The writing on Bethlehem's wall: British artist seeks to lure tourists

The guerrilla artist known as Banksy and others draw murals on the controversial barrier to boost tourism in a city still struggling economically.

A dove dressed in a bulletproof vest raises its wings in surrender. A girl in pigtails and pink frilly dress frisks an Israeli soldier. The nose on a Pinocchio with a star-spangled tie has grown into a missile.

Paintings by British street artist Banksy have drawn attention to the biggest canvas in the city reputed to be the birthplace of Jesus: the gray concrete walls Israel put up as a separation barrier. As with the wall that divided Berlin during the cold war, scrawling graffiti on the barrier has become a silent form of demonstration for both Palestinian and foreign artists.

"Every time I look at these pictures on the wall, I feel optimistic that wall will come down," said Nada Abu Khdeir, a resident of the Aida refugee camp, pointing to a painting of an escalator ascending the 25-foot-high wall.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if this becomes a reality and we are able to go to our land on the other side? I feel these drawings are expressing support for the Palestinian people. It is wonderful to see this support in the form of art," she says.

Israel claims the wall is necessary to keep suicide bombers out while Palestinians say they've been penned up as collective punishment.

After first scrawling on the wall two years ago, Banksy returned last month to contribute more works that have become the centerpiece of an exhibit of paintings, sculptures, and installment art entitled "Santa's Ghetto." Currently on display in a restaurant converted into a gallery at Manger Square, some 120 works are being auctioned for charity at prices ranging from $1,000 to $500,000.

The artist, who doesn't give interviews, has said through a publicist that the exhibit's purpose is to draw visitors back to the city.

The gallery exhibition includes a cherub on a bed of straw bludgeoned by a boulder, wood-carved watchtowers covered with dollar bills and Coke cans, and a Mickey Mouse sporting a black-and-white checkered kaffiyeh.

"World-famous artists are helping the city. People feel honored to have pictures on such a wall," said Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarsah. "We hope more tourists will roam the streets and not rush back" into Israel.

Whether the art is powerful enough to overcome the barrier is unclear. Though tourism is up 60 percent compared with last year, Bethlehem merchants complain that Israeli tour operators scare visitors into limiting trips to just the 4th-century Church of the Nativity basilica. The local economy hasn't recovered from the economic squeeze of the Palestinian uprising.

Joseph Jackaman, who owns a souvenir shop next to the exhibit, admits he has not yet seen Santa's Ghetto. "People are tired," he said. "They don't pay attention to such things."

To be sure, not everyone in Bethlehem liked what they saw. Murals of a soldier checking the papers of a donkey and a rat with a slingshot were whitewashed.

"For all the time and effort, the effect is minimal," said Don White, an artist from Colorado who is working on a nativity sculpture for the Bethlehem Bible College here. "Foreigners do this stuff; very little of it is from locals. If they want to do good for humanity, they would come down here and get a good volunteer job."

Elsewhere along the wall, Lena, a graphic design student from Finland, sketched "Free Palestine," in her native tongue. "Artists like walls," she said, with a paint roller in one hand. "But this needs to have more holes."

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