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Emily Arent searches for the Banksy murals on the Israeli separation wall in Bethlehem, and finds a different type of discovery.

“YOU’RE MAKING THE WALL LOOK BEAUTIFUL,” he said. “We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home.”

According to British street artist, Banksy, this is what a local Palestinian man in Bethlehem said to him in August 2005. Banksy had just tagged a segment of the separation wall that divides Bethlehem in the West Bank from Jerusalem in Israel.

Banksy is famous for his provocatively political images, and the nine tags he made during his trip to the Palestinian Territory illustrate his distress over the effect the wall is having on Palestinian communities. The first continuous segments of the wall were erected by Israel in June 2002.

Supporters of the barrier point out the decreased number of suicide bombings that have claimed Israeli lives since its construction. Opponents list the myriad ways that the wall has affected innocent West Bank families, who in many cases are separated from their land, reliable hospitals, and other family members by a system of increasingly strict and humiliating checkpoints.

The images which Banksy stenciled onto the wall are now considered some of his most iconic work, and include a little girl being lifted from the ground by a bundle of balloons, a little boy sitting under a rope ladder that scales the height of the wall, and a number of “holes” that lend glimpses beyond the wall to a tropical paradise.

As an artist, it seems Banksy’s work was the most organic contribution he could make to the issue of the separation wall and Palestinian rights—a way to express his sorrow and anger without having to engage in aggression or protests. It’s impossible to know whether he foresaw the consequences of his visit, or the effect it would have on the West Bank.

His artwork has dramatically increased the visibility of the issues among a younger generation of Western travelers. But this isn’t necessarily a good thing. The amount of attention it has garnered has made it too easy for tourists to feel as though they’re politically engaged. It’s providing an opportunity for passive, rather than active engagement, making a community of Palestinians beholden to a Westerner’s interest in a Westerner’s mural on a wall that’s destroying their lives.

* * *

I didn’t know anything about Banksy before my visit to Israel, and first heard his name mentioned by a group of British girls sitting around a guidebook in Abraham Hostel. They were flabbergasted at my ignorance, and convinced me that glimpsing Banksy’s work on the Palestinian side of the separation wall in Bethlehem was an essential element of any alternative backpacking trip to the Holy Land. I was headed to Bethlehem later in the week, and filed this information away.

I visited Bethlehem alone on one of those days of vulnerability that occasionally plague over-traveled backpackers. I didn’t steel myself for the stresses of the day, and my teeth were on edge after a morning of sightseeing in jostling mobs of Christian pilgrims. And after getting lost in Bethlehem’s back alleys on my way to the taxi station, it was also the day that I grudgingly admitted to myself, for the first time, that traveling alone as a woman wasn’t always as “liberating” as I tried to tell myself it was.

I was feeling emotional and disgruntled as I hailed a cab, and asked the driver to take me to the wall. “Ahh, Banksy?” he asked me. He had plastic roses hanging from his rearview mirror, and a photograph of two young girls, his daughters.

“I will take you there.” He chattered on about how many Western tourists come to Bethlehem in search of Banksy these days. “It’s good for my business,” he said, his smiling eyes meeting mine above the plastic roses. He dropped me in a deserted area along the wall, and gave me directions to follow around a couple of corners to find Banksy.

I’ve never felt more inappropriate for being somewhere in my life.

I wandered aimlessly over gravel and piles of broken concrete, the wall to my left. It was plastered with graffiti. “A country is not only what it does, but what it tolerates,” one artist proclaimed. “We are all God’s children,” scrawled another tagger. One of them quoted Ephesians 2:14: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”

I never found Banksy, and I’ve never felt more inappropriate for being somewhere in my life. I still cringe thinking back on that afternoon. I was ashamed of myself for not fully covering my arms, for stumbling over gravel and looking for paintings when refugee camps that take volunteers lay a few kilometers away. I felt guilty for being scared of my isolation, for avoiding the eyes of men who watched me from their rundown workshops.

My stomach flopped as a middle aged man grabbed my shoulder and offered to drive me to the Banksy sections of the wall in his personal car. For a small fee. He knew exactly what I was doing there without having to ask. No one else was around. He held his hands out, palms up, waiting for a response, taking a few steps forward. I was ashamed for being scared, for feeling the adrenaline rush of my flight instinct making my feet and hands feel numb.

I thanked him for the offer and marched back to the main road, immediately hailing a cab that whisked me away to the Jerusalem buses. “You see Banksy?” the driver asked with a grin.

“No, I didn’t find him,” I responded. He pulled over. We argued for a few minutes. He wanted to take me back, to show me himself. For a small fee. I told him I just wanted to go back to the bus stop, and sank down into his cracked, vinyl seat. I paid him for the ride as he drove.

