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The two tourists were from Berlin, so they knew something about walls. There they sat, one with tea, another with cappuccino, on tasteful patio chairs, across an alley from the ugly eight-metre symbol of all that separates Israelis from Palestinians.
This section of the West Bank separation barrier was built 15 years ago, as violence raged. It is now a quiet tourist destination in the city where Jesus Christ was born: a hotel, gallery, museum, bookstore and spray paint shop by the elusive British artist Banksy. It is part whimsy and spectacle (note the plastic greeter chimp), part serious (note the very real Israeli security cameras).
"Weird," one of the Berlin tourists, Nadja Miller, 38, said. "It's voyeuristic. At the same time it raises awareness that it exists and discussion about it."
It has been just over a month since Banksy opened the Walled Off Hotel here - and unsurprisingly it is proving popular: Its nine rooms are booked through June, for rates from $US30 ($A39.50) a night to $US965 for the "presidential suite." Some 700 people visit a day, the owner says, 200 of them Palestinian. Many arrive on tour buses passing through checkpoints.
Some art is meant to inflict discomfort. Banksy's hotel - which brags of the "worst view in the world" - falls clearly into that category, though visitors say the discomfort comes in awkward waves. There is the wall itself, endlessly debated over whether it comprises cell walls for Palestinians, a security measure that worked or 400 miles of proof of the failure of negotiations.
That is enough for some visitors. "All the world must see what is happening in the West Bank," said Emad Khleif, 50, a Palestinian banker who brought his family to visit from Nazareth.
But not all locals are happy with the hotel. ("Who is this for?" barked a Palestinian woman, Sowsan Hashem, 49, standing just outside.) Some foreign visitors said it made them a little queasy. Part of the blame might come from Banksy's unsubtle, commercial style. Part is from a feeling of "oppression tourism," which allows those who pay $US20 or so to stencil political messages on the wall with spray paint. Part is that the hotel is just, well, pretty nice, given everything.
"Decadent" was the word used by one guest, Michael McLaughlin, 35, who noted the difference between the hotel and the Palestinian refugee camp where he had just spent a week as part of his work as an actor and a filmmaker.
"The irony is not lost on me," he said. But he expressed support for the project. "It's creative activism, an act that has infinitely more power than a gun."
Ibrahim Abdel Rahman, 32, the owner of a tire shop down the street, said he had been ordered to shut down as the area spruced up. "There is something strange about that hotel," he said. "It's more of a project of encouraging normalisation of the occupation."
Banksy has a long history in Bethlehem: Four well-known works are here, including "Girl and a Soldier," and a dove protected by an armoured vest.
The artist has said that the separation barrier "essentially turns Palestine into the world's largest open prison," though several emails sent to an address for Banksy were not answered. Yet he has not become an internal symbol of anti-Israeli activism, which is encountering growing legal resistance inside Israel.
A major retrospective of Banksy's work that opened a week ago just outside Tel Aviv is to run through Tuesday.
His website says of the hotel, "Operated by the local community, we offer a warm welcome to everyone from all sides of the conflict and across the world."
It is not as easy, though, for those on the Israeli side to visit. Technically the area is under Israeli control, but the roads and checkpoints place the trip itself in a legal gray zone. Four admittedly scared Hebrew University students persuaded an Arab friend to take them the other day.
"It's Palestine," said one student, Shaya Bon Stein, 29. "It's dangerous."
All but one were art students, who all consciously tried to dress like Europeans, and they conceded that the danger might be more perceived than real.
They were eager to see the hotel itself and its statement about the wall, something they do not get to see from the other side.
"Is this a joke?" is first on the questions section of the hotel's website. The answer is perhaps the business' least ironic aspect: "Nope - it's a genuine art hotel with fully functioning en suite facilities and limited car parking."
It is also not meant as a moneymaker: The hotel, on the site of a former pottery workshop, is owned by a local businessman, Wissam Salsaa. The website says all profits will be returned to the community.
Still, it has a feeling both of humour and commercialism: The coffee is excellent, and the hotel serves the "best hummus in the region" (according to the kitchen staff, the website jokes).
The motif is best described as decadent colonial, but in place of mounted deer heads are security cameras and slingshots. A gallery upstairs, where paintings by Palestinian artists can run $US10,000, features even more valuable works by Banksy himself. Most striking is a mural of an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian man wrapped in a kaffiyeh pounding each other with pillows billowing with feathers, invoking Goya's "Fight With Cudgels" of two men planted to their knees, condemned to proximity and so endlessly trying to kill each other.
An animatronic Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary, signs the paper that established a Jewish state 100 years ago. ("Press button for historic re-enactment.") It is 50 years since the 1967 war in which Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, beginning an occupation that, for now, is partly managed, and limned, by the wall.
Finally, there is the wall itself: The concrete - visible from most parts of this hotel only metres away - is covered with graffiti. The Berliners finished their drinks as they gazed at a stencil reading: "Mr. Trump. Walls = Hate." Doves perched on barbed wire.
Saher Touna, 17, one of the Palestinian tourists from Nazareth, bought a stencil from the "WallMart," next to the hotel, which sells spray paint and offers a ladder.
"My home is here, my land is here," she sprayed in Arabic. "It's racist, and it's here," she said of the wall. "Might as well make something beautiful out of it."
The New York Times
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