Banksy and the Walled Off Hotel: a personal view

Palestine (ISM) – Over the last weeks there has been a lot of noise about Banksy (a street artist from the UK, now darling of the art world) and his new hotel in Bethlehem. Initially the vast majority of news articles seemed to glow with praise for this new project.  However I quickly found myself uncomfortable with the language that the project uses in its narrative. And other commentators have also expressed discomfort.  A number of articles have now come out that are somewhat more critical of the enterprise. I decided that to further my own understanding I would talk to some Palestinian activists and then write something myself – so here it is to be shared.

On Banksy’s website there is a question and answers page which helped me begin to analyse the political message behind the hotel. The attempt at neutrality Bansky appears to project made me immediately alarmed.  This is how he describes the wall:

“It divides the nation of Palestine from the state of Israel and restricts movement between the two for citizens of both sides. Depending on who you talk to its (sic) either a vital security measure or an instrument of apartheid. Its route is highly controversial and it has a dramatic impact on the daily lives of a lot of people. The one thing beyond dispute is that everything here is under dispute.”  

The statement that the wall restricts movement for both parties  implies an even-sided conflict, something which is clearly untrue in the case of a long-standing full-scale military occupation.  The statement is also in fact false: Israeli citizens are not prevented from entering the West Bank, and there are currently an estimated 600,000 of them residing in settlements which are recognized as illegal by the entire international community. Israelis are free to cross the wall into Palestine, whereas Palestinians need special permission, regularly denied, to cross into Israel, even if needing specialist hospital treatment.  So the ‘dramatic impact’ Banksy talks about is only dramatic, or indeed an impact, for the Palestinian people, and not for Israelis.

The language then slides into identifiably Zionist rhetoric:

“Is it anti-Semitic?

Definitely not. The Walled Off Hotel is an entirely independent leisure facility set up and financed by Banksy. It is not aligned to any political movement or pressure group. The aim is to tell the story of the wall from every side and give visitors the opportunity to discover it for themselves. We offer an especially warm welcome to young Israelis. Absolutely no fanaticism is permitted on the premises.”

It is a common Zionist tactic to label any objection to colonialist state-building and ethnic cleansing of Palestine as ‘anti-Semitic’. Banksy legitimises this method of silencing opponents when he implies that any political movement or pressure group against the wall and occupation could easily be seen as anti-Semitic. This Zionist rhetoric shuts down real discussion.

The declaration that ‘no fanaticism is permitted on the premises’ is particularly interesting: local residents told me that for the last few months there has been a heavily armed unit of Israeli military stationed on the back balcony of what is now Banksy’s hotel. They were not there all the time, but often seen during the evening and were a very intimidating sight.

So this leads to a question for Banksy: why did you allow this unit of soldiers to enter your hotel while it was being built, when that was bound to be threatening to the local population? When you say ‘no fanaticism’, does this mean only from the point at which the hotel was opened? I only ask as it clearly wasn’t the case when you were building the thing.

This leads me to question why the project was made in Area C at all. Banksy explains that it is so Israelis can stay at the hotel without risking legal problems.  However, Area C is the 60% part of the West Bank which remains wholly under Israeli control.  Palestinian homes regularly face destruction here, building permits are almost impossible to obtain (unless you are Israeli), there are regular road closures and the Palestinian economy is at its most controlled and strangled in this part of the West Bank. By opening his business here in Area C, Banksy has chosen to deal directly with the Israeli state, to whom he will have had to apply for permits, and to whom he will have paid fees.  This is a privilege that Palestinians who wish to build houses or businesses are regularly denied.  I do question the legitimacy of a project which is meant to be a protest if it is done with express permission of the state it is protesting against.

And if the project truly embarrassed or damaged Israeli state they would simply not have allowed it at all.

Bansky has in the past made statements which are clearly directly opposed to the wall: in 2005 he said that the wall ‘turned Palestine into the world’s largest open-air prison’.  But here he tries to create a spurious neutrality. This time he chooses not to make any real statement against the occupation but rather to encourage people to understand the ‘two sides of the conflict’. This comes at a time when the Israeli government detains and imprisons Palestinian children simply for making Facebook posts against the occupation.  But Banksy, even with all his privilege and anonymity, and who in comparison is risking nothing but a small chunk of his sizable income, will not make a firm statement against injustice. What is his reasoning?  If I were being charitable I might think that he feels he can highlight his point better by an appearance of neutrality; if I were being cynical I’d suggest he will make more profit from neutrality than from condemnation.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=497184

Banksy graffiti at the Israeli West Bank barrier in Bethlehem – photographed by Markus Ortner, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

The local Palestinian activists I spoke to have questioned the value of another foreigner-owned business opening in Palestine, particularly one which directly profits from the occupation they have to live under. This is a legitimate concern: many foreign companies directly profit from the occupation and suck money out of the Palestinian economy. Banksy indicates vaguely that all profits will be fed back into local projects without specifying what these are. For all we know the money from this could directly support Zionist interests. And although Banksy’s claims that he will not profit directly are probably true he does stand to profit hugely in publicity, reputation and brand.

Looking at this hotel as a form of activism it begins to seem another example of foreigner saviourship: a person from England comes to Palestine and tells everyone that Israelis and Palestinians just need to sit down together and the problems will be over. This obviously did not come as a plan from any of the Popular Resistance Committees within Palestine, and is in fact grossly offensive to many people.This style of logic shows a complete misunderstanding of the colonialist project that is in motion by the Zionist state.

Banksy’s stated aim is to bring Israelis and Palestinians together in his hotel, but with a few dorm rooms at $30 a night and the next cheapest rooms at $215 up to $965, the only people that the hotel will bring together are the international bourgeoisie, people who are the least affected by the occupation, who maintain their riches in the face of occupation, or even increase them. The global elite do not effect any real change in this world, but rather maintain injustice for their own profit and comfort. So what does he hope to achieve?

My initial reaction was excitement  that Banksy was shining the global spotlight on the apartheid wall again, but the more I get to understand this business the more uncomfortable I become with it. My best interpretation is that it attempts a good political point but misses the mark through misunderstanding and commodification of the Palestinian struggle. And the worst interpretation?  That this is a Zionist project, profiting from and normalizing the horrors of the occupation.               

This is a personal reflection and does not necessarily reflect the views of ISM.

This report prepared by al-Khalil team for International Solidarity Movement.