A line of cab drivers sat at the bus station, watching as people paid their fare for the trip back to Jerusalem. They saw my blonde hair before I saw them and erupted in a long string of Banksy offers.

“I already saw it,” I lied, climbing the stairs of the bus.

About The Author

Emily Hanssen Arent

Emily Hanssen Arent is a writer and traveler who has found a home in Boulder, Copenhagen, and Jerusalem. She is currently a graduate student of Middle Eastern Studies in Tel Aviv, Israel, where she writes, studies, and struggles daily with Hebrew and Arabic. You can follow her @emilyharent.

  • Priyanka

    Emily, the paragraph about the middle age man, scary but extremely powerful at the same time.

    • EHA

      Glad you enjoyed it, Priyanka! Thanks for reading!

  • Julia C. Hurley

    “Supporters of the barrier point out the decreased number of suicide
    bombings that have claimed Israeli lives since its construction.
    Opponents list the myriad ways that the wall has affected innocent West
    Bank families, who in many cases are separated from their land, reliable
    hospitals, and other family members by a system of increasingly strict
    and humiliating checkpoints.”

    Just a note on this one….the problem is not just the way it splits the land, its that if you look at a map, it is literally annexing massive chunks of the West Bank. It’s not ON the border….it’s actually twice the length of the actual border because of the way it zigzags all over. If someone wants a fence for security, they put it on the border. If they want it to grab land, they do what the Israelis are doing.

    • Julia C. Hurley

       Also, love how this comes to me 40 minutes later. The reason the bombings stopped was because factions realized how utterly pointless, insane, and horrible they were and realized they were not moving the cause forward so they renounced them as a tactic. Hence the nonviolent movement you now see against the wall.

      • concerned33

        Where did you hear that anyone was renouncing violence? Hamas? Islamic Jihad? Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade actually renounced violence to only rescind the declaration only months later a few years back. These factions have absolutely not renounced the tactic. I am not sure where you heard that.  

        Salam Fayaad has long championed non-violence approaches (along with institution building) and he is supported by almost no one within the PA and it is a well-known fact that if a unity deal between the PLO and Hamas ever actually happens Fayaad will be pushed out of the gov’t completely precisely for these views. Don’t forget A little over a year ago a bomb went off in Jerusalem and killed one person and injured more, it was probably perpetuated by Hamas members from the West Bank  Other similar planned attacks have been stopped which originated from the WB as well.In terms of the  diminished operational capacity of these groups, that can largely be attributed to targeting killings and the constant pressure put on by the Israeli gov’t. It can also be attributed to the increased and unprecedented cooperation between the Israelis and the PA security forces in the West Bank.  It cannot be attributed to some sudden massive realization by an entire population that violence is not achieving their goals. An entire society(including the fringe and extremists as you claim) doesn’t make a  massive ideological paradigm shift en masse.  The world  just doesn’t work that way.You should better understand Palestinian politics before claiming that these terrorists groups have renounced violence or bombings.

        • Julia C. Hurley

           I didn’t say they renounced violence entirely. I said they renounced the use of suicide bombings as a tactic. Most Palestinians have embraced nonviolence as we’ve seen with protests against the Wall and with protests in Gaza in the buffer zone as well as with the hunger strikers….that was a huge win for nonviolence in this movement.

          You can’t cite “supposed” links or attacks that were supposedly thwarted with no proof and say that’s proof of the continuance of suicide bombings…it just makes no sense. And the bombing in March 2011, was never tied to a Palestinian faction, nor did anyone ever claim responsibility. You can’t make judgments on assumptions. There has not been a suicide bombing by a Palestinian since 2008.

          Salaam Fayad is NOT the only one championing nonviolence. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are, including 2000 prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails who are protesting administrative detention and inhumane treatment.

          • concerned33

            You did say “bombing” not suicide bombing to be fair,  however that tactic has not been completely abandoned by all. The cross border attacks near Eilat last year did use suicide vests to explode next to the bus. Although no one claimed responsibility  the PRC is suspected and yes you’ll say “no one claimed responsibility” for this or the Jerusalem bombing but that they may be attributed more to deterrence than anything else as the retaliation would be harsh. Hamas did claim responsibility for a laser guided anti tank weapon which hit an Israeli school bus last year as well. 

            My point is, bombs and explosives are still used by many different factions and groups (more so in Gaza obviously) . Non-violence has gained steam in some realms (the hunger strikes  is the only concrete example I can think of) but it is far from any groups MO at this point. 

             Yes,  the tactic of suicide bombing has been rare in the last 6-7 years, you attribute it to factions turning to non-violence as a choice. Others ( I could literally send you 5 academic papers which argue this point) attribute it to targeted killings and preemptive measures and disruptive Israeli operations causing less organized groups and smaller cells.

