The first time Banksy’s artwork ended up on the border wall between Israel and Palestine, it made the news because rockets were frequently flying on either side at the time. The situation has since calmed down considerably, at least in the West Bank (though not in Gaza). Banksy enjoyed it so much, he decided to stick around. He designed a boutique art hotel that was meant to be temporary but has now been open for years. Now the Walled Off Hotel has even come to overshadow Bethlehem’s other major tourist attraction, the church that sits on the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Tours take you through the lobby of the hotel, and taxi drivers offer their services to show you all of his artwork on the wall, which is now covered in equally political, clever and provocative street art. Like so many others, it was my primary motivation for visiting Israel to stay at Banksy’s hotel in the West Bank. And the experience did not disappoint.
Getting to the Walled Off Hotel
Billed proudly as the hotel with the worst view in the world, Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel sits right up again a stretch of the Israeli-Palestinian border wall overlooking the gray wall and imposing Israeli security towers. Like most good things, you have to work a little hard to get it. One does not simply take a cab into the West Bank. Cars with Israeli plates are not allowed to enter the area and a Palestinian taxi driver is hard to come by on the Israeli side. Not to mention anyone willing to cross the border will charge you an arm and a leg for the trouble.
You could theoretically hike from Jerusalem to Bethlehem as it’s less than 5 miles. But you’re in the Middle East; it’s hot as fuck. So most people either take organized tours to visit Bethlehem or take public buses. The downside of taking a tour bus is that many are day trips. The Israeli government has tried to crack down on overnight tourism in the West Bank to dissuade tour companies from offering it. Those that do offer an overnight stay probably don’t put you up at the Banksy hotel as it only has nine rooms.
If you take the bus, you have to contend with transportation irregularities – bus routes on Google Maps that don’t account for the wall between certain areas – and changes in border policies. As it stands May 2019, you’re not checked on the way in, only the way out. If you take a bus when you leave the West Bank, Israeli officers board buses and check passports on board, though sometimes they force everyone to get down, particularly if you have Palestinian ID. In our case, we walked in and out of the checkpoint in both directions and no one even asked for our passport.
Many bus routes from Jerusalem terminate at the checkpoint, requiring you to cross on foot before being swarmed by Palestinian taxi drivers on the other side trying to catch a fare. We were told by a very helpful bus driver to absolutely avoid taking a cab from the border. Apparently they sometimes try to price gouge you before actually dropping you off at your destination, even with threat of violence.
The one bus (163) that comes up on Google Maps as getting you closest to the Walled Off Hotel terminates at Rachel’s Tomb, an important religious site for Jewish people. Even though the stop is past the checkpoint, it’s in Israeli territory and you would still be separated by the wall from the hotel and the rest of Bethlehem.
Luckily, Banksy’s hotel is walking distance from the checkpoint. Google Maps incorrectly shows the walking route, which is blocked by the wall. Ignore the Google directions entirely and follow the solid red line on this map. An alternative route is to take the dotted line to connect to the solid one.
Things to do at the Walled Off Hotel
This isn’t just a hotel; it’s an experience. You’ll spot the hotel’s lit up marquee because it sticks out like a sore thumb in its run-down surroundings. There’s a bellboy monkey waiting to welcome you inside and a hotel attendant dressed in gold ready to help you inside.
The hotel lobby alone is worth sitting at to enjoy a drink and admire all the art around you. The level of detail is truly remarkable. From the second you step in, you’ll notice traditional hotel fixtures that are just a little off, like a sign at the front desk that reads “Rejection” instead of “Reception” and a beautiful trio of paintings of a beach that, upon closer inspection, is littered with empty life jackets.
At the far end of the lobby, there sits a wall full of security cameras propped like hunting trophies and a grand piano that plays daily concerts during afternoon tea and in the evening at 8 pm. The music has been composed for the piano by artists like Tom Waits, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and 3D of Massive Attack. Just beside the piano is a fake bookshelf that’s actually the secret door to the rooms. You can unlock it by holding up your room key to the tits of the small statue of Venus de Milo next to the bookshelf.
The exhibits at the Walled Off Hotel
The hotel has a Palestinian art gallery featuring paintings, photographs and sculpture from local artists, and all of it is for sale. Like the hotel, which employs dozens of Palestinian families, the gallery is meant to infuse life into the local economy as their access to important resources is sometimes restricted.
Aside from the art gallery, the Walled Off Hotel also has a very tongue-in-cheek but informative exhibit about the conflict between Israel and Palestine that gives a voice to locals who are being treated as refugees in a land where Palestinians have always lived. Videos, photos and documents concisely show the history of the conflict, and what daily life is like in Palestine under Israeli control. Like how you might get a call from Israeli armed forces to notify you that your building will be blown up imminently and you need to evacuate – a fact that was confirmed by our Israeli friends. This is how conflict is conducted on both sides, with a courtesy call.
