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Why Banksy’s gesture matters

Britain’s iconic street artist, anti-establishment activist and director insists on anonymity. The reason given is that graffiti, which he refers to as “underclass revenge,” is a crime. Supporting that claim, the London Borough of Westminster once painted over many of his modern masterpieces.

Although his identity is shrouded in mystery, he has made his mark on the global art scene, to the extent that his controversial artworks fetch high prices at auction and are prized by collectors. But the latest project of this individual — who once said he “sometimes feels so sick at the state of the world, I can’t even finish my second apple pie” — is his piece de resistance, melding hospitality with art and activism.

Facing Israel’s illegal, concrete apartheid wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and an equally illegal Jewish settlement, is the artist’s new 30-roomed Walled Off Hotel, proudly billed as enjoying the worst view in the world.

The hotel’s politically oriented décor is as off-the-wall as its owner’s unique personality. With the exception of a lavish suite, the rooms are basic, the walls of some decorated by Banksy’s own hand. One depicts a helmeted Israel soldier and a Palestinian freedom fighter engaged in a pillow fight. Another is deliberately Spartan, containing ex-army bunk beds. The elevator is blocked off and hung with an “out of service” sign.

“Walls are hot right now, but I was into them long before (Donald) Trump made it cool,” Banksy said in a statement. With the opening scheduled for March 20, the hotel — targeting Israeli and foreign guests — is already a media sensation, and it is expected that there will be no shortage of bookings due to his celebrity and the clear message it sends.

There is no doubt that Banksy genuinely cares about the Palestinians, as evidenced by a satirical travel video he created following his undercover visits to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, where he succeeded in adorning several walls.

Titled “Make this the year you discover a new destination,” the video — showing rubble inherited by Israeli bombs and underground tunnels — begins with the caption: “Welcome to Gaza… where the locals never leave because they are not allowed to.”

With the price of rooms starting at a modest $30 a night, his hotel-cum-gallery for Palestinian artists is not a profit-making venture. It was built with the artist’s own money solely to keep the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people on the front burner.

Linda S. Heard

With the price of rooms starting at a modest $30 a night, the hotel-cum-gallery for Palestinian artists is not a profit-making venture. It was built with the artist’s own money solely to keep the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people on the front burner, and to highlight Bethlehem’s flagging tourist industry.

For those motivations alone, Banksy should be congratulated for doing his bit, no matter how small in the great scheme of things, especially during an era when a two-state solution is in its death throes, the US is mulling relocating its embassy to Jerusalem, and the British prime minister urges Britons to celebrate the Balfour Declaration’s centenary “with pride.” No wonder Palestinians feel abandoned and forgotten.

Yet not everyone has such a positive opinion. I have come across armchair critics on social media decrying his effort as “fruitless,” “hardly life altering” or “an extravagance because the money would have been better spent on a hospital.” “How is Banksy making all this money off being a damn street artist?” asked one.

I would argue that while a hospital would have been more utilitarian, it would have gone under the media radar and would have necessitated far greater funding. Every contribution made according to an individual’s means and capabilities to lift Palestinian spirits deserves recognition.

Despite being corralled into the biggest open-air prison, deprived of their homes and lands, humiliated and oppressed, Palestinian hopes of retrieving their homeland from occupation have never been dashed, but it is true to say their morale is at a low point.

Anything that brightens this beleaguered people’s lives, such as the recent performance of the Palestinian Arab Idol winner Yacoub Shaheen, draped in the Palestinian flag as he sang “My pledge and my oath, my blood is Palestinian,” brings momentary happiness.

Tens of thousands took to the streets to wave flags or toot car horns, joyous at the victory of one of their own. “Today it is musical, but we hope one day we will have our political victory,” said Abu Ali, a Palestinian quoted by The Guardian newspaper. Without doubt, the creator of a labor of love with the worst view in the world would concur.

• Linda S. Heard is an author and columnist specializing in Middle East affairs.