The Walled-Off Hotel Controversy

How Banksy Universalizes the Palestinian Struggle

by Jamil Khader | published March 22, 2017

The British street artist known as Banksy is no stranger to controversy. His public art about capitalism, misogyny and racism always produces conversation. His newest installation in occupied Bethlehem, the Walled Off Hotel, is generating significant public debate about Palestine-Israel. According to different media reports, Banksy aims to focus attention on Israel’s apartheid wall and, in the process, help inject some much needed resources into the besieged local Palestinian economy.

Banksy has a history in Bethlehem. He painted some of his most iconic work on Israel’s separation wall during the mid-2000s. Devoid of the traditional symbols and insignia of Palestinian struggle, suffering and resistance, such as keys to lost homes, olive trees and women in traditional embroidered robes, Banksy’s art has been dismissed as less subversive than the work of other international “aerosol warriors” who use more overt political messages in their art. A few of Banksy’s Palestinian murals were considered offensive and culturally insensitive; his sling-armed rat mural was defaced and the soldier-donkey mural was sold in the hot international Banksy market. Other Palestinians voiced apprehension that his wall murals might beautify the ugliness of the wall and its oppressive effect.

The press accounts of Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel reveal a complicated response of amusement and rejection. However, Banksy’s sarcasm, playful motifs and unconventional representation of the Zionist settler-colonial project and Israel’s militaristic apartheid occupation in Palestine are not always easy to detect and appreciate. Unsurprisingly, some critics of the new installation-hotel accuse Banksy of “Pal-exploitation.” By this, critics mean profiting from Palestinian suffering, normalizing the occupation, and even worse, that the installation-hotel is an international conspiracy meant to represent the Israeli colonizers and the colonized Palestinians as equal sides in the struggle.


Image credit: A doorman stands at the entrance of the Walled Off Hotel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on March 4, 2017. (Luay Sababa / Xinhua / eyevine / Redux)

To the contrary, the new installation-hotel is a powerful anti-colonial statement about British colonial history, Zionist settler colonialism, Israeli occupation and apartheid politics in Palestine. It exposes, subverts and lampoons the naïve international liberal fantasy frame, through which many Western tourists to the region view the Palestinian struggle for freedom. By disconnecting the Palestinian struggle from travel itself, this frame can de-emphasize the daily Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights and restrictions on movement. It puts Israelis and Palestinians in the language of moral equivalency and parity.

Banksy turns this frame on its head to reveal a concrete universality at work. Through the venue of perhaps the most touristic of all sites, a hotel, Banksy criticizes occu-tourism and the commodification of Palestinian suffering trapped in a captive economy. Banksy places the Israeli subjection of Palestinians within the growing wealth inequalities in the neoliberal global capitalist economy. This allows him to universalize the Palestinian struggle for freedom, by reaffirming its linkages to other disposable communities around the world through a complex system of intratextual references that are far from apolitical.

Balfour’s Legacy and Anti-Nostalgia for the British Empire

The genius of the installation-hotel is its mixture of normalcy with the absurdity of Israeli occupation. The experience begins immediately. Outside the entrance, a doorman sporting a black top hat and overcoat as well as a monkey butler wearing a red waistcoat and fez welcome the visitors and guests. This commodified spectacle places Bethlehem, Palestine, Zionist settler colonialism and Israeli occupation within the specific history of the British empire and Western narratives of travel to distant lands.

The hotel lobby’s main attraction is a spectacular fetishized simulation of a site of the colonial past: the gentlemen’s club. Inside the club, there is a mechanical piano, a tea room, a collection of classic Victorian and Royal family plates, and three cherubs hanging from the wall. The angels don yellow oxygen masks to establish a line of continuity between British colonial history and contemporary Israeli repression.

