A canvas for protest and peace

Artists display a wide range of emotions on Israel's 'security wall.'

On a hot, dusty September afternoon, Hani Aamer, a Palestinian father of six, sits in his living room with the front door open, on the edge of the West Bank village of Mas'ha. From his armchair, 70 meters away, he can see a bright, colorful mural depicting flowers, fish, smiling children, animals, and a soaring phoenix. This cheerful painting, created by the Aamer children with the help of two international peace groups, decorates the surface of a towering concrete "security wall" that stands right outside the family's front door, cutting them off from their neighbors and land.

The mural is one of a rapidly increasing number of painting projects on the 12-foot-high wall that snakes across the West Bank. Some, like the Aamers' painting, depict positive images; others, quite the opposite. Many have been created with the help of international organizations, or by foreign artists who have traveled to the region to protest against the wall's existence.

None of the projects has been carried out with the permission of the Israeli Army or government, for whom the paintings count as little more than vandalism.

Opinion is split within Palestinian society over whether the wall should be painted at all. Some believe that the act of painting the wall justifies its existence; others, like the Aamers, feel that painting is a coping mechanism.

"This painting is for the children," says Mr. Aamer, "to make their lives happier; to make things, mentally and emotionally, a little easier for them."

To one side of their home, an Israeli settlement looms behind a barbed-wire fence; to the other, the security wall cuts them off from Palestinian territory. Closed-circuit cameras, fences, tanks, and soldiers encircle their yard. The best way for the children to deal with their prison-like situation, Aamer believes, is to make it their own, with colorful images of hope and happiness.

The Israeli Army, however, doesn't agree.

When the first phase of painting began in August of last year, all went well. But this August, the Army shut down the project when international volunteers arrived to help the Aamers finish the mural.

No reason was given, but Aamer says an Israeli Army officer threatened to take away his key to the small gate that gives the family limited access to Palestinian territory. For now, the blue sky of the mural remains unfinished. "But if someone else comes along to help us," Mr. Aamer says, "we'll certainly try again."

Not everyone creating murals, however, are drawing peaceful images. The International Center of Bethlehem, a Lutheran-run ecumenical group, has taken a more confrontational approach. The center's three main paintings near the Israeli Army checkpoint into Bethlehem contain harsh images. In one, a lion labeled "Hypocrisy" bloodily attacks a dove of peace. In another, a monstrous snake devours an unborn child and an oryx, the small antelope that once roamed the Palestinian deserts. In the third, the massive slogan "To Exist is to Resist" is emblazoned on a multicolored background.

"Our initial hope," explains Faten Nastas Mitwasi, arts coordinator of the International Center, "was to create such provocative images that the Israeli Army would have to take the wall down. We didn't want to paint on it; we wanted to deface it."

The center enlisted the help of three well-known Mexican muralists, who created the first large paintings on the wall. "Until then, Palestinians were too scared of Israeli soldiers to attempt to paint anything," says Ms. Nastas Mitwasi. "But the Mexican artists didn't have that fear, so that gave Palestinians courage to join in. Our intention wasn't to make the wall look beautiful. It was a protest. Instead of throwing stones at it, we painted our anger on its surface. We don't want to make it look nice or learn to live with it. We want it removed."

The feelings of anger and frustration at the over-400-mile-long wall, which cuts many Palestinians off from their schools, families, and livelihoods, are resonant of those felt by the first painters who created murals on the Berlin Wall in the 1980s.

French painter Thierry Noir, one of the first to paint large-scale murals on the Berlin wall, recalls his intentions in his website. Mr. Noir and fellow artist Christophe Bouchet wanted "to paint the Berlin wall, to transform it, to make it ridiculous, to help to destroy it." He goes on to explain that transforming the wall, through art, into something else served as a sign that it wouldn't last forever.

Another parallel to the Berlin Wall is the steadily growing number of tourists visiting the Israeli separation wall, curious to see the paintings along it.

Currently, very few paintings adorn the Israeli side of the wall. Israeli artists who've painted protests onto the wall have done so on the Palestinian side.

While the wall cuts through Palestinian backyards in many places, it has been kept at a greater distance from Israeli homes. Therefore, unlike the Aamers, Israeli families don't feel the need to beautify it. One exception is the work of Israeli artist G. Arnold who was commissioned by the Israeli Ministry of Defense to paint a series of six wall murals near the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The paintings carry themes of brotherhood, peace, and prosperity, but some say they lack the urgency of their Palestinian counterparts.

In some cases, foreigners have come alone and uninvited to add their artwork to the wall. Banksy, a British graffiti artist, recently made headlines with his nine wry paintings on the wall in and around Bethlehem. One shows two huge armchairs in a living room, looking out through a window onto a beautiful Swiss mountain vista. For some, the irony of the painting is just too far from reality to be funny.

"We thought," says Nastas Mitwasi, "that a talented Israeli soldier must have painted it in the night as a joke. What's he trying to say, this artist? Does he understand what Palestinian people are really living under?"

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