Mike Kanawati, the manager of The Three Arches souvenir and jewelry shop on Bethlehem's main street, sat in his office at the back of the large shop and stared at the pictures transmitted by the security cameras he has placed on the premises and at his store's entrance.

The customers were behaving in an exemplary manner, and the movement in the street outside flowed with soporific slowness, but on the other side of the street, a man who was "neither tall nor short, neither fat nor thin, just ordinary," was attaching a large plastic stencil to the wall of the building that belongs to Kanawati's family; he took out a can of black spray paint and began spraying.

"I enlarged the picture on the screen and observed carefully, and to tell you the truth, I was quite annoyed. I wanted to get up and approach him and throw him out of there, but just then I got an important phone call, so I continued to watch what he was doing via the camera while I was talking. He worked for about 45 minutes and then simply disappeared."

When the man left, the wall showed a full-size picture of an Israel Defense Forces soldier stopping a donkey to check its papers. Kanawati looked carefully at the graffiti and got angry. "This painting has two meanings: One, it is making fun of your army, which spends time checking the papers of animals - and that's all right. The second meaning - which I didn't like - is that we Palestinians are the donkeys," he says.

He considered asking one of his employees to get rid of the graffiti, but then rumors began to circulate in the city regarding the identity of the anonymous vandal. "I understood that he was some famous British artist, and they told me that nobody knows who he really is, and then I said to myself that maybe I could use the graffiti for business. I've already had a tourist approach me and ask me how much I want for the wall itself. He hasn't made me an offer yet but now, after checking some more, I'm actually thinking of cutting the wall off from the building in one piece and selling it to anyone willing to pay for it. I thought to ask for $250,000. What do you say?"


Banksy's graffiti in Bethlehem. Taxi drivers offer tourists 'a tour
in the footsteps of the mysterious artist' for $100.

(Photos: Nir Kafri)

Subversive art

The man who spray-painted the soldier and the donkey on Kanawati's wall is Banksy, arguably the most famous and successful graffiti artist in the world today. In complete secrecy, with a public relations network that began to operate only once he left the city, he arrived in Bethlehem for the second time in two years, heading a delegation of about 15 artists. The group worked energetically in the city for several days and nights and left its mark on walls and on the separation barrier. And now, a public auction at a gallery opposite the Church of the Nativity offers works by the famous artists.

Banksy, who is considered one of the subversive forces in the world of modern art, burst into public awareness in 2003. Since then he has been interviewed only once, and he works obsessively to conceal his identity and his appearance. An investigation by the British newspaper The Guardian has revealed that his real name is Robert Banks, that he is 33 years old and that he grew up in Bristol, England, but neither he nor any of his colleagues agreed to confirm or deny these details.

What has been confirmed is that Banksy began to spray graffiti as a young boy, that at some stage he abandoned the traditional technique of spraying by hand and started using stencils, and that he has honored quite a few places in the world with his artistic presence, which is sometimes considered pure vandalism.

Banksy's work is anti-war, anti-capitalism and anti-establishment. In London he painted one of the Queen's guards urinating against a wall and two policemen kissing passionately. In Bristol he added a painted window to a building; a naked lover is climbing down from the window and inside one can see a woman and a jealous husband.

Banksy first came to Bethlehem in 2005 and left a series of ironic paintings on the separation barrier, which illustrate "life from the other side." At an exhibit in Los Angeles in 2006 he painted a live elephant with maroon and gold wallpaper patterns and placed it in a designer living room, in order to illustrate the expression "There's an elephant in the room." That year he also created his own jackets for Paris Hilton's debut album and snuck 500 copies into record shops all over England. A short time later he snuck into Disneyland and exhibited an inflatable doll dressed as an inmate being held in the American prison at Guantanamo Bay (including a black hood and handcuffs).

Despite the disdain he shows toward the artistic establishment whenever he gets an opportunity, his works have fetched prices amounting to almost $600,000 and his admirers include Angelina Jolie and Jude Law, singer Christina Aguilera and soccer player David Beckham. Some say he has sold out.

Dove in a flak jacket

After a two-year absence from Jesus' birthplace, and far more famous today than he was during his previous visit, Banksy recently returned to Bethlehem in order to paint, exhibit, sell, donate and mainly to challenge. His presence in the city can be felt immediately after one crosses the checkpoint. Even before you see the rat holding the slingshot, which he sprayed beneath the IDF watchtower.

Banksy has created a small tourist industry in Bethlehem that is devoted to him alone. Taxi drivers offer tourists "a tour in the footsteps of the mysterious artist" for $100. It begins with stops alongside every one of the new paintings Banksy and his friends left in the city and on the wall separating it from Israel, continues with collecting first-, second- and third-hand testimony from people who saw or may have seen the maestro in action, and ends with a visit to the gallery, where his works are sold for astronomical sums.

One night Banksy painted a white dove of peace wearing a flak jacket on the wall of a shop about 500 meters from the separation fence. "I saw him and another two of his friends working on the painting in the middle of the night," says an excited taxi driver who asked to remain anonymous. "He told one woman who asked him what he was doing that he was dedicating the painting to the Palestinian people. Here, they placed their spotlight here."