For Banksy, the fantasy frame evacuates the current messy geopolitical realities in the region from their colonial imaginary and history, in part through travel narratives. Banksy connects this colonial history, including the links between Britain’s imperial legacy and Zionist settler colonialism, through the Balfour diorama that he displays in the “museum” in the back of the lobby.

The gentlemen’s club thus serves as the frame narrative, so to speak, for the hidden narrative of the colonial story-within-a-story of the Balfour Declaration. Banksy portrays the one hundred year old Declaration as the egregious document whose effects still shape the Zionist ethnic cleansing project in Palestine. Banksy suggests that the Balfour Declaration is the enabling truth of the colonial spectacle of the gentlemen’s club and, consequently, the Zionist settler-colonial project. The gentlemen’s club replica in its colonial glory offers an anti- or counter-narrative to the exotic nostalgia boom for the British Raj that has swept British public discourses and the media in the last few years.

Banksy himself issued a statement in which he places this installation in Britain’s national psychodrama. He stated: “It’s exactly one hundred years since Britain took control of Palestine and started rearranging the furniture—with chaotic results. I don’t know why but it felt like a good time to reflect on what happens when the United Kingdom makes a huge political decision without fully comprehending the consequences.”

This national reflection is even more urgent in light of the revisionist historical campaign that British politicians such as Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have been leading to exonerate Balfour and the British government of its responsibility for the destruction of Palestinian society. May and Johnson have gone as far as exhorting British citizens to “feel pride” in the Balfour Declaration, which they argue “reflected a great tide of history.” For Robert Fisk and others, the British government should apologize for this historic blunder and take full responsibility for the destruction of Palestinian society, and the ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign of the Zionist settler-colonial project.

Asymmetrical Struggle, Involuntary Identification and Histories of Resistance

The hidden Balfour diorama is not the only object in the installation-hotel that links Britain’s colonial legacy to the current Zionist settler-colonial project in Palestine. The western wall of the lobby is adorned with security cameras and a collection of slingshots, as well as two criss-crossed sledgehammers just above the royalty plate collection. Here, Banksy successfully juxtaposes the technologically sophisticated surveillance system of the Israeli occupation and apartheid regime with the simple “weaponry” that has functioned as an iconic symbol of Palestinian resistance. The threat of the surveillance cameras is heightened by a couple of drones that are hanging to the right of the trophy wall.

There is no respite from the ugly realities outside the hotel, and thus some artworks inside bear witness to the ongoing Palestinian nakba under the Zionist settler colonial project and apartheid regime. The entrance of the lobby features a fireplace covered with a pile of rocks that could have been removed from Palestinian homes demolished by the Israeli army and its bulldozers.

Adjacent to the Balfour museum, Banksy dedicates a special section of the installation-hotel to Israel’s multiple war crimes in and on Gaza. Not much has been reported in the media about this Gaza memorial, but it is one of the most moving and highly emotional areas of the installation-hotel. The magnitude of the destruction and death in Gaza is captured in three different exhibits. A glass case shows children’s dusty shoes and a school backpack, probably scavenged from the rubble in Gaza. There is also an elaborate recreation of the roof knocking tactic of the Israeli military. A mounted white phone continuously rings for visitors to pick up, thereby reenacting the warning call Palestinians receive from Israeli army officers a mere five minutes before missiles strike their homes. Earthen statues of a Palestinian mother and children stand close to the mounds of rubble, a testament to the homes that were destroyed and the lives that were affected. Finally, there is the scale of justice, in which the artist placed heaps of fake teeth to represent the victims of Israel’s “protective edge” war on Gaza.

In the hotel rooms themselves, guests are offered no break from the devastating political realities outside. The visual “entertainment,” for example, consists of looped recordings of video feeds documenting the suffering of Palestinian children under occupation. The posh and spacious presidential suite seems to offer all the amenities that guests can expect in similar suites. But this room overlooks the Israeli military camp behind the wall, visible from the room’s window, and its water tank is ridden with bullet holes.

