A Means of Suppression and Expression: The Walls of Bethlehem, Palestine

Bethlehem, located in the Palestinian Territories, is an inherently religious city. Its name connotes the Bible and Christianity for many, but the reality of this little town seems much more socially and politically relevant today than it has ever been. It is, after all, so difficult to separate religion and politics when it comes to the Palestinian and Israeli conflict. Yet, the current social reality of this place cannot be ignored. Just a short walk away from Manger Square and Nativity Church is Al A’zzah refugee camp, and one of the many partitioning walls erected by the Israeli government.

The walls stand three times higher and four times longer than the Berlin Wall. The wall has separated neighbours and family members, who once lived just across the street from each other, for generations. And they can no longer see each other without submitting legal documents that grant them access to cross military checkpoints.

This thick, grey, dominating wall has led to one of the most fascinating street art movements and the strongest symbol of collective resilience in the Middle East. Probably the most well-known artist to put a mark on the wall is Banksy. Working with groups of local Palestinian artists, Banksy has painted numerous designs and statements over the walls throughout Palestine.

Within Bethlehem, there are two examples of Banksy’s work. Both have become iconic images not only of the internal conflict between Israel and Palestine and the devastating reality of violence, but of the suppression of the humanity and peace that exists beneath the socio-political, religious violence. The first piece depicts a young girl with pigtails and a sundress searching a solider in full battle garb, whose automatic rifle rests against the wall. The second is sprayed onto a shop wall and shows a white dove holding an olive branch, wearing a flack-jacket. There is a red crosshair over its heart. These images provide a clear statement of the ironies of war: how war operates to stifle civilization, unity, growth and progress, that it compromises any benefit and value of open communication, which has been replaced with absurd realities, these preterit symbols, this anti-language of war. The innocent and the peaceful are under attack.

Contributing to the street art movement is not always free and liberating, and, naturally, sometimes comes with a toll. I spoke with a Palestinian artist in Bethlehem, who lived within Al A’zzah camp and had been arrested twice by the Israeli authorities for his artwork. He no longer paints as the last fine he incurred of 5,000 shekels (approximately £1,000 or $1,500) shattered him financially.

Graffiti throughout the West Bank is a sign of the despair and suppression for those who live there, as much as it offers a sense of escape from their daily lives. Scattered along the walls are the remnants of tear gas canisters and grenades. It’s a scary truth that many of us who live outside the battlegrounds seem to overlook: war isn’t just a news story that you can turn away from when it is scattered all around you.

Words and photos by Kat Hind