How do you engage people with the Palestinian struggle for freedom, when you’re faced with the slickest and most well-funded propaganda machine the world has ever known? A trendy new hotel in Bethlehem created by the graffiti artist Banksy has opened the public in an effort to breathe new life into the fight for Palestinian justice. However, for some Palestinians, the hotel amounts to the gentrification of this decades-old conflict. While I appreciate that I will never be able to understand the Palestinian experience in the same way a Palestinian could, however, I want to offer my view as an international.
My view is that Banksy’s hotel is not a form of gentrification, but a much-needed boost to the flagging fight for Palestinian justice.
Two years ago, I came to Palestine knowing very little about the occupation, filled with apprehension about what I might find. Now I live and work here. Coming to the West Bank changed my life, turned me into an activist and advocate, and in turn, I have changed the views of my friends and family back home too. The problem is, for every one of me, there are hundreds of people who come to Israel every year and go home to tell their families how delightful Israel is, and how misguided people who criticize it are. Think of all the gay men lured to Tel Aviv by Israel’s relentless LGBT marketing campaigns who leave with the impression Israel is some kind of human rights mecca.
I understand why something that appears to turn the struggle for independence into a commercial business, and that provides enjoyment to foreigners while Palestinians continue to suffer, could make some Palestinians feel uncomfortable. But the notion that the hotel ‘begs for the presence of the wall’ is true only in that sense that all forms of protest, by their very nature, require something to protest against. Palestine’s struggle for freedom itself requires the existence of the occupation, but it would be ludicrous to suggest that the struggle roots for a permanent occupation. And it’s unfair to suggest that Banksy’s hotel takes no stance on Israel’s illegal occupation and the oppression and marginalization of the Palestinian people. Art shouldn’t need an explainer, and Banksy’s work speaks for itself. Nobody could visit this museum with the ‘worst view in the world’ and think that its intention was to support or condone the occupation or the Wall.
This is a propaganda war, and the grim reality is that Palestine is losing. One hundred years of the Balfour Declaration, 50 years of occupation and ten years of the siege of Gaza and Palestinians are further than ever from achieving the dream of independence and justice. If that is going to change, Palestine urgently needs to channel more people across the checkpoints to see for themselves. Some have suggested that the idea of a hotel at all is a slap in the face to the millions of Palestinians unable to visit the West Bank, or who face severe movement restrictions wherever they live in the occupied territories. I understand that this crippling injustice is a bitter pill to swallow. But to win this bitter struggle Palestine needs internationals. Israel knows this, which is why they’re reaching out to them too. If Palestinians are unable to bring their struggle to the world because of movement restrictions and a far superior media machine on the other side of the wall, they will have to bring the world to their struggle. I know that to see this place is to believe it, but first, you have to get here.
I understand why someone might think Banksy’s hotel is a form of gentrification. The glitzy, grungy trendiness of the place certainly does channel London’s hipster Shoreditch district more than Bethlehem’s usual mix of historic religious attractions. But regardless of how fair you think it is, this hotel attracted global attention and reached millions of people, thousands of times the number that charity advocacy campaigns do. What’s more, it got people talking about Palestine without anyone mentioning the word terrorism, and nobody accused this hotel of anti-Semitism. Long after fickle international media got bored with the injustice of Israel’s wall, Banksy demanded they pay it more attention. In this propaganda war, we need people with the power to draw attention to Palestine, when so many of the world’s other problems are constantly battling for the same eyes.
But Banksy’s hotel goes even further than simply garnering media attention. Because this isn’t just an invitation to care about Palestine. It’s an invitation to Palestine. This hotel is an attraction, a reason to visit when many might not. Thousands of people with tickets already booked to Israel may now be working out how to factor the hotel into their stay, drawing them away from Israel’s carefully crafted tourist hotspots to offer the Palestinian view. Thousands more, of whom may never have come, will be booking tickets to Palestine just to visit this hotel. They’ll come to Bethlehem and spend money in the Palestinian economy, talk to Palestinians, and maybe even go further afield into the West Bank. Then, they’ll go home and recommend it to their friends.
I work in development, where I constantly see millions of dollars plowed into advocacy campaigns and tourism initiatives that change nothing. Palestine’s current tourism offering, which has the potential to be a source of both economic prosperity and crucial international support, is crippled by a desperate lack of imagination. Grand plans to strengthen it rarely get further than rehabilitating historical sites that only hardcore history buffs would have an interest in seeing, and which have little commercial value. But this hotel will literally pay for itself. If we want tourists to stay longer in Palestine, do more things here, meet more people and spend more money, that starts with creating some exciting and inviting places to stay.
A commercially viable political statement that attracts more visitors to Palestine changes the agenda and draws the attention of the world’s media. My only question now is, how do we replicate and build on this success?