            In the realm the Palestinian/Israeli conflict there has been a noted pattern. “Terrorism” or any kind of organized violence happens when a group’s desire and capacity to carry out attacks are high. When either one is low, attacks are rare. Now historically, when this has happened Israel clamps down with military action which  diminishes the capacity and eventually after a lull the desire also goes away.  This lull might last months or years. The capacity to carry out attacks will eventually return and unless a game changer is introduced ( a real peace agreement which leads to Palestinian statehood) then so will the desire. 

            I would argue based on the evidence that the lull from attacks can be attributed to a diminished operational capacity rather than lacking the will for violence.  You may disagree, I’m sure you will in fact. Just don’t claim factions and groups have championed non-violence resistance because they haven’t . The popularity of the Hamas-Fatah unity deal illustrates this pretty well. 

            Here is a recent article about explosives at a checkpoint.  Yes no suicide vests, but pipe bombs and IEDS can have the exact same effect. ( I guess I could comb through years of of news stories to find instances of a specific tactic  but I won’t.)  

          • Julia C. Hurley


          • concerned33

            I understand that Hamas is a rational entity and cannot be defined in general terms. Read this article again, It’s stating that  Hamas is seeking to reign in Islamic Jihad and the PRC because they launch rockets and plan attacks against Israel. 
            The political leadership in Hamas have realized that they aren’t controlling their own territory which is why these squads were created. Their purpose is to better control the use of force in the Gaza Strip, not embrace non-violent means. 

            This article does not prove your point though. Hamas has not renounced violence  , neither has any major group or faction embraced non-violent methods. You assertion that most Palestinians have embraced this has no basis. 

            I’m not trying to single out Palestinians either, I’d say that most Israelis have not embraced (or rather abandoned)  the peace process and prefer the continued and unsustainable military deployment in the West Bank and military blockade of Gaza. 

  • Kate Trenerry

    Emily, another interesting and evocative piece! I just wanted to add a few thoughts based on my own experience.

    When I visited Bethlehem, I was completely overwhelmed by the taxi drivers looking for work. Of course, the entire purpose of my visit was to see/document the wall and when negotiating with the taxi driver I eventually hired, Banksy inevitably came up. He drove me around to see a couple of the murals, and when I asked him what he though about the murals as a tourist attraction, he told me he thought they were a distraction and on the whole, did not like them. But he was also very supportive of my quest to photograph the wall and spread that story. 

    He also didn’t hide the fact that times were tough financially, and so although he didn’t agree with the existence of the Banksy murals, he was happy to show them off to tourists to lengthen a cab ride. When it came down to it, it was a bit difficult to say where his heart lay and where his act for tourists began, because he was a smart businessman, trying to earn top dollar and support his family (who I got to meet at their house for tea). Sounds like you experienced something similar.

    Concerning feeling inappropriate around the wall, I have to admit that I managed to avoid this by telling myself that my work would help raise awareness of the situation, and maybe eventually end the injustice it represents. Journalistic hubris of the worst kind, perhaps. However, I never met a Palestinian who ordered me away, or didn’t at least pretend to appreciate my efforts. Even along the wall, the hospitality I encountered was consistently incredible, so I deferred to residents’ reactions to my presence, and yes, sometimes supported their businesses, as well.

    • EHA

      Thank you so much for your insightful feedback on this, Kate. I always look forward to hearing how you’ll weigh in on these issues. It was so nice to hear the thoughts of someone who’s been in the same situation, and to hear how we perceived some things just exactly the same, and other things differently. 

      Where are you now? I’ll be returning to Israel shortly, and would love to meet up in the region if our paths should somehow cross in the future. Keep me posted!

      • Kate Trenerry

         Thanks, Emily! It’s been great to read your articles and discuss with you, as well. I’m back in the states for the foreseeable future, moving to Boston in the Fall. I’d love to meet up at some point also, good luck in Israel and keep in touch! I look forward to following your future work.

  • therealdeal

    Interested in the comments about visiting the West Bank and Banksy collections. I too myself have done that and only found out months later that not all Banksy pieces shown to you by taxi drivers are real.
    Do not believe for a second that a lot of those people are struggling. They live in nice homes and have what they need.
    I however do not support the erection of the Seperation Wall.
    I speak Arabic but look Caucasian and the conversations I heard by taxi drivers over how much they will get from tourists disgusted me. I paid a very small fee and was accosted for most 30 mins until the bus for Jerusalem turned up. I refused to give more money and then told the driver off in Arabic before I boarded the bus. I will never recommend anybody to pay them money to see fake Banksy’s. instead donate money to a good cause that will help the real victims of this ugly situation, woman and children.
    The whole “do you want to have tea with my family?” “We don’t like the artwork” is all part of their manipulation to get easy money.
    So don’t feel too had for not seeing any fake Banksy’s.

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