Bethelehem in 2007

To know me at all is to know that I listen to NPR on the way to work and the way home every day. I was really struck by this story on the way to work this morning. Although I do kind of want to punch the guy who said the last line of the story.

Graffiti Artists Decorate Bethlehem BarrierMorning Edition, December 24, 2007 · This Christmas season, a group of guerrilla graffiti artists have gone to work in Bethlehem, the West Bank city where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born.

Bethlehem’s economy and tourism industry are in tatters. Palestinians blame this on Israeli checkpoints and on Israel’s massive security barrier that now separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

This month, international and local artists used parts of that concrete barrier as their canvas.

An artist who calls himself “Sam 3” painted a long black silhouette of a man reclining. Nearby someone painted a giant boxing scene — Jake La Motta and Sugar Ray Robinson slug it out on the concrete. And a little farther down there’s a silhouette of children riding an escalator up and over the wall.

Hassan Salama, an unemployed laborer, walks curiously along a garbage-strewn dirt road in north Bethlehem that hugs Israel’s massive barrier. He looks at a painting of an enormous insect toppling colossal dominoes that resemble the wall itself — and he cracks a slight smile.

“I don’t understand what it means. But I like it!” he says.

Nearby, along a main road leading out of Bethlehem, the British guerrilla graffiti artist who goes by the name “Banksy” has painted a picture of a little girl in a bright pink dress frisking an Israeli soldier. Farther down the road, the elusive artist depicts an Israeli soldier checking the ID of a donkey.

And outside of Maha Sakar’s store, a group of anonymous painters created a white dove, wearing a bulletproof vest, in the cross-hairs of a gun.

“They tell me — don’t tell anybody about their name. And I don’t know exactly,” says Sakar, regarding the identity of the artists.

Sakar, a Christian Palestinian, says some of the art didn’t go over well with locals. She was a little offended by pieces involving donkeys.

But Sakar says she likes much of the work and praises the artists for drawing attention to this downtrodden city.

Unemployment in Bethlehem remains staggeringly high. The West Bank economy is in ruins. Tourism actually has been up some in Bethlehem in the last three months, but is still nowhere near the pre-intifada tourism high, which topped nearly 1 million annual visitors in 2000.

Manger Square, just days before Christmas, is all but empty — the nearby shops idle.

Israeli officials say the West Bank barrier, a 400-plus mile-long mix of cement walls, fencing and barbed wire, is vital to the Jewish state’s security. They say it has thwarted many would-be Palestinian suicide bombers and saved lives.

Palestinians see the barrier as an illegal, unilateral border that has stolen Palestinian land and ruined their economy.

“It’s important for international artists to come to Palestine and express the situation here in their art. And it’s a start. You know we don’t have art galleries in Palestine,” says Palestinian painter and sculptor Souleiman Mansour.

Mansour has several of his pieces in a makeshift exhibit in Manger Square across from the Church of the Nativity. The show, called “Santa’s Ghetto,” is linked to the graffiti art around the city.

Mansour says he’s against using the Israeli barrier as a canvas. “The wall should be used for nothing,” he says, “It should come down.”

But Mansour praises the artists for raising awareness of Bethlehem’s plight.

“The situation here is very strange and contradictory and also absurd,” he says. “And this is heaven for contemporary artists because they deal with these subjects.”

The “Santa’s Ghetto” art show and art auction in Manger Square, proceeds of which go to a children’s charity, runs until Christmas Eve. The graffiti art on the wall and around the city could last far longer.

On his Web site, Banksy encourages people to visit Bethlehem and to explore the art and the politics for themselves.

“If it’s safe enough for a bunch of sissy artists,” Banksy wrote, “then it’s safe enough for anyone.”