The installation-hotel not only documents the Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians. Banksy also undermines the ways in which Western liberal media and public discourses frame the struggle in the language of moral equivalency, misrepresenting it as a symmetrical struggle between two equal and equally legitimate narratives. For the liberal media, everyone is equally guilty and equally worthy of blame, making it impossible to speak of any knowable truth.

Banksy questions the logic of moral parity in different ways. In a niche in the wall to the right of the cameras and weaponry display, Banksy first mounted a bust of one of the most recurrent iconic images of the Palestinian struggle for freedom: a Palestinian youth tackling Israeli tear gas. In a clear reference to Michelangelo’s classic David statue, Banksy took the bust of a Hellenized Palestinian youth, whose mouth is loosely covered with a piece of cloth that morbidly looks like a shroud, and wrapped it with the white fumes that are released from a tear gas canister, which he placed at the bottom of the work. In Banksy’s hands, the classic Western and biblical underdog master narrative has been reappropriated and inverted.

Banksy also parodies this mentality of moral equivalence and discloses its shallow humanistic values. In one of the major murals in the hotel, Banksy depicts a pillow fight between an Israeli soldier in full gear and a Palestinian youth in civilian clothes with a kaffiyya covered face, with only his eyes showing. Rather than a post-Holocaust ethical statement about the humanity of the persecutory and colonizing Other—that we are all human and equal—the homosocial and intimate subtext of the pillow fight betrays the dialectic of involuntary participation and forced identification in such power games between persecutors and their victims. The Palestinian youth cannot possibly indulge in a pillow fight with his Israeli persecutor, unless he is forced to do so, just like the Auschwitz inmates who had no choice but to participate in the infamous “death (soccer) match” at that concentration camp. [1] Nonetheless, Banksy still positioned the Palestinian youth in a higher position in this pillow fight. Also, the budget room offers visitors bunk beds, which were allegedly recovered from an Israeli military compound. Sleeping in these beds does not simply lead to identification with the persecutory Other in the name of a common humanity. Instead, it debunks any attempt to humanize the soldier at the expense of or in parallel to the victim’s humanity.

Banksy also criticizes those Westerners who propose multicultural tolerance, acceptance of the Other, and teaching “coexistence” as viable solutions to this political struggle. Much has been said in social and Palestinian media about the welcoming signs at the entrance and the back of the installation-hotel as well as Banksy’s Q&A section on his official website. The critics call out Banksy’s website welcome to “everyone from all sides of the conflict and across the world,” especially young Israelis, to visit Bethlehem and the installation-hotel. For the critics, these must be irreverent calls for normalization.

However, Banksy clearly situates all histories of travel in the context of their colonial legacy. Travelers will have to question their privilege and complicity in the reproduction of colonial and neocolonial power structures in Palestine. The signs in the back of the hotel, for example, are placed at the entrance to the Gaza memorial. Knowing full well that Israelis are prohibited from traveling into the occupied territories, Banksy brings home the illegality of the occupation, an issue that has been long forgotten in Israeli media and public discourse.

It is in this context that Sir Elton John’s music performance on the opening night should be understood. This was not simply a call for joining hands and singing kumbaya, but a parody of any call for such pretenses under the current geopolitical situation. This is also the proper context for interpreting the artist’s statement on anti-Semitism: It is only this same liberal mentality that can mistake any critique of Israeli government racist and colonialist policies for anti-Semitism.

Occu-tourism and the Commodification of Palestinian Suffering

Instead of culturalizing the political struggle and coopting it in the language of multicultural tolerance, Banksy draws attention to the contradictions of Palestine’s captive economy under occupation, and especially the sociopolitical effects of occu-tourism on the commodification of Palestinian suffering and oppression. For Banksy, no political solution is viable without sustainable economic independence.

