Genesis of the Research

This research into the function of graffiti sprayed on the Israeli Separation Barrier (ISB) was and still is an evolutionary process that I believe offers insights into the wider realm of Palestine solidarity activism. However, to understand how the progression of this research has informed my understanding of transnational Palestine activism, it is important to understand the process through which this research developed.

Stenciled graffiti along the Israeli Separation Barrier in Bethlehem (November 2005).

Stenciled ISB graffiti in Bethlehem (November 2005).

In November of 2005, while conducting research concerning the politics of cultural heritage in Israel and Palestine under the auspices of a Boren Graduate Fellowship, I set out with several colleagues to visit Bethlehem where we had heard that the British guerrilla artist Banksy had recently completed a collection of murals on the barrier. This was my first interaction with the graffiti on the barrier and, to be candid, it was superficial at best. My colleagues and I snapped a few photographs of Banksy’s murals that offered a stinging, sardonic critique of Israeli policies and we paid less notice to the smattering of text graffiti that voiced opposition to the occupation, denounced the barrier, and compared the fate of Bethlehem to that of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943.

This experience with the graffiti was, and is, typical; we engaged the graffiti as tourists or gallery patrons who came to take a few photos, soak up the artistry and then retreat back to a café where we would uncritically reflect upon how the murals were clearly acts of popular, nonviolent resistance to the power of the Israeli state, its military and its separation barrier. Such sentiments were taken as givens; there was little or no questioning of who was responsible for the work, what were the messages encoded within the graffiti, who consumed the graffiti, how the Palestinian people perceived the graffiti and whether or not spraying a message or mural necessarily functioned as an act of “resistance”. Too often the studies of graffiti along the ISB mirror this superficial approach to understanding the social, political and cultural dimensions of murals and tagging on the barrier.

Mural produced by British guerrilla artist Banksy in Bethlehem (November 2005).

Mural produced by British guerrilla artist Banksy in Bethlehem (November 2005).

In 2008 I returned for a short visit to Palestine; eager to reconnect with old friends and to explore potential new research topics. It was as I crossed the Israeli checkpoint at Qalandia – a personal rite of initiation for each season of fieldwork in Palestine – that I noticed a dramatic increase in the amount of graffiti on the barrier; a barrier that was a distant but impending reality during my first field season in 2004, a fact on the ground in 2005-2006 and now, in 2008, a canvas teeming with murals and graffiti as far as the eye could see.During this brief visit I returned to Bethlehem and Qalandia a few times with the expressed purpose of photographing some of the graffiti and it was during this random collection of samples that I began considering some of the larger questions that would guide this research.

Specifically, I was struck with broad use of English as the language of choice for artists and taggers alike as well as the spatial dimensions of the graffiti whereby it was placed on the interior portions of the barrier and only visible to Palestinian living in the West Bank and international who chose to travel there. Overlaying these particular observations was a broader consideration of whether the graffiti functioned as a form of popular non-violent resistance for Palestinians and/or transnational activists; a question that harkened back to my initial interaction with the graffiti in 2005. By the end of this visit I had decided that during my next field season I would attempt to systematically document the graffiti in the hopes of providing some answers to these questions.

In the summer of 2009 I received a grant from Eastern Washington University to conduct interviews with Israeli and Palestinian activists in cooperative peacebuilding organizations. In my downtime I decided to carry out the graffiti data collection work I envisioned the previous year. Naively, I assumed that I could quickly drop back into Bethlehem and Qalandia, walk a few kilometers of the barrier, snap a hundred or so photographs and have a neat, tidy data set that could quickly be analyzed for evidence towards my questions regarding the function of graffiti as resistance.

I cannot begin to tell you how wrong I was about this.

Over the course of two months, I logged more than 100 hours walking nearly 32 miles of the barrier and amassing 6,588 photographs in order to produce a meticulous record of the graffiti on the barrier as it existed between July and September of 2009. It is important to note that the graffiti on the barrier is constantly evolving – earlier graffiti either fades due to time and exposure to the elements or is subsumed by new texts, images and murals that are regularly added to the barrier. The set of images collected during this fieldwork are from a variety of locations throughout the West Bank, including Tulkarem, Qalqilya, Qalandia, Ar-Ram, Anata and Bethlehem, and accounts for more than 85% of the concrete portions of the Israeli Separation Barrier. It is anticipated that the total number of texts, images and murals from these photographs will number in the tens of thousands.

After transcribing, translating and coding a representative sample of graffiti collected during the 2009 field season, it became clear that the transnational-produced graffiti was qualitatively different from the graffiti scrawled across the courtyard walls in Palestinian residential areas. That graffiti, produced almost exclusively by Palestinian youth, is generally in Arabic and emphasizes messages less overtly political and less centered on the Israeli Separation Barrier as a violation of human rights. In order to clarify the differences between the graffiti found in Palestinian villages with that found on the ISB, I returned to Palestine during the summer of 2011, under the auspices of an-Najah University, to collect a representative sample of graffiti from Palestinian villages and residential areas.

The purpose of analyzing this data is to offer insights into 1) the broad narratives constructed through graffiti on the barrier; 2) the function of graffiti within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; 3) how international activists participate in the narration, dialogue of and debate surrounding the conflict; and 4) what the current international participation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tells us about the structure, function and activity of increasingly globalized social justice and solidarity networks at work across the world.


Bethlehem Graffiti Gallery

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