By Ilan Ben Zion and Isaac Scharf | Associated Press
TEL AVIV, Israel — A long-lost painting by British graffiti artist Banksy has resurfaced at a chic art gallery in downtown Tel Aviv, an hour’s drive and worlds away from the concrete wall in the occupied West Bank where it was originally sprayed.
The painting’s relocation – which depicts a rat armed with a slingshot and was likely intended to protest Israeli occupation – raises ethical questions about removing artworks from occupied territories and displaying such politically charged pieces in radically different settings than where they were found are created.
The painting originally appeared near the Israeli separation barrier in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem and was one of several works created in secret around 2007. They used Banksy’s signature absurd and dystopian imagery to protest Israel’s decades-long occupation of areas the Palestinians want to see in the future.
It now resides in the Urban Gallery in the heart of Tel Aviv’s financial district, surrounded by glass and steel skyscrapers.
“This is the story of David and Goliath,” said Koby Abergel, an Israeli art dealer who bought the painting without going into the analogy. He said the gallery is simply exhibiting the work and letting others interpret it.
The Associated Press could not independently confirm the piece’s authenticity, but Abergel said the cracks and scratches in the concrete serve as a “fingerprint” proving it’s the same piece that appears on the artist’s website.
The 70-kilometer journey from the West Bank to Tel Aviv is secret. The 900-pound concrete slab should have passed through Israel’s serpentine barrier and at least one military checkpoint – everyday features of Palestinian life and targets of Banksy’s scathing satire.
Abergel, who is a partner of the gallery in Tel Aviv, said he bought the concrete slab from a Palestinian worker in Bethlehem. He declined to disclose the sum he paid or identify the seller, but insisted on the legality of the deal.
The graffiti artwork was sprayed onto a concrete block that formed part of an abandoned Israeli army position in Bethlehem next to a towering concrete section of the Separation Wall.
Some time later, the painting itself was graffitied by someone who covered the painting and scrawled “RIP Bansky Rat” on the block. Palestinian residents cut out the painting and kept it in private homes until earlier this year, Abergel said.
He said the move will involve delicate negotiations with his Palestinian associate and a painstaking restoration to remove the acrylic paint that was sprayed over Banksy’s work. The massive block was then encased in a steel frame so it could be lifted onto a flatbed truck and wheeled through a checkpoint before arriving in Tel Aviv in the middle of the night.
It has not been possible to independently confirm his travelogue.
The piece now stands on an intricately patterned tile floor surrounded by other contemporary art. Baruch Kashkash, the gallery’s owner, said the block, measuring about 2 square meters, was so heavy that it had to be brought inside with a crane and could hardly be moved away from the door.
Israel controls all access to the West Bank, and Palestinians require Israeli permits to enter or exit the country and to import and export goods. Even if they are traveling within the West Bank, they can be stopped and searched by Israeli soldiers at any time.
Israeli citizens, including Jewish settlers, are free to enter and exit the 60% of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli control. Israel bans its citizens from entering areas administered by the Palestinian Authority for security reasons, but this ban is poorly enforced.
The Palestinians have spent decades seeking an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War. The peace process stalled more than 10 years ago.
Abergel said the artwork’s move was not coordinated with the Israeli military and that his Palestinian associates, whose names he declined to identify, were responsible for bringing it into Israel and passing through military checkpoints. He said he has no plans to sell the play.
According to the international treaty on cultural property to which Israel has signed, occupying powers must prevent the removal of cultural property from occupied territories. It remains unclear exactly how the 1954 Hague Convention would apply in this case.
“This is theft of the Palestinian people’s property,” said Jeries Qumsieh, a spokesman for the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism. “These were paintings by an international artist for Bethlehem, for Palestine and for visitors to Bethlehem and Palestine. So transferring, manipulating and stealing them is definitely an illegal act.”
The Israeli military and COGAT, the Israeli Defense Ministry’s body responsible for coordinating civil affairs with the Palestinians, said they had no knowledge of the artwork or its relocation.
Banksy has created numerous artworks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in recent years, including one showing a girl strip-searching an Israeli soldier, another showing a dove wearing a flak jacket and a masked protester hurling a bouquet of flowers . He also designed the “Walled Off Hotel” guest house in Bethlehem, which is filled with his artwork.
A spokesman for Banksy did not respond to requests for comment.
This isn’t the first time the street artist’s work has been lifted from the West Bank. In 2008, two more paintings – “Wet Dog” and “Stop and Search” – were removed from the walls of a bus shelter and butcher shop in Bethlehem. They were eventually purchased by galleries in the United States and the United Kingdom, where they were exhibited in 2011.
Abergel says it is up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions about the artwork and its implications.
“We took it to Tel Aviv’s main street to show it to the audience and show its messages,” Abergel said. “He should be happy with that.”
Sharp reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Areej Hazboun in Jerusalem contributed to this report.