Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

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WEST BANK: Decking the walls in Bethlehem

December 20, 2007 |  6:11 am

The little town of Bethlehem has become a giant art project this Christmas season, with Israel’s separation barrier serving as a canvas — and target.

More than a dozen foreign artists have converged on the traditional birthplace of Jesus to splash politically tinged images and messages on various bare walls around town. It’s all part of a happening called Santa’s Ghetto, a yearly forum for the works of street and graffiti artists that is normally staged in London. This time, the company organizing the event picked Bethlehem in order to highlight the barrier, which encircles the town in the form of a nearly 30-foot concrete wall. Organizers say they are politically unaffiliated and don’t speak for the artists.

The event, running until Christmas Eve, revolves around a silent auction of the works of two dozen U.S. and European artists at an improvised gallery on Manger Square, near the spot where the Bible says Jesus was born. Some of the featured artists, including the British graffiti artist known as Banksy, traveled to the Holy Land to spray, daub, stencil and glue new works all over Bethlehem. Proceeds are to benefit a children’s charity, as yet undetermined.

The burst of street art has created a buzz in the normally forlorn West Bank town, which suffered a drop in tourism after violence broke out in 2000 and has yet to recover. Municipal leaders also blame the barrier, which Israel says is needed to block suicide bombers, for the sagging economy. These days, visitors are coming to hunt for the Banksy images, including that of a girl frisking an Israeli soldier and of a flak-jacket-wearing dove in flight. Enterprising taxi drivers are reportedly charging $100 for a tour of the wall art.

On a recent day, the New York street artist known as Swoon braved a sharp winter wind while pasting colorful cloth pockets onto the Palestinian side of the concrete barrier. She was tucking slips of paper with hand-lettered messages into each. Her helper offered us one, a quotation ascribed to Martin Luther King Jr. It read: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We said thanks, and zoomed off in search of more wall art.

— Ken Ellingwood in Bethlehem