line from his beloved poem, “Passport.” He writes:
“And to them my wound was an exhibit, for a tourist who loves to collect photographs.”