JERUSALEM, Dec. 21, 2007 -- It seems that in Bethlehem, wherever there are walls there is graffiti. It was true in Berlin and now it is also true here, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Israel's security barrier in Bethlehem is now complete. It snakes through the northern outskirts of the town, a towering concrete wall more than 20 feet high. It is designed to thwart Palestinian suicide bombers but also to protect Israel's territorial ambitions, including the protection of Rachel's Tomb, an important Jewish shrine in the city.
The wall has cast a shadow over this famous West Bank town but the expanses of gray concrete have also provided graffiti artists with an irresistible blank canvas.
This Christmas a British art company called Pictures on Walls has organized an unusual exhibit called "Santa's Ghetto." Organizers called on some of the world's most famous graffiti artists to come to Bethlehem and leave their mark on the wall.
From the group's Web site comes this statement: "We would like to make it clear "Santa's Ghetto" is not allied to any race, creed, religion, political organization or lobby group ... .the only thing we'll say on behalf of our artists is that we don't speak on behalf of our artists."
Foremost among those artists is the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel of the pop art world, British artist Banksy. He's been to Bethlehem before, painting a series of ironic images protesting the wall, including a picture of children looking through an imaginary hole to a tropical beach scene.
Earlier this month he came back. He was only on the ground for a few days, sometimes even working at night away from the glare of publicity, and then he disappeared leaving behind several examples of his artistic protest.
One of his latest works lies within range of an Israel watchtower, a dove wearing a flak jacket, with a sniper's site painted on its breast.
Just down the street is the picture of an Israeli soldier being frisked by a little girl in a pink dress.
Near Manger Square, he left a picture that angered locals; an Israeli soldier checking the papers of a donkey. Local Palestinians took exception to their portrayal as a donkey, and by the time I arrived in Bethlehem the picture had been blanked out with white paint.
We met up with U.S. artist Ron English, another one of the leading figures in the graffiti world, who is also taking part in this year's event.
"We're just artists. I mean, you can do nothing and think you have no power, or do something and then find out you have no power!" he told me, "I'd rather do something and find out I don't have any power, rather than do nothing and wonder."
Out by the wall, one of English's new works shows the red-and-white stripes of the American flag, with a child carrying an M16. English, along with the other artists is clear in his opposition to the wall: "I think the wall kind of represents the end of imagination. " It's like we've run out of ideas, so we'll build a wall," he said.
Inside the exhibit, copies of the artist's pictures are being auctioned to raise money for local charities. Buyers have to place their bids in person, and the prices are high. A copy of Banksy's picture of the dove has already attracted bids of $200,000. A series of olive wood replicas of Israeli watchtowers is also attracting big money, with bids of $15,000 coming in for each one of the 12-inch statues. Organizers expect some bids to top $1 million.
On Christmas Eve, the exhibit closes and all the pieces will be shipped back to London before being shipped to the highest bidders. The artworks on the wall will stay behind, as will the wall itself. But there is plenty of it left to paint before next Christmas.