Now open: the West Banksy

Published by The Mail on Sunday (12th March, 2017)

The opening of a hotel by elusive graffiti artist Banksy in the shadow of the controversial concrete and barbed wire wall that separates Israel from the Occupied Territories was always going to be an incendiary event.

The British artist is, after all, as renowned for the provocative works that miraculously appear overnight on walls around the world as he is for slipping away before being spotted.

His identity is a closely guarded secret, and while the Mail on Sunday has identified him as Bristol-based artist Robin Gunningham his name has never been officially confirmed.

Yet as a handful of curious foreigners ate Victoria sponge cake and sipped tea beneath security cameras and slingshots in his Walled Off Hotel (a play on the celebrated Waldorf chain), few seemed to appreciate they were playing starring roles in one of the more bizarre openings the art world has ever seen.

This hotel, museum and slice of performance art has, after all, won global publicity with its unusual and archly sly boast of having the ‘worst view of any hotel in the world’. Several of its ten rooms look directly out at the forbidding wall that divides two warring communities.

A sprinkle of visitors from abroad had come to take selfies beside flower holders converted from tear gas canisters and listen to a mock warning from Israeli security of imminent attack after its doors opened yesterday. ‘This is brilliant,’ said Steven D Martin, a pastor from Washington DC. ‘Banksy has discovered that art is the most powerful form of protest.’

Inside, tourists passed a mechanical model of Arthur Balfour signing the declaration that committed Britain to the creation of a Jewish state, then admired art nestling amid details about the occupation.

Certainly this is the weirdest hotel I have ever visited, provocative, informative and in places mildly amusing. Yet the staff, resplendent in red waistcoats as they served coffee costing nearly three times as much as in nearby cafes, seemed strangely nervous. The artist himself, of course, was nowhere to be seen. Staff whispered that they were not permitted to talk with journalists.

The reason soon became clear: two Israeli flags beneath slogans emblazoned on posters in Arabic, Hebrew and English have been added to a room that was only seen for the first time yesterday. ‘This is normalisation,’ said one angry local man from a nearby refugee camp. ‘And that cannot be allowed in this place.’

He was referring to a policy opposed by Palestinian militants of fostering interaction with Israelis, which the hotel does by its location in Area C – a part of the Occupied Territories under Israeli control – and its promotion of peaceful coexistence.

This might sound sensible. Yet it is highly controversial for radicals, especially those in nearby refugee camps – and already there are dark mutterings about the hotel. The presence of Israeli flags in such a place is a provocation indeed.

But Wisam Salsah, 42, a former tour guide who met Banksy on his first trip to the West Bank in 2005 and now manages the hotel, said they were expecting the building to attract people from all over the world to visit Bethlehem. ‘This highlights the issue of the wall,’ he said.

Guests cannot stay here until later this month. Rooms range from a presidential suite with a bullet-holed water tank through to bunk beds scavenged from an army barracks costing £25 a night per person.

Locals seemed to be largely ignoring the hotel’s opening yesterday – although nearby shopkeepers are pleased by the hotel’s arrival since their takings had been boosted and one wealthy Palestinian-American businessman was enjoying the exhibits. ‘I remember when the wall went up I guessed it would only last a few months,’ said Omar Sbitany, who lives in Israel. ‘It takes something amazing like this to remind us that this is not a normal situation.’

And for all the media attention, not everyone had clocked the hotel’s arrival. ‘I have been walking past this every day on my way to work and had never even noticed this,’ said Zenat Mouti, 35, a factory worker. ‘Who is Banksy?’

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