Sweaty and flecked with dust on the edge of Bethlehem, I rounded a blind corner of the concrete wall dividing Israel and the West Bank,
“Lady no, don’t go there alone.”
A bearded sea lion of a man strode past the stream of boys selling fruit and Coca-Cola at the holy town’s frenetic checkpoint. I stopped scrambling among the rubble where I had been photographing the murals, the restaurant menus, the angry swear words scribbled across concrete.
“What are you looking for?” He asked, shielding his eyes from the sun.
I was looking for Banksy. Back at high school in Scotland in 2005, I first saw the 425 mile-long wall featured in a glossy Sunday spread about the street artist. Parts of the story stuck with me, such as when an armed Israeli soldier came up to Banksy as he graffitied part of the wall:
Soldier: What the f*** are you doing?
Banksy: You’ll have to wait until it’s finished.
Soldier: Safety’s off.
Being young and foolish, that dark glamour excited me. I thought Banksy must be powerful and mad and brave. I told the man.
“Ah, I know Banksy. I’m Khaled, I have a taxi. Great price with me. Come.”
The price Khaled offered was too high, but it was my last day in the West Bank and no other Palestinian I had asked had heard of the Bristolian. This wasn’t exactly a surprise. Banksy’s work bears no resemblance to Palestinian culture, his work is very much for Western eyes. Take the stencil of a boy and girl peeling back the separation wall — it shows a very Thomas Cook ideal of paradise, a palm-fringed tropical beach with the children painted in the style of a British seaside postcard from the 1930s.
We hopped into Khaled’s taxi and drove away from the bustling checkpoint, past miles of graffiti which scars the wall red, black and green — the colours of the Palestinian flag. More candyfloss offerings came from international artists like Blu who don’t live behind a wall, but get to travel the world. The concrete was covered in colour, the work of hundreds of people. Had everyone with a spray can been held up at gunpoint, like Banksy said happened to him?
First stop — Banksy’s Dove of Peace and his picture of a little girl frisking a soldier. But this was not the separation wall. This was the side of a souvenir store facing one of the town’s main hotels.
Banksy said he painted the wall to encourage tourists to Palestine. In Bethlehem, there are coach loads of moneyed tourists holding on to one another in shuffling tour groups. They’re shuttled in from Jerusalem each day to view the birthplace of Jesus, then swiftly taken back to their Israeli hotels and air-conditioned restaurants. Not that I can judge, being driven past the locals’ crammed minibuses in a private taxi, because paying a driver 10 quid an hour meant nothing to me.
Point is, tourist dollars are rarely spent within the West Bank — everything is included in the tour price at the Israeli travel agents’. And the idea of anyone visiting the West Bank with the main purpose of viewing Banksy’s work is a joke, especially when he may have exaggerated the dangers of being in West Bank by saying that he was held up at gunpoint by Israeli soldiers. If there were fewer scaremonger stories like Banksy’s, visitors would be more likely to visit the West Bank independently, giving more money to the struggling economy.
We got back in the taxi and drove along hot sandstone streets to the outskirts of town. Khaled stopped the car and we looked out to the Negev desert and the modern condos of Har Gilo, a Jewish settlement just over the wall. The wall here was bare of paint, and all the more ugly for it. Here it wasn’t disguised as “the world’s longest gallery of free speech and bad art” (Banksy). It showed the wall for what it really is — an apartheid among the olive groves, scooping up Palestinian land and aqueducts, dividing communities, businesses, schools, crops and families into 16 isolated enclaves.
We continued driving for a while, talking about Khaled’s son who was a medical student at Manchester University, before stopping abruptly at a quiet petrol station. Confused, I followed Khaled’s instructions and we went round the side of the building.
On the side of the wall was one of Banksy’s most famous paintings, a man violently throwing a bunch of flowers. The picture that helped sell about a quarter of a million copies of Banksy’s coffee table book, Wall and Peace, RRP £20, is a mural on the side of a dusty petrol station. Some wall.
Khaled said, “I can’t understand why you want to see this. Why does this man like Israel?”
“He doesn’t.” I spluttered, “He likes Palestine.”
“Then why does he draw us as rats?” He said, referring to Banksy’s stencil of rats catapulting stones. “We are proud people.”
To the locals who know of him, based on his artwork it can seem like Banksy is insinuating Palestinians are rodents. Not cool, especially when children in the West Bank have reportedly been killed by soldiers for throwing stones. It’s understandable that Banksy’s rat stencil was long ago erased by Palestinians. Due to his work being painted over, today it looks like there are only three Banksy pictures remaining in the West Bank. That’s not much of a tour if Banksy’s intention really was to encourage visitors to the West Bank. That’s not much to look at if you want to see more than a painting on the side of a petrol station, the side of a souvenir store.
The Banksy artwork which angered locals the most was of a donkey (representing Palestine) showing its papers to an Israeli soldier. Calling someone a donkey can be highly offensive in Arab countries.
“We are not small people,” continued Khaled, “Why is Palestine the stupid donkey?”
Stupid donkey. Couldn’t cultural sensitivity have been part of Banksy’s work, while still appealing to his Western audience?