The Walled Off Hotel itself was allegedly planned to help reinvigorate the local economy in the Bethlehem area, by providing employment opportunities for local residents struggling for decent living under conditions of scarcity. However, it is not clear how such revenues can be generated and how sustainable they can be given the low daily rate charged for the limited number of rooms on offer. While other businesses in the same area have fallen off a cliff as a result of the wall, it is also unclear how this business can survive and thrive. And this is the point.

The installation-hotel thus becomes a parody of the many occu-touristic commercial ventures and other forms of alternative tourism and entrepreneurial activities that have developed around the occupation and apartheid wall in Palestine, both by Palestinians and international solidarity movement activists. However, some of these occu-tourism enterprises can collapse into staged spectacles for the entertainment of vacationing international travelers, who enjoy the adrenaline of confrontations with the Israeli military. Moreover, occu-tourism elevates Palestinian suffering into an ontological condition and erases histories of Palestinian agency and resistance. Rebecca Gould has thus correctly pointed out that “suffering is nowhere as globally implicated or heavily interpolated into the global public sphere as it is in Palestine.” [2]

Nonetheless, the installation-hotel aims to move occu-tourists and other international travelers out of their comfort zone and educate them in the Palestinian struggle for freedom. First, Banksy invades the private space of these visitors by reworking a classic Western pastoral painting, in which he inserts a futuristic or cubistic bulldozer into the private space of a European family. He thus turns the idyllic rural European scene from Western art into a horror scene which is all too common in Palestine.

Furthermore, the installation-hotel provides ample opportunities for these visitors to educate themselves about the Palestinian struggle. The installation hotel is equipped with various interactive technologies such as an animated three-dimensional map of the history of Palestine as well as three videos of different aspects of the struggle. The section also has a theater where the Palestinian film Five Broken Cameras is screened. In fact, one of these cameras is showcased in a glass case in the theater room.

One of the walls in the educational area provides visitors with significant information about different aspects of the Palestinian struggle under occupation. Many high quality photographs and posters present facts about the settlements, the wall, and checkpoints. In one interesting glass case, a cross-section from the earth reveals the contrast between the Palestinian and Israeli underground water distribution systems: The narrow rusty iron pipes used in Palestine pale in comparison to the thick, wide copper pipes that Israel uses in controlling the water resources and consumption in the West Bank.

A section of the wall in the educational area also pays tribute to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. It presents a sample of some major products, including Coca-Cola cans, Sabra salads and Ahava Dead Sea personal care items—all of which have been the target of the BDS. There is also information about BDS’ impact and reception around the world. In an adjacent section, a video loop plays the testimonies of former Israeli soldiers, detailing their daily violations of Palestinian human rights.

More importantly, Banksy situates occu-tourism within the contradictions of the Palestinian captive economy under occupation and the global capitalist economy in general. According to early reports, Banksy has also placed Israeli products in the hotel rooms, including Dead Sea bath minerals, in a clear statement about the ironies of Palestinians ultimately financing their own occupation.

As Rachel Shabi points out, as a result of the occupation, “the Palestinian territories are a captive market for Israeli goods. Trade agreements give Israeli businesses preferential status, so Palestinians are often compelled to purchase materials from Israel rather than from another, cheaper source.” She adds that after completely severing the Gaza Strip severed from the West Bank, “Palestinian companies are trading with a third of their market missing.”

Finally, the pun in the name of the installation-hotel (Walled Off)—a play on the name of the upscale and luxurious Waldorf Astoria hotel—also situates the venture within the global capitalist economy. It is a clear statement about the polarization of wealth and the division of labor around the world and in the region. The idea of the gentlemen’s club itself invokes one of Tel Aviv’s contemporary boutique hotels, whose decor is supposed to be a throwback to a 1950s gentlemen’s club. This boutique hotel, moreover, boasts a “stunning rooftop pool.”

