Protest Art in Palestine
BY RADHIKA SINGH
April 8, 2019
From Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, the Separation Barrier looks innocuous. Covered up with pretty beige stone and blending into the background, it snakes along flat, grassy lands, curving over hills and dipping behind buildings. The Barrier in the West Bank, however, could not be more noticeable. It is twenty-six feet tall – more than twice the height of the Berlin Wall – and made of solid, heavy, unbreakable grey concrete that would withstand the test of time. Dotting the entire length are checkpoints and watchtowers.
In contrast to a blank façade on the Israeli side, artwork coats the wall in the West Bank. It is an amalgamation of different styles and techniques – drawings, graffiti, posters, spray-painted messages, photographs – but all the art centers on a few common, central themes.
The Barrier became a protest canvas when the famed street artist Banksy set up his annual “squat art concept store”, commonly called “Santa’s Ghetto”, in Bethlehem. Within weeks, Santa’s Ghetto raised more than a million dollars and put the Barrier and the Occupation in the global spotlight (Parry, 9). Since then, the Barrier’s walls have become the world’s largest pieces of protest graffiti. The art reflects Palestinian struggles, desires, and fears, living under the Occupation and within the confines of the Barrier.
The art included in this article is only a moment in time. Artists have painted on top of old art or added to it, some art has been destroyed, other art has faded with time. But they do give an accurate representation of the type of art that has dominated the Barrier since Banksy drew his first famous image of a girl escaping the Barrier with hot-air balloons.
Theme 1: Effects of the Barrier
The Palestinian government, human rights organizations from Israel and Palestine, and various international bodies have documented the effects of the Barrier on Palestinian lives and communities. All conclude that that they are numerous and highly debilitating and call for the removal or, at the very least, rerouting of the Barrier. The immediate effects of constructing the Barrier were the destruction of property and subsequent economic decline. Owners rarely had a choice in the matter and received minimal to no compensation for their losses. The more long-lasting effects have been the division of communities and a lack of mobility.
Along the Barrier is the so-called “Seam Zone”, a closed military zone where Palestinians have to obtain permits to enter or leave. Between twenty-five and forty percent of Palestinian requests for these permits were rejected, and those who managed to remain in the Seam Zone have had to agree to stringent Israeli regulations. Once the Barrier is completed, almost 25,000 Palestinians will live in these Seam Zones.
The Seam Zone also holds 3,700 acres of Palestinian-owned agricultural land. Initially, this meant that 165,000 people on the Palestinian side of the Barrier were unable to visit their land (Backmann, 72). Eventually, the Israeli government handed out “visitor permits” to Palestinians so they could access their land, but their movement was limited to the olive harvest season and even then at only certain times of the day (UNOCHA, 4; Parry, 11). Irrigation systems were cut off as the Barrier divided land in two. Images of escape from the Barrier dominate this theme. People have painted giant cut-out boxes; windows through which one can see palm trees and beaches; ladders that reach the top of the wall; doors that open through to lightness.
Theme 2: Suffering Under the Occupation
Beyond the Seam Zone and into the West Bank, the route of the Barrier has caused numerous economic difficulties. It cuts through major roads in towns and cities, completely changing their landscape and leaving entire areas desolate. Shops and business have had to close down because the Barrier either cuts through their market of usual customers, decreasing its reach and potential profits, or because materials needed for the business are in parts of the West Bank that are now inaccessible or difficult to access (Parry, 33).
Posters on the Barrier detail personal stories from Palestinians affected by the Occupation. One story read, “There was a small market close to our house in Bethlehem. During the Second Intifada (2000 – 2004), we could not go in the streets to buy food because of day-long curfews. We would sneak over to the nearby market, and send a bucket down on a rope, and call to the shop owner. He would put in the bucket what we wanted, and then we would take it and quietly smuggle it back home. In this way we could overcome the shortage of food and medicines that was faced by so many people in Bethlehem at the time. By Elias, from Bethlehem.”
Some artwork was reminiscent of famous art pieces. Ron English, a well-known street artist, painted a Guernica of children being bombed by an American pilot. He tried to show that America, as Israel’s biggest support system, had a responsibility to the Palestinian people. There is also a map of Palestine that does not acknowledge the Israeli state. It displays the Dome of the Rock and Jerusalem as the heart of Palestine. The poetry next to it reads, “How many stabs has she endured from you/that cause her wounded heart to bleed?/Is there anyone to wipe her tears/or stop her bleeding?”
Theme 3: Struggle against the Occupation
A lot of the artwork tells stories about the Palestinian struggle against the Occupation. Major Palestinian figures, viewed as freedom fighters, are featured prominently. On the Ar Ram wall, covering its full twenty-six-foot height, are words that say, “NO MORE SILENCE, CONSENT, OR LOUD INDIFFERENCE. WE WANT TO SCREAM AND TO BREAK THIS WALL OF SILENCE FOR JUSTICE WHERE THERE IS NONE.” Among the graffiti on the Barrier are small paintings of rockets piercing the Jewish Star of David. Someone else has painted the words, “Only FREE men can negotiate –Nelson Mandela.”
The site of the Barrier has also been used as a space for protests. There is usually a protest every Friday in some area of the West Bank. Tires are burned, rocks are thrown, tear gas or rubber bullets might be fired, and some people will be detained. The site is littered with canisters, shot from the watchtowers, and the remains of tires. Walls are burned black. The area near Ramallah had these symptoms when I visited; I had been told that children from the nearby refugee camp of Qalandiya came after school to protest. And sometimes, the space of the Barrier is used to hold prayers, but this is usually limited to Bethlehem (Parry, 78-9).
