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The concrete portion of Israel’s West Bank security barrier has become an inviting canvas for artists from around the world who sympathize with the Palestinians. Above, a mural by a foreign artist near the Bethlehem checkpoint.
The concrete portion of Israel’s West Bank security barrier has become an inviting canvas for artists from around the world who sympathize with the Palestinians. Above, a mural by a foreign artist near the Bethlehem checkpoint. (David Blumenfeld for the Boston Globe)

Israeli barrier draws artists to a cause

Many Palestinians object to paintings as disguising reality

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- For Israelis, the 451-mile security barrier snaking through the West Bank has been highly effective in keeping out would-be suicide bombers. For Palestinians, it's an ugly symbol of Israeli control over every aspect of their lives.

For European artists who sympathize with the Palestinian cause, the concrete urban portion of the barrier has become the world's most inviting canvas. Some Palestinians say they appreciate that artistic support. But many Palestinian artists have expressed outrage, saying the art disguises the reality of the wall.

Most of the barrier is being built through the wilderness close to the Green Line, the old West Bank border between Israel and Jordan before the 1967 Six-Day War. On those isolated hills, the barrier is a see-through fence equipped with electronic sensors, topped with barbed wire and flanked by an anti-tank ditch.

The five percent of the barrier that passes between houses in urban areas is a much narrower and starker 30-foot-high, gray cement wall. It has been daubed with slogans, posters, and even advertisements by local shopkeepers. But it is the eye-catching paintings adorning these sections of the barrier that have ignited a sharp debate.

Tayseer Barakat, curator of the Ziryab Gallery in Ramallah and founder of the League of Palestinian Artists, organized ''3 Cities Against the Wall" -- an international exhibition involving artists in New York, Ramallah, and Tel Aviv, as a protest against the barrier. Barakat said he was fiercely opposed to anyone attempting to hide the ugliness of the concrete slabs. ''The wall should be torn down, not made to be beautiful," he said.

On the northern edge of Bethlehem, on the road that used to lead to Jerusalem, the wall looms darkly over the Al-Aida refugee camp, and is covered in graffiti. Rounding one corner, two huge empty armchairs suddenly appear on the wall, with a pastoral scene of snow-covered mountains on the wall between them.

''When I see these two chairs, I understand there is no one sitting there to talk about our situation, on both sides. There is a very beautiful place through the window, but we can't see it because of the wall," said Mohammed Fathi, a local souvenir salesman. ''We don't have many visitors these days, but they all come here to see the wall. It's become like a place of pilgrimage."

The painting is the work of Banksy, the pen-name for the anonymous, radical British graffiti artist, who came to the area in August to paint nine thought-provoking illustrations on the wall. One shows a ladder providing an escape route; others appear to depict dreamlike scenery of tropical islands and rolling European countryside beyond the wall. Another shows a silhouette of a girl holding a bunch of balloons, apparently rising gently to freedom.

Returning to Britain, Banksy recorded on his website a conversation with an elderly Palestinian who told the artist his painting made the wall beautiful. But when Banksy thanked him, the old man chided him: ''We don't want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home."

Catherine Yass, a British artist who was a finalist for the prestigious Turner Prize in 2002, came to the Sakakini Arts Center in Ramallah earlier this year for the opening of her film ''Wall" -- a video installation tracking the Israeli barrier between Jerusalem and Abu Dis in silence.

''When I first saw the wall I had a very immediate reaction, and I felt like I was both blinded and made dumb," said Yass. ''It does not tell you the history or the context, it tells you more about the visceral effect, a gut reaction."

Yass said the wall had not contributed to Israeli security but instead symbolized a form of oppression for which, as a Jewish artist, she felt partly responsible.

''The wall almost looks like a modernist sculpture from the 1970s," she said. ''It's very disturbing that something as oppressive as the wall can have the aesthetics of modernism."

The Israeli side of the wall features little artwork but a lot of graffiti from opponents of the barrier. In March 2004 an Israeli fashion house, Comme il Faut, launched its summer catalogue with a fashion parade in the shadow of the concrete slabs that owner Sybil Goldfinger said was designed to ''raise awareness." Many Palestinians were appalled.

The Israelis say the barrier helped reduce the number of deaths from Palestinian suicide attacks inside Israel from 144 in 2003 to none this year, until a suicide bomber blew himself up in Tel Aviv on April 17, killing nine and injuring more than 60. Palestinians fear that the barrier, which at points cuts deep into West Bank land that Palestinians consider theirs, will be a unilaterally imposed border for any future independent state.

Fatin Farhat, director of culture at the Sakakini Center, said almost all the art -- as opposed to graffiti -- has been painted by foreigners. She said she had met dozens of foreign artists who wanted to use the wall as a canvas and she always tried to dissuade them.

''My main fear is the institutionalization of the wall," said Farhat. ''I get tens of artists every day who want to work on the wall. I say, 'Look, the Palestinian experience is not only identified by the wall.' Nonetheless, I know that the wall is the epitome of the siege, so it's easier to work with because it's solid, it's there, it's concrete, it's big."

Veteran Palestinian political cartoonist Baha Boukhari uses the wall almost daily in his newspaper cartoons -- crushing the dove of peace, or as a nightmarish, endless maze. But he said he rarely went near the barrier in his hometown of Ramallah, because he found it so depressing.

''I do not encourage people to paint it, to use it as a canvas," Boukhari said. ''I am against that. Leave it to show that it is very ugly. I don't like it to be nice. I like it to be in a very ugly, dirty, not acceptable for any normal person."

But Steve Sabella, a Palestinian artist and photographer living on the Israeli side of the barrier in East Jerusalem, said the protest art should be welcomed. Sabella curated an exhibition by photographer Andrea Merli in Italy about the wall, including its copious images and graffiti.

He recalled that when Israel erected similar concrete block walls in 2000 to shield the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo from shooting attacks by Palestinian gunmen in the Al-Aida refugee camp, Israeli residents turned it into a trompe l'oeil, painting on it the pastoral scenery -- including the Arab villages -- now hidden from view.

''Who said that art was always about aesthetics and beauty?" he asked. ''Art could be ugly . . . An artist can be an activist, trying to give the world a new truth."

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