The Fundamental Antagonism and the Universality of Palestinian Struggle

By critiquing the political economy of the occupation, Banksy places Palestinians in a common struggle with other oppressed communities in the globe—not for any mythic form of common humanity, but against the fundamental antagonism of class struggle. He does so by reinventing their struggle in a universalist idiom of revolutionary politics and solidarity. As such, he does not fall into the trap of appropriating and coopting Palestinian narratives and symbols or silencing the voices of the colonized.

The artist emphasizes the place of Palestinians in the universal struggle for freedom by linking their situation with the plight of other refugees around the world today. At the entrance of the lobby just above the fireplace, Banksy placed three paintings of a wavy ocean scene, with orange life jackets and shoes scattered all over the beach. The beach is haunted by the absence of the refugees. Under the paintings, the artist placed a small replica of a refugee boat.

Banksy also embeds the struggle in Palestine within the struggle of the unemployed and unemployable in the neoliberal global capitalist economy. Behind the bar at the entrance of the lobby of the installation-hotel, there are three clocks marking the time in New York, London and Jerusalem, each of which features the image of the famous Banksy rat in the background. This is the same rat that Banksy uses as his trademark in his street art around the world that criticizes capitalism.

In their anarchic and libidinal energy, rats are the ultimate signifiers of the power of the excluded, even excremental subject. Banksy thus notes: “If you feel dirty, insignificant or unloved, then rats are a good role model. They exist without permission, they have no respect for the hierarchy of society, and they have sex 50 times a day.” These rats hold signs that say “London doesn’t work:” They are the increasing number of unemployed workers in the global capitalist system—in Britain as well as in Palestine.

Moreover, Banksy links these struggles to the experiences of the especially immiserated: children in the global capitalist economy. Across from the installation-hotel, one of the most iconic images of Banksy’s art is spray-painted on the separation wall: the girl with the balloons. Although some critics have denounced Banksy’s image for selling escapism, false hopes and utopian dreams, Banksy still decided to launch an installation-hotel very close to this image. This cannot be mere coincidence, of course; the physical environment surrounding the installation-hotel constitutes a significant part of its context.

To appreciate the meaning of this image, it must be placed in the context of Banksy’s overall system of artistic signifiers and symbols, especially his series of images featuring other little poor girls with balloons. In one of these images, a little girl in a dress reaches out for a red balloon that is flying away with the wind. In another, a miserable little girl is crouching on the ground holding a thread with no balloon; the absent balloon has been replaced with the letter “O” in the phrase “No Future” that hovers over her.

By linking these three images together, Banksy shows how elusive freedom can be for all disposable communities in Britain and Palestine under the oppressive conditions in which they live. It is important to note that the Palestinian image dramatizes more forcefully the ways in which the oppressed resist much bigger social, economic, and political systems of power that Western liberalism seeks to hide. The image itself is relatively very small compared to the gigantic concrete slabs of the wall on which it is painted. The girl had not flown even halfway up the wall; in short, there is no easy escape.

Through such radical anti-capitalist politics and dystopian aesthetics, Banksy clears a space for universalizing the Palestinian struggle. Years ago, Banksy explained his art work as an attempt to help victims of oppression regain their humanity. His manifesto was basically a reproduction of the diary of a British lieutenant colonel that described “how a shipment of lipstick to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp immediately after its liberation at the end of World War II helped the internees regain their humanity.”

More recently, Banksy’s work has gone through a paradigm shift, moving from humanizing victims to universalizing the radical struggle for freedom and decolonization. Žižek writes that “the construction of universals is a long process, a form of patient and infinite work which can only asymptotically approximate its goal.” [3] This is exactly the power of Banksy’s work.

Endnotes

[1] Debarati Sanyal, “A Soccer Match in Auschwitz: Passing Culpability in Holocaust Criticism,” Representations 79 (Summer 2002).
[2] Rebecca Gould, “The Materiality of Resistance: Israel’s Apartheid Wall in the Age of Globalization,” Social Text 32/1 (2014), pp. 16-17.
[3] Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (London: Verso, 2010), p. 285.

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