“The situation here is nothing new. Life is so hard. Especially because we are in the Christmas season now,” Marouan Faraja tells Inside Arabia. Faraja is a tour guide who works at the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, an establishment created by English graffiti artist Banksy in March 2017. After decades of occupation by Israeli forces, many residents of Bethlehem struggle to find hope in their current situation. “At least at this time of year, we go outside of the routine, outside of the ordeal,” Faraja continues. “The markets and the streets are full of light and we can celebrate and feel happy.”
“They have to make our life harder so that we feel weak and hopeless, so that we give up and leave the land. In the end, the goal of the occupation is to take the land without its people.”
A time of hope, Christmas can also be a time when the injustices of the occupation are underlined. “Many Palestinian Christians cannot come to Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas, just as many Palestinian Muslims cannot go pray in the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The occupation does not look upon us as Christians and Muslims – we are all Palestinian for them. They have to make our life harder so that we feel weak and hopeless, so that we give up and leave the land. In the end, the goal of the occupation is to take the land without its people.” Making matters worse, the world’s most powerful states, particularly the U.S., support the occupation, meaning that much of the international media is complicit in maintaining the status quo.
The creation of the Separation Wall in 2003 is considered by some to be the final nail in the coffin of hope for a Palestinian state. Israel regards the Separation Wall as crucial to its security, but Palestinians maintain that it is an “Apartheid Wall,” constructed to solidify division and ultimately ethnic cleansing and widespread land seizure. 85% of the 440-mile (708km) wall lies within Palestinian territory.
In 2003, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that stated the wall contradicts international law and should be removed; the vote was 144–4 with 12 abstentions. “The wall was built for one reason,” says Faraja: “To separate the people of Palestine from the people of Israel. To prevent them from having the chance to meet each other, to build relationships, and ultimately to end this conflict.”
While the situation may seem hopeless, a growing number of international voices are joining the resistance on the ground in Bethlehem, with Banksy being the best known.
While the situation may seem hopeless, a growing number of international voices are joining the resistance on the ground in Bethlehem, with Banksy being the best known. Banksy has painted several provocative pieces on the Separation Wall itself and has created The Walled Off Hotel.
A mock version of The Waldorf Hotel, The Walled Off stands just a few feet from the Separation Wall, with many of its rooms providing a direct view over it. The establishment is to some extent a fake hotel, complete with a museum where several artistic pieces tell the story of the occupation, and an art gallery showcases Palestinian art, much of which is for sale.
But the Walled Off also welcomes guests. Visitors have the option to stay in any of nine categories of rooms, all designed by Banksy himself in his signature anarchic style. These include everything from a hostel dorm-room to a presidential suite that is both elegant and surreal. Artefacts damaged by the occupation are incorporated into the design, including a hot tub complete with a water tank bearing real bullet-holes. Pictures of these rooms can be found at the Walled Off’s website.
Guests and visitors to the Walled Off gather in the main dining area for regular talks and concerts by activists and musicians sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Those entering the dining area are greeted with a plaque bearing a Christmas message from Banksy, dripping in quintessential English humor: “You made it! Welcome to Bethlehem – a place renowned since Biblical times for its inadequate hostelry facilities – a tradition we’re likely to continue here at the Walled Off.”
In its first year, the Walled Off welcomed some 50,000 visitors. Since its opening in 2017, the hotel has welcomed around 250,000 people eager to learn about the situation in occupied Bethlehem. “In my work as a political tour guide, my aim is to show people the truth, so that they can see the reality with their own eyes,” Marouan Faraja told Inside Arabia.
“In 1989 in Berlin they destroyed their separation, apartheid wall. 14 years later, in 2003, Israel began to construct our own apartheid wall, to separate humans in Palestine and Israel.”
Faraja compares the experience of Palestinians living in the West Bank with that of East Germans living behind the iron curtain. “In 1989 in Berlin they destroyed their separation, apartheid wall. 14 years later, in 2003, Israel began to construct our own apartheid wall, to separate humans in Palestine and Israel. At a time when things were getting better for the world, things were getting worse for us.”
Faraja says that The Walled Off has done a lot to assist his family and many others in and around Bethlehem. Members of 40 local families work in the hotel alone, which does not include those who provide services, work as drivers, or otherwise benefit from the increased tourism the project brings in. “The road where the hotel is was struggling before and, frankly, it was perhaps a little dangerous at night.” Faraja confessed to Inside Arabia. “But Banksy has brought life to this area. New businesses have opened as a result. We are very grateful for that.”
Those attending the Walled Off tour are shown the art that adorns the Separation Wall, painted by well-known Palestinian and international artists. Lush Sux, an Australian artist, painted U.S. President Donald Trump kissing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (a salute to the iconic image of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing East German leader Erich Honecker, which was painted on the Berlin Wall). A Polish artist used stencils to create “Cake Stencils,” which are pieces cataloguing the effect of the occupation upon children. And Jorit, an Italian street artist, painted the image of Ahed Tamimi, a teenage Palestinian girl whose arrest and detention sparked widespread protest. Jorit was detained for two days along with a friend who had assisted in painting the artwork, before being deported and blacklisted, meaning he is forbidden from returning to Israel for at least ten years. He was not officially accused of a crime.
The tour also passes through the Muslim cemetery at the base of the wall, which is heavily guarded, regularly vandalized, and used as a trash disposal by soldiers of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Seeing this firsthand leaves a bitter taste in the mouth that no amount of propaganda can wash away. The final stop on the tour is a visit to the Aida refugee camp, where some 6,500 people live within an area of 0.28 square miles. The camp takes its name from Aida, a Christian Palestinian woman who owned the land before the occupation.
Faraja and his colleagues see the tours and exhibitions available at the Walled Off as the only way to show the world the reality of life under the occupation. “The media ignores us and the international political classes do not care about us – they do not give us a chance to feel part of humanity,” he says. By bringing visitors from all over the world on a daily basis, projects like the Walled Off aim to cut through the filters imposed by international media and political forces, presenting the undeniable realities of the occupation in full view. “These people are our eyes, they are our mouths, they are our media. They are our hope,” says Faraja.
Foreign visitors are likely to be disproportionately educated and privileged. They are therefore likely to have the means to pass on what they have learned to others. Many arrive with sympathetic attitudes towards the Palestinians, while others, like the numerous professionals who pass through the area on business, (perhaps visiting the Walled Off in their spare time), leave with their minds changed and eyes open. In other words, the project has led to a significant growth in awareness about the situation in Palestine.
In the United States, polling shows that young people are more likely to express solidarity with the Palestinian people that with the state of Israel, with support for the latter now found mainly amongst evangelical Christians and hardline Republicans, making it essentially a far-right issue.
There is some evidence that, despite the odds, projects like the Walled Off Hotel are having an effect on “the other superpower,” namely world public opinion. In the United States (the only country that really matters in this debate, given its overwhelming power and support for Israeli expansion), support for Israel has traditionally been strong amongst the general population. However, this has changed somewhat in recent years. Polling shows that young people are more likely to express solidarity with the Palestinian people than with the state of Israel, with support for the latter now found mainly amongst evangelical Christians and hardline Republicans, making it essentially a far-right issue.
Marouan Faraja hopes that, in time, this pressure will bear fruit. He told Inside Arabia that he wants to thank the artists who visit Bethlehem for their part in bringing this change about. “The artists who have visited here have given me hope that no injustice can last forever,” he says. “They have given me hope that one day we will receive our freedom, our rights, and our dignity.”