If I’m being honest, the exhibit is heartbreaking. There are a lot of intricacies on both sides that I couldn’t begin to comprehend so my opinion on this issue is very cursory, but any human suffering is upsetting. It’s sad that peace hasn’t been possible and that these people live in a constant state of conflict.
Since Banksy moved in, the border wall has become a canvas for street art. He occasionally adds artwork of his own, including two angels prying open two of the sections of the wall, a girl flying with balloons, and a sign that says “Make Hummus Not Walls.” Around his original pieces, which are undisturbed, are tons of artworks, from the hilarious and topical to those in support of Palestine. Non-artists like myself also come looking to leave their mark on the monstrous wall, which dwarfs the Berlin Wall both in height and length.
In order to facilitate this, there is a Wall Mart adjacent to the hotel where you can rent ladders, buy spray paint and make stencils. For around $20, you can create a stencil using one of their designs or typefaces. I did something I’ve wanted to do for years and didn’t know how – I created a stencil of the GnomeTrotting logo. There are far more important messages on that wall than mine, but I’ll be damned if that wasn’t the most exciting thing I did in Israel. We sat and had ice cream and admired my work, just a few feet from one of Banksy’s own, and I was damn proud of myself.
Staying at the Banksy hotel overnight
All the fun activities aside, that was the best hotel stay I’ve ever had. Each of the rooms is designed by an artist including one designed by Banksy himself. We stayed in one of the cheaper artist rooms, designed by a local artist Sami Musa. But the room was spacious, comfortable, and aesthetically really interesting. It’s definitely a room worth paying $200 a night for. If you’re staying in one of the artist rooms, you also have to put down a $1000 deposit in the event that any of the art you’re sleeping with gets damaged or stolen. The expensive suites include perks like a personal hot tub and a slightly higher shitty view.
But not all stays have to be that expensive. The hotel has a dorm room designed to look like army barracks where you can rent a bed and a locker for $60 a night.
Perhaps the best part of staying as a guest at the Walled Off Hotel is that you have exclusive access to Banksy artwork. You can buy pieces that are not available anywhere else and you can only buy if you’re a guest of the hotel. Considering this dude just shredded one of his paintings worth like $1.4 million, the Banksy prints and sculptures available for purchase are pretty affordable – just under the cost of my flight to Israel. And that’s how I ended up with the most expensive souvenir I’ve ever bought.
Leaving the Walled Off Hotel
The most darkly ironic thing about our stay was how awful it was to leave. After breakfast, which is included in the stay, we checked out. From our room windows, we had seen a steady stream of Palestinians walk past the hotel all morning on their way to the checkpoint to head into Jerusalem. It’s Ramadan so prayer at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Temple Mount is a sacred tradition. Palestinians are only allowed to enter the mosque on Fridays during Ramadan.
We decided against taking a taxi because one that would leave Palestine and go to Jerusalem in Israel would be $50. At the hotel, the receptionist recommended we take the Arab bus 231 (also sometimes numbered 234) that would originate in the West Bank and cross the border. So we walked 15-20 minutes deeper into Palestinian territory going against the flow of people walking in the other direction. We finally found the bus stop and waited in the hot sun for 20 minutes past the scheduled time to no avail. The bus never came, because according to a cab driver, the bus wouldn’t run that day because of Ramadan.
We started making our way back, now 30 minutes away from the checkpoint. When we came up to the wall, sweaty and disheveled asking for directions, the Israeli guards standing at a small window in the wall were huge dicks and pretended not to know where the checkpoint was. The friendliness and helpfulness they show everywhere in Israel is definitely not afforded to people on the other side of that wall.
So we went back the only way we knew how, to the hotel from which we came and then to the checkpoint, where we had entered the day before. This time, we were surrounded by Palestinians, having traveled on foot for God knows how far – men, women and children looking exhausted making their way to the checkpoint. One elderly woman was crawling on the floor pushing along a crate of things. Some people helped her part of the way. Others offered water.
The entrance to the checkpoint was divided into two: one for men and one for women. When we finally made it to the female checkpoint entrance, Israelis with body armor and weapons waved us through, only briefly asking to look in my bag. Then we were herded in a suffocating mob along with all the locals from one chained fence to another like cattle until we finally reached the Israeli side. Here a continuous row of buses was shuttling people to Damascus Gate in Jerusalem.
Even if we had taken a $50 cab, there would have been no way to avoid seeing that and not feel fucking terrible. Which is basically the whole point of the Walled Off Hotel. Sometimes the best art makes you feel extremely uncomfortable. So visit Palestine and experience it out for yourself.