A new hotel opened in March in Bethlehem, just steps away from the controversial security wall separating parts of the West Bank from Israel. Aptly named The Walled Off Hotel, it is the newest creation—and the first foray into hospitality—for the elusive London street artist known as Banksy. The pseudonymous master provocateur first emerged on the underground art scene in the early 2000s and has since become an international counterculture icon, known for hijacking major sites in cities like New York and Paris with poignant, irreverent, and whimsical stenciled art that carries strong political and social commentary on war, poverty, class divides, and the environment. This new project, constructed at the heart of the Israel/Palestine conflict, is no less pointed.
Ownership of the land to which both Israel and Palestine lay claim has been contested for several thousand years. At present, the West Bank is nominally controlled by the Palestinian Authority, but is effectively under the Israeli troop occupation. Construction of the West Bank Barrier wall began in 2002 amid security concerns, but its placement and very existence have since proven widely controversial. Stretching roughly along the West Bank–Israel border, in some places the wall goes deep inside the West Bank territories, encircling several Palestinian towns and restricting movement for people on both sides.
Banksy has been “decorating” the wall with his art since 2005 to highlight the complexity of life near the wall. The Walled Off Hotel continues this work. As he states on the hotel’s website, “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.” (While much of the West Bank territory is off-limits to Israelis, the hotel is built in Area C of the occupied West Bank, a division in which Israelis are allowed free movement.) With the finished project, Banksy delivers on his promise for “the hotel with the worst view in the world.” The rooms and the lobby directly face the imposing 30-foot-tall concrete slab. Higher floors offer the added benefit of views of the Israeli army towers on the other side of the wall.
But it’s more than a political statement. The fully functioning hotel doubles as an art space with dozens of new Banksy works and a small gallery that features prominent and up-and-coming Palestinian artists.
The surreal experience in Banksy’s witty signature style starts at the entrance. A chimpanzee bellboy greets guests with a permanent smirk and a wide-open suitcase that is scattering its intimate belongings on the pavement.
Inside the lobby, emphatic visuals of two cherubs wearing gas masks and a children’s carousel revolving around a watchtower stir up a sense of phantasmagoria matched only by the nonchalant high tea served against the backdrop of a militarized concrete wall. Above the fireplace, a seemingly benevolent seascape canvas reveals rows of life jackets cast ashore and a phrase beneath: “We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.”
Deep leather sofas and shabby, 1952 editions of The Canterbury Tales accentuate the hotel’s colonial style—a nod to the British involvement in the area. In fact, the hotel’s opening coincides with the 100th anniversary of the British occupation of Palestine.
GO INSIDE THE WALLED OFF HOTEL[[[slideshow_id#892]]]
The Walled Off Hotel offers three types of rooms, all of which were designed by Banksy and two other artists: locally based Sami Musa and Canada-based Dominique Petrin. The Budget Barracks (from $30 a night) are a no-frills option outfitted with surplus items from Israeli military barracks, while the Scenic and Artist Rooms are customized by Banksy and the other contributing artists (from $215). Finally, the Presidential suite is “equipped with everything a corrupt head of state would need,” including a home cinema, a roof garden, and a tiki bar (from $965).
Several Israeli and Palestinian public buses commute to the center of Bethlehem each day. From there, travelers can find the hotel by simply following the wall, a route that some have started to call the “Banksy trail.” Visitors should expect to obey strict rules while at the hotel: No camera use, other than in-phone cameras, is permitted on the property, a $1,000 anti-theft deposit is required to stay in the rooms (with the exception of the Budget Barracks), and the hotel strongly advises against shining laser pens in the direction of the Israeli army watchtowers.
Next to the hotel, an art shop cheekily called Wall*Mart, offers a variety of classic and new Banksy stencils that visitors can use to leave their mark on the wall. “It’s not ‘not’ legal,” a reassuring nearby poster claims. Run by local graffiti artists in cooperation with Banksy, the shop offers yet another way for outsiders to get involved and contribute badly needed funds to the local economy.
For those interested in better understanding the conflict, the hotel also hosts a museum dedicated to the history of the wall. Additionally, and rather alarmingly, a border checkpoint is situated less than 500 yards from the hotel, offering a firsthand look at reality along the wall. But perhaps the most revealing introduction to the area is to simply step outside where, amid the dust-choked, ruined sidewalks and bare-minimum housing, a whale of a wall tears through the town of Bethlehem.