The Palestinian Authority had put up posters of a woman – serious, middle-aged, wrapped in a white veil – who died during an Israeli tear-gas attack. The Arabic writing says, “This woman died because of a heart condition aggravated by Israeli tear gas –the Palestinian Authority.” Another painting showed a pieta – a common subject in Christian art depicting the Virgin Mary holding Christ – where a mother, wearing a veil, holds her dead child, whose head is wrapped in a kafiyeh. Next to it is written, “Stop killing my sons, brothers, husbands, fathers.” It is a memorial to Ahmed Moussa, aged 10, who was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier.
The Barrier itself also often features prominently in protests against the Occupation. One such protest that I attended in the West Bank had wooden slates, painted as slabs of the wall. On the opposite of each slab was a view of what lay beyond the Barrier.
Theme 4: International Solidarity with Palestine
Artists and tourists from all over the world come to the Barrier to express their solidarity with Palestine or express empathy using parallels from their own countries. Their art is reflective of how much of the world and international community feel about the Israeli Occupation and building of the Barrier. “Americans against the Wall.” “Germans against the Wall.” “France supports Palestine.” “Shame on Canada. Stop Harper.” “Socialist Worker’s Party (UK): Money for schools not bombs.” “The Jewish grandson of a Holocaust survivor says Free Palestine.” Someone has drawn a tree on which the words, “We have a dreem [sic]” are written, expressing a connection with the civil rights struggle in the United States.
Perhaps the greatest international parallel to the Barrier is the Berlin Wall. Written in large letters across a section of the wall are the words “Ich Bin Ein Berliner,” a quote from John F Kennedy’s speech when he visited Berlin in 1963. It means “I am a Berliner,” and showed his solidarity with their struggle. The South African Apartheid is also used as a parallel to the Palestinian struggle. In one three-kilometer section of the wall, the Dutch-Palestinian collaborative project “Send a Message” spray-painted an open letter from the South African scholar Farid Esack. Part of it says, “We have seen how yesterday’s oppressed – both in Apartheid South Africa and in Israel today – can become today’s oppressors. Thus we stand by you in your vision to create a society wherein everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, or religion, shall be equal and live in freedom.” Mexico’s Zapatista movement also showed their solidarity through a mural of a face wrapped in a mask. Next to it reads, “To exist is to resist” – words that are seen again and again in the artwork on the wall.
Theme 5: Peace, Reconciliation, and Coexistence
“Vertragt Euch! Get along with each other!” a message entreats. “LOVE WINS,” says another. At the corner of the wall is an angel dropping golden hearts. “IMAGINE WAR IS OVER” is written upside down at the top of the wall. Lars Lilhat, a famous singer from Denmark, wrote a song about the Barrier and a poster with the lyrics has been posted on the wall. It is entitled “Christmas Night in Bethlehem.” The final verse goes, “Bethlehem often bears the brunt/Shut in behind a wall/Jesus: love down this wall/And give us peace in Bethlehem.”
The famed street artist JR, alongside another artist, Marco, came up with a concept they called the “Face2Face project.” They took close-up photos of Israelis and Palestinians making a whole range of various expressions, throwing into relief the similarities in each expression. They blew up the photos and pasted them all over the wall, intending to show the face of “the other” (Krohn and Lagerweij, 24-5).
Sometimes the Barrier is used for a more light-hearted purpose. The Dutch-Palestinian website SendAMessage allowed people from all over the world to type out a message and have it spray-painted on the wall. They have commissioned political slogans, birthday greetings, and about a dozen marriage proposals. The proceeds go towards community projects in Palestine (Estrin). “I love you” is a highly popular message, too.
Children have used the wall in their games, painting black rectangular goals or circles as targets for shooting soccer balls. Some locals, getting even more creative, painted a large section of the wall white in anticipation of the World Cup. “We’re going to screen it on the wall and watch it from the bar across,” Elabed said. The bar, taking advantage of a commercial opportunity, was called “The Wall Steak House”.
Reactions to the Wall
In this conflict, Palestinians are not passive victims; in fact, they exercise agency every day in their interactions with the Barrier. From their perspective, the Barrier has cordoned off, dissected, stolen from, and suppressed their entire country. It is a form of collective punishment in which normal Palestinians are penalized because of the terrorist activities of a few.
However, Palestinian reactions to the art on the barrier have been varied. Some locals have not been happy with it – they say it is beautifying what should remain ugly. Banksy remembers that an old man walked up to him while he was painting and commanded him to go home, because he did not want to see the wall beautiful and viewed positively (Parry, 10). Even Palestinian artist, Muhannad Al-Azzeh, who paints murals on the walls of the refugee camps in Bethlehem, does not like how the art “changes the reality of the wall” (Estrin). One artist has, in simple protest against the other artists, drawn a blue line across entire lengths of the Barrier (Krohn and Lagerweij, 122).
Whether or not they appreciate the art, Palestinians have not simply ignored the Barrier, they have engaged with it. They use it to express their opinions, gain international support, and symbolize their oppression through protests and art. The international community, largely against the Occupation and the Barrier, has been highly receptive to the Palestinian reaction. The support of the ICJ, the UN, and major European countries has strengthened Palestinian legitimacy, while the art successfully draws in ordinary people from all over the world looking to better understand the conflict.
Radhika Singh is an Master in City Planning Candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.