Bethlehem, Occupied West Bank – Tourists trickle in and out of The Walled Off Hotel in this Palestinian city, crowding around Israel’s separation wall to spray graffiti slogans, murals and their names onto a chain of concrete slabs.
To many Palestinians, a structure that has brought pain and suffering to their lives has become, for all practical purposes, a source of excitement and fantasy for tourists staying at the hotel.
When the sun sets and the hotel guests turn in their spray paint for the night, some Palestinians tiptoe around the area to add their own touches to the wall by defacing the art on the concrete.
The hotel was established earlier this year by the British street artist Banksy, who reportedly said at the time that it was “the world’s only visitor attraction dedicated to the biography of a single concrete structure”.
The hotel’s website boasts “ceiling views of graffiti-strewn concrete” and proximity to an Israeli army watchtower.
The rooms overlook Israel’s separation wall and are decorated with objects meant to represent Israel’s violence against Palestinians.
The central activity for the hotel’s guests is decorating the wall with art and graffiti.
Beside the hotel is a shop called “Wall Mart” that sells graffiti products to tourists eager to scribble their names on the most visual component of Israel’s more-than-half-century occupation of the West Bank.
However, many Palestinians express disappointment with what they see as the hotel’s role in “occupation tourism” in Bethlehem, which they believe has transformed Palestinian realities into recreation for tourists.
‘Exotic and sexy’
Amany Khalifa, a prominent Palestinian activist based in Jerusalem, told Al Jazeera, “The wall has become a product. It has become exotic and sexy for internationals.”
For some Palestinians, words are clearly no longer enough; it is time for action.
A particular target has been Melbourne-based street artist Lushsux, accused by many Palestinians of “profiteering” during his stays at The Walled Off Hotel and creating images that speak to the alt-right.
During a recent defacing campaign, 25-year-old Palestinian activist Soud Hefawi sprayed the lines “I do not need a colonialist to teach me how to fight colonialists” and “Some people like to benefit from other people’s misery” across Lushsux’s meme-style murals on Israel’s separation wall.
A mural by Lushsux of Joe Rogan, an American comedian, had featured a text bubble asking: “Can you pull up that picture of me on the illegal border wall?”
Hefawi swiftly defaced it by writing “This is not a border wall. It’s an apartheid wall” and “Palestine is on both sides of the wall”.
The wall, which was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) more than a decade ago, divides Palestinian communities, splits families and separates residents from their lands.
The structure’s total length is expected to be 712km on completion.
According to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, 85 percent of the wall is being built inside the occupied Palestinian territory, leading many Palestinians and rights groups to conclude that the wall’s construction is aimed at annexing more Palestinian lands.
‘Welcome to the shopping mall’
Khalifa told Al Jazeera The Walled Off Hotel has taken wall tourism to an altogether new level by “exoticising Palestinian trauma”.
At the Walled Off Hotel’s shop, you can find small, souvenir recreations of the separation wall, in which Lushsux painted “Make Kebabs, Not Hummus”.
The price of one of these limited-edition souvenirs is $341.
“This tourism is minimising the whole occupation and making it into a product for internationals to buy,” Khalifa said.
“Issa”, a local Palestinian artist who told Al Jazeera he was behind the “Make Hummus, Not Walls” graffiti and asked to use a pseudonym to protect his identity, began creatively poking fun at The Walled off Hotel from its inception.
He began with defacing his own art, and scribbled “Welcome to the shopping mall” over his own graffiti.
His “Make Hummus, Not Walls” graffiti was “supposed to be a stupid pun and a stupid joke … but then the image began being reproduced by others”, he said.
But the popularity of the graffiti contributed to the “fetishisation” of Palestine, “Issa” says with evident regret.
A few days later, “Issa” and his friends wrote, “Wanksy will save the world” and #Mam7onE7tilal (Horny for the occupation) in front of the hotel’s window.
While the former was quickly covered up by the hotel, the hashtag remained for two months.
“We wrote the hashtag in Latin letters so that Arabs wouldn’t read it and the foreigners wouldn’t understand it,” Issa said with a chuckle.
“Issa” said the hashtag alluded to the hotel’s promotion of “conflict fetishisation”, in which Palestinians and their suffering are reduced to celebrated symbols, devoid of the larger political realities shaping their lives.
While a long line of graffiti artists did come before Lushsux to take advantage of the international spotlight on Israel’s separation wall, Hefawi, the Palestinian activist, told Al Jazeera, Lushsux’s artworks went too far.
