Saturday, March 24, 2018

One year since opening, what is the Banksy hotelís impact in Bethlehem?

By Ruth Regan - February 23, 2018
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [artist] [Bethlehem] [Aida camp]

Next month marks the one year anniversary of the opening of the Bethlehem-based Walled Off Hotel, a project by the artist and activist Banksy.

Originally only intended to open for the duration of 2017, the centenary year of The Balfour Declaration, a statement issued by the British government announcing support for the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine, the hotel is now a viable business with no plans to shut.
But is the hotel merely profiting off the occupation, or does it do more to serve as resistance and/or contribute positively back to the lives of Palestinians?
On The Walled Off’s website is a claim that the hotel aims 'to break even and put any profits back into local projects.’
Two girls walk home from school to Aida. 
One local project which has already benefited from such funding is Aida Youth Centre. With bullet holes in its door, it is located right at the entrance to Aida Camp, a spot where clashes take place on an almost daily basis.
The camp, adjacent to holy site Rachel's Tomb and in close proximity to a main checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem as well as an IDF watchtower, makes it a place of intense IDF violence.
A report from December 2017 found the residents of Aida camp are exposed to more tear gas than anywhere else in the world.
The youth centre is managed by Anas Abu Srour, a third generation refugee who grew up in the camp.
“Our aim is to provide the children with a space and activities to express themselves and to be informed and educated, and use their energy in something useful,” he said.
But the centre faces big funding problems. Originally UNRWA supported, they now receive only sporadic funding from wherever they can get it.
“We are suffering… there are no funds,” Srour said. “We had a music group for two or three years. After that, there [were no more] funds so we stopped.”
This made the recent financial contribution from The Walled Off all the more impactful.
The Aida youth centre received $3,000 form the hotel in November 2017. Not only is this a once off payment, the youth centre was the sole group to receive a contribution.
Srour spent the money on new drums for the children.
He only wishes it could become a more regular arrangement.
He has drawn up proposals for a summer camp and would like to buy uniforms for the scouts club. In the long run, regular funding would allow the centre to support families in need and even employ local people.
'I make a living off the paintings on the wall, it gives me the excuse to speak some politics to regular tourists that only visit to see the holy sites' said local guide Raja.
Whilst grateful for the funding the centre has received, Srour, like many other Palestinians, holds mixed opinions on Banksy-inspired art on the wall.
He is unsure whether it serves to “help Palestinians or to make the Palestinian situation under occupation more acceptable.”
He emphasised how graffiti on the wall of Aida camp is the product of internationals and NGOs and not Palestinians themselves.
“Mostly [Palestinians] don’t like to paint on the wall because they [reject] it. So they don’t want to [be involved with] anything related to the separation wall.”
“The wall makes [people from Aida camp] angry every day,” an independent tour guide, Abood Dayyah, told Palestine Monitor.
Dayyah shared Srour’s mixed sentiment over the wall art.
On one hand, “it is beautiful resistance.” On the other, it risks making the wall and the occupation it represents “become normal,” he explained.
The Walled Off is relatively self-aware of some of the critiques launched against it.
The website addresses head on questions such as 'Is it ethical?’ and 'Are you just making a profit from other people's misery?’
Meanwhile the final display in The Walled Off museum presents the views of some Bethlehemites about Banksy and the Walled-Off.
It doesn’t shy away from the less than flattering reviews.
Two individuals, both living beside the wall, hold diametrically opposing opinions, characteristic of Banksy’s divisive nature in Palestine.
'People come and paint the wall it feels like visitors saying “we stand with you”,’ reads one. 'I hate the graffiti. Already our life here is hard enough,’ reads another.
The Walled Off’s manager, Wisam Salsa, stressed his concern is the local level and that “locals love this project.”
“At least the people I talk to,” he acknowledged, alluding to the fact it may not be universally well-received.
Salsa told Palestine Monitor the majority of those who come to the hotel are not so much politically motivated, but are rather Banksy and art fans.
This leaves the hotel with an opportunity and feeling of responsibility to educate its guests on life under occupation in Palestine.
“From here they discover Palestine,” said Salsa.
The Walled Off attempts to achieve this with an art gallery displaying the work of Palestinian artists; a museum about the occupation and twice daily tours of the wall and Aida camp.
The tours last 2.5 to 3 hours and are run by local guides from the camp. Even during clashes, The Walled Off try not to cancel a tour, permitting there are no serious safety concerns.
Beside the tour guides who come from Aida camp, only one of The Walled Off’s 45 employees is from Aida camp, security officer Mohammed. The rest come from all over Bethlehem.
Defending not doing more for the local community, Salsa said; “we give some contribution to some local projects but we still have a big thing to support here. We have 45 employees, rents, running costs. It is very expensive.”
Having been involved with creating art on the wall with Banksy and other artists since 2005, Salsa believes this is the best way to garner international attention.
“It’s about highlighting the wall and keeping it noticeable,” he said. “[Before,] no-one even mentioned the wall.”
Salsa considers two recent stunts by the hotel as big successes which represent a model of non-violent resistance.
“In the last two major activities that we’ve done here [the Balfour tea party and Alternativity!] our message was delivered to a bigger audience than ever.”
A tourist steps out of a taxi to take a photo of one of the most famous Banksy pieces, Armored Dove of Peace, which is in direct line of fire from an IDF watchtower
On a broader scale, the boutique hotel is also likely to have contributed to Palestine’s position as the fastest-growing tourist destination of last year.
“Today we are bringing life to this part of Bethlehem. We are creating jobs in Bethlehem. We are bringing hundreds of tourists to Bethlehem. We are making lots of international friends because of the Walled Off Hotel,” Srour concluded.
But the remainder of the street running along the wall shows little signs of life.
Rusted signs are all that remain of past businesses, with locals now using the space as nothing more than a parking lot.
“Before it was a busy highway. Now it’s empty. So many businesses shut down because of the separation wall,” reflects tour guide Dayyah, sadly.
For now, The Walled Off is here to stay and will continue to draw international attention and footfall. Time will tell if the hotel continues to put back into the local community.

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