Mike, our Licensed Lay Reader, writes to us again from his visit to the Holy Land.
I’ve just opened a thick red curtain and walked into an Edwardian hotel lounge. There is artwork on the walls, a lot of wood paneling, a fire burning, and outside I can see people sitting on cane furniture on a small patio. Beyond that, in brilliant sunshine, is a one-car-width road and then a 7 metre tall concrete wall, complete with watchtowers. On closer inspection, the art has all been graffitied and the fire is simulated burning rubble.
Welcome to the Walled Off Hotel, Bethlehem, a project pulled off in complete secrecy by British graffiti artist Banksy. Bethlehem made a big impact on him when he visited (and graffitied the wall) some years ago, and this is his response. The hotel includes a museum of the conflict with Israel, particularly about the wall that has been built between them, snaking into West Bank land to protect Israeli settlements built there illegally under international law. Palestinian farmers find themselves cut off from their olive groves, or see centuries’ old trees uprooted to make way for the wall.
And yet, strangely, I heard more stridency during my time in Jerusalem than in Bethlehem. The art gallery upstairs at the hotel, showing Palestinian artists, had some political works, but more that simply referenced loss and homesickness. A frequent motif was of a large house key; when Palestinian Arabs fled their homes in the events after the 1948 declaration of independence by Israel they took their house keys with them, and keep them as a symbol of the desire to return.
It could be depressing to see these seemingly irreconcilable narratives from the Jewish and Palestinian sides. Yet on both sides I have also met people who want peace, a chance to live together in harmony, and to lead fulfilled lives. In particular, I met Suzan Sahori, a Palestinian Christian, who runs Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans and her daughter Salam, in her early twenties, who works with her. They are helping local craftspeople to sell their products worldwide, and I hope to be stocking some of them on our fair trade stall. Salam, as a ‘digital native’, can’t be held back by physical walls, and had an admirably positive view of the future. Perhaps the connections young Israelis and Palestinians make online will lead to a new hope for peace.