He saw them as racist and anti-Semitic.
“I just felt like enough was enough,” Hefawi said, explaining why he decided to deface Lushsux’s murals.
For her part, Khalifa told Al Jazeera the artwork of Lushsux and the activities of The Walled Off Hotel escaped criticism due to a long-standing process of “internationals disempowering Palestinians”, referring to international control over what is deemed legitimate Palestinian resistance.
“Palestinians have been put into a position where we have to make internationals understand the situation, without making them feel uncomfortable,” Khalifa said.
Hefawi agreed, saying that “for years, foreigners have not been challenged about their activities here.”
“It’s not very surprising that now we have a tourist promoting racism on the wall and thinking he will go unquestioned,” he said.
“Issa” pointed out that Lushsux has created images of the Swedish YouTuber PewDiePie – who has in the past been accused of racism and anti-Semitism.
Lushsux’s social media posts suggest he had considered painting wealthy Jewish investor George Soros, whose image is often used by far-right groups to promote anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
In response, Issa and some friends defaced the artist’s memes on the separation wall by daubing the words “Alt-Right Propaganda” over them.
“I wanted to make sure [Lushsux] knows that Palestinians are not stupid,” Issa said.
Robert Andrews, an activist and advocate for Palestinian rights from the US who took part in the defacing campaign, wrote “Palestine is not your drawing board” in Arabic over some of Lushsux’s murals and almost entirely covered up two of the artist’s pieces with a pink paint-roller.
Lushsux did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment. He has referred to the defacement of his artwork as “Israeli modern art masterpieces”, despite being informed on multiple occasions that Palestinians and US activists had problems with his work.
A man presumed to be Lushsux reportedly told Reuters news agency in October that he hoped his artwork on the Israeli separation wall would draw attention to Palestinians stuck in “an indoor prison”.
Solidarity or tourism?
Wissam Salsa, the Palestinian owner of The Walled Off Hotel, said the hotel has little to do with solidarity.
“Most people who come to the hotel are not coming in solidarity. They are mostly Banksy fans, so they have no idea what’s going on here,” he told Al Jazeera.
Still, he acknowledged that the hotel was established to “communicate with people and raise awareness of the realities in Palestine”.
A central aspect of this is the hotel’s emphasis on its guests painting graffiti on Israel’s separation wall in order to create a “physical attachment between the internationals and the wall”, Salsa says.
“It’s a way for them to express their protest against the wall and the injustices behind it.”
Several guests at the hotel agreed with Salsa’s sentiments, telling Al Jazeera they believed they were contributing to the local Palestinian economy by spending money in Bethlehem.
However, locals, who did not want to give their names, told Al Jazeera most tourists seldom leave the hotel.
One guest at the hotel told Al Jazeera he had been working on a project with Lushsux to create an inflatable bouncy castle for children, designed to resemble the separation wall complete with Israeli observation towers.
They had planned to take it around the West Bank for use by children in refugee camps, and then transport it to the UK for a tour of music festivals to “raise awareness” about the occupation.
Khalifa, the Jerusalem-based Palestinian activist, said purported awareness campaigns run the risk of “dehumanising” Palestinians.
“This is our life. This is not an exotic game,” Khalifa told Al Jazeera.
“We don’t have the privilege of writing on the wall, and then going home and never having to see this wall again. We are forced to see it every day.”
‘To benefit the occupier’
“Issa”, the Palestinian artist, considers the “normalisation” of the wall’s image as the most dangerous side effect of foreign tourism and the Walled Off Hotel.
“The more we reproduce images of the wall, the more the wall becomes normal in people’s imagination,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Then our imaginary stops at the wall. It becomes the first subconscious image of Palestine.”
He said the proliferation of the wall’s image has also created illusions of a border, something that he claimed Lushsux specifically attempted to promote.
“Israel wants to show the world that there is a wall, as a border. It perpetuates other narratives that are to the benefit of the occupier, and the occupier’s quest to downgrade the occupied as sub-humans,” he said.
Palestinians have also expressed concern over the potential for wall tourism to create a vested interest in the structure’s permanence.
Referring to the famous list of international sites deemed by UNESCO as having special cultural and physical significance, “Issa” said: “Soon, we won’t even be able to take this wall down because someone will tell us it’s World Heritage.”
Follow Jaclynn Ashly on Twitter @jaclynnashly