The salesman in the shop on whose exterior wall the dove was painted is less enthusiastic. "There is no beauty in this work," he declares in Hebrew. "Without peace there is no beauty. Everything is nonsense and I understand that even though Banksy received permission from the landlady to paint the wall, she wants to erase the flak jacket and leave only the white dove."

Down the road, graffiti that looks almost photo-realistic from afar, were it not so strange, depicts a girl in a pink dress carrying out a body search on an IDF soldier with his face to the wall, his arms raised and his weapon disassembled at his feet. "Nobody knows about this graffiti," the taxi driver proudly declares before we continue to the separation fence and from there to the square of the Church of the Nativity.

When we arrive at the gallery, temporarily named "Santa's Ghetto," a young Englishman is signing a form. His name is Andy, he's a 28-year-old music producer and he took the costly trip to the West Bank with the hope of being able to purchase an original Banksy. The entire length of his stay: 36 hours. "I heard about the exhibit and the sale on Banksy's [Internet] forum," he says. "I landed this morning and came straight from the airport. I like his works because he's clever. He makes fun of everything."

He submitted an offer to purchase a numbered Banksy print with the starting price of $3,500, one of the exhibit's cheaper items. "To tell you the truth, that's one of the only works here that I can afford," Andy says, examining a statue by Banksy - a baby angel whose chest is split by a big rock. The starting price: $130,000.

Fifteen tiny IDF watchtowers, carved from olive wood from a mold designed by Banksy, and covered with various materials, have a starting price of $3,500 per unit. There is already an offer of $16,000 for one of them. The starting price for a steel plate, on which a rat with a slingshot is sprayed, is $125,000. And the gallery is asking for a starting price of $175,000 for a model of Bethlehem carved from wood created by Palestinian artist Tawfiq Bishara Salsaa, to which watchtowers by Banksy were added. Without Banksy's addition, says Samir Abu Zuluf, who works at the gallery, the work would cost a mere $45,000.

Andy is not the only tourist who came to Bethlehem purely to try his luck at buying a Banksy. Art-loving tourists and professional collectors from all over the world have been coming to Bethlehem since the opening of the exhibit on December 4. The organizers believe that the stream of visitors will increase before the exhibit closes on Christmas Eve.

The rules set by Banksy are strict: In order to purchase a work of art the purchasers will have to come on their own to the gallery and make their bid. Agents or curators coming on behalf of clients will not be welcome - this is why Abu Zuluf says there is talk of a visit by Angelina Jolie and David Beckham. Even when a particular bid is accepted, the purchaser will not receive the work immediately. The paintings, statues and engravings will be sent to the artists, who will sign them. Only then will the works be shipped to their new owners.

"This year we wanted to attract attention to this place - the place where Jesus was born - and to the situation here, and to make people visit, because people don't think of visiting Palestine except for religious reasons. There is no possibility of purchasing the works online," says Tristan Manco of Pictures on Walls, the only company that sells Banksy's works. All the income from the project, which the organizers hope will exceed half a million dollars, will be donated to a fund for Palestinian children.

Manco, who claims he has never met Banksy, believes that art should communicate with the environment in which it is displayed. He believes that the local population appreciates the project and identifies with it, but when I tell him that there are people who were insulted by the picture of the soldier and the donkey, and about Kanawati's plans to try to cut the wall on which they were sprayed, he gets angry. "I may be able to understand it, but we hope that what was painted on the walls will last. In England people also tried to sell entire walls, and I think that's idiotic. I think that it looks great where it is," he says.

Palestinian artist Suleiman Mansour, whose works are also on exhibit in the gallery, praises Banksy, "whose work comes from the heart," but says he thinks some of the works of the mysterious British artist are insulting. "I'm also not particularly fond of the use of rats to represent the Palestinians under occupation," he says. "I think there is some interest in what is happening here to the local population. But in the final analysis, this exhibit speaks mainly to tourists and Westerners and to the foreign media."

Judging from a stay in Bethlehem, it looks as though the local population is far more preoccupied with the difficulties of everyday life than with the anti-war message of Banks and Co. It is almost solely foreigners who stop alongside the murals in the street, while the locals pass them by indifferently, and the only ones filling the gallery are tourists, collectors and foreign film crews. The residents of Bethlehem are only trying to exploit the strange situation to make a shekel here and there.

Portrait of the artist

Our taxi driver also identified such an opportunity. He proudly says that by stealth he got hold of a picture of Banksy taken by his friend, a local tour guide, who didn't know whom he was photographing. "The group he was guiding saw Banksy painting and stopped to have pictures taken with him. My friend connected the camera to my computer to show me pictures, and when I enlarged it I understood that Banksy could clearly be seen in it. I immediately transferred the picture to the computer and erased it from his memory card. A journalist has already offered me $5,000 for it, but a British acquaintance of mine said that if I wait I'll be able to sell it for $10,000," he says. Maybe that's not exactly what Banksy had in mind when he wanted to instill some holiday spirit in Bethlehem. And maybe it was. In any case, there's nobody to ask.