The security barrier Israel built in Bethlehem has become a poignant icon Palestinians say “symbolizes occupation.” Part security device, part art gallery and a large part tourist attraction, The Media Line Bureau Chief John Huddy puts on his tour guide hat for a look at this unique sight.
The city of Bethlehem in the West Bank is known as the biblical birthplace of Jesus and home to the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square. It’s also known for another major tourist attraction now – the West Bank Separation Barrier.
The hulking 30-foot high concrete wall has become a rock star in Bethlehem. The murals and graffiti have turned it into a colorful display of protest, sending a political statement to the world about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“To come here as a tourist, to look at this, is kind of strange because it isn’t a touristy place,” Naomi Pappaenberger, a tourist from Germany who recently visited the barrier in Bethlehem told The Media Line. “There was a wall in my country too that became a famous tourist attraction, but I was too young to visit, so here I am,” Pappaenbeger said, using the Berlin Wall as an analogy.
Her travel companion Johanna Schwartz from Austria agreed.
“It seems like it is a museum, but for the people living here it is a real life struggle,” Johanna Schwartz added to The Media Line. “On one side I think it’s good that people see it, that people read the stories and talk to people and really meet people locally and get to know the stories. On the other side of course it’s maybe bad if it’s just done for making money and for just another tourist attraction.”
The Separation Barrier, or as critics call it “the Apartheid Wall”, is 360 miles of fence and concrete barrier that surrounds the West Bank. About 40 miles of barrier wall remains under construction. Ninety percent of the barrier is a security fence. The rest is built of mostly two-foot thick concrete, like the sections that snake around Bethlehem.
One of the big attractions along this famous stretch, or infamous depending on how you look at it, is the hotel owned by the British graffiti artist known as Banksy. It’s called the Walled Off Hotel, and boasts the “worst view in the world” of the barrier wall.
Moodi Abdalla is a Bethlehem graffiti artist who owns the nearby Banksy Shop. It’s not affiliated with the actual artist. Abdalla admits he is banking off Banksy’s name.
“It’s hard to make a living here. It’s a very hard life, you know, around the wall because the area is empty and very dead life here,” Abdalla told The Media Line on a recent afternoon outside the small shop where he sells refrigerator magnets of Banksy’s murals and his own art creation reading “Make Hummus, Not Walls.”
“I don’t sell very touristic stuff. I sell, like, very simple things. It’s all about the graffiti. I’m not like trying to be rich or like something. I’m just open to make a living here,” Abdalla said, adding that his living is often disrupted by violence. “When there’s clashes or demonstrations happening here, it’s like, we are like in the middle actually, in the middle. We can smell the tear gas, we hear all the shots. We hear everything. It’s like a very crazy area. Very crazy.”
Along many parts of the barrier in Bethlehem, a tourist can pick up empty tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and even marbles that protestors whip from slingshots at Israeli security forces.
Even though the wall has become a tourist destination, it isn’t promoted by the City of Bethlehem or Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. That’s left up to the hotels, restaurants and small business, the ministry’s director of marketing Majed Ishaq said.
“We have some initiatives from the private sectors — hotels and souvenir shops — some small initiatives from people living in this area and suffering from the separation wall to get a kind of income and to deliver the political message,” Ishaq told The Media Line, adding that the wall “is delivering a message that the separation barrier is affecting people negatively.”
Bethlehem taxi driver Ala’a Asakereh agreed.
“We have to tell people what’s going on here. As a tourist you should see what’s going on here,” Asakereh explained to The Media Line, adding, however, that many more tour groups have started making stops along the wall when travelling into Bethlehem and that helps his business.
“If you are talking to people about the church as a holy site, they say they are not interested, they say ‘we want to see the wall, Banksy, the graffiti’,” Asakereh said. “They are more happy with this than the religious site.”
Some question if people are trying to make a profit off other peoples’ pain. But there is a general consensus among many people in Bethlehem that making money by promoting the political message isn’t entirely a bad thing.
Still, business owners and artists like Moodi Abdalla agree they would rather see the barrier wall torn down than remain standing, a colorful symbol of protest or not.
“We don’t want the wall, even if the graffiti makes the wall pretty or interesting,” he said. “We want the wall to go down.”