Palestinians say West Bank Banksy art was ‘stolen’ as it reappears in Tel Aviv gallery

A long-lost Banksy painting has resurfaced at a luxury art gallery in Tel Aviv, an hour’s drive and a world away from the concrete wall in the occupied West Bank where it was originally spray-painted.

The move of the work, which depicts a rat in a sling, raises questions about the removal of artwork from occupied territory from where it was intended to be displayed.

The painting originally appeared near the separation barrier in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem and was one of several works created secretly by the British graffiti artist around 2007. They used Banksy’s trademark absurd and dystopian imagery to protest the decades-long Israeli occupation of territories the Palestinians want for a future state.

It is now housed in the Urban Gallery in the heart of Tel Aviv’s financial district, surrounded by glass and steel skyscrapers.

“It’s the story of David and Goliath,” said Kobi Abergel, an Israeli art dealer who bought the painting, without elaborating on the analogy. He said the gallery simply displays the work, leaving its interpretation to others.

Associated Press cannot independently confirm the authenticity of the piece, but Abergel said the cracks and scrapes in the concrete serve as a “fingerprint” that proves it’s the same piece on the artist’s website.

The 70-kilometer journey from the West Bank to Tel Aviv is shrouded in secrecy. The 408-kilogram concrete slab had to pass through Israel’s serpentine barrier and at least one military checkpoint — everyday elements of Palestinian life and targets of Banksy’s biting satire.

Abergel, who is a partner in the Tel Aviv gallery, said he bought the concrete slab from a Palestinian associate in Bethlehem. He declined to disclose the amount he paid or the seller, but insisted the deal was legal.

The graffiti artwork was spray-painted on a concrete block that was part of an abandoned Israeli army position in Bethlehem, next to a towering concrete section of the separation barrier.

This is theft of the property of the Palestinian people. These were paintings by an international artist about Bethlehem, about Palestine, and about visitors to Bethlehem and Palestine. So transferring them, manipulating them and stealing them is definitely an illegal act.

Jerris Qumsieh, Palestinian Ministry of Tourism

Some time later, the painting itself was subjected to graffiti by someone who hid it and scrawled “RIP Bansky Rat” on the block. Palestinian residents cut up the painting and kept it in private homes until early this year, Abergel said.

He said the move involved delicate negotiations with his Palestinian collaborator and careful restoration to remove the acrylic paint sprayed on Banksy’s work. The massive block was then encased in a steel frame so it could be lifted onto a flatbed truck and taken through a checkpoint until it arrived in Tel Aviv in the middle of the night.

It was not possible to independently confirm his account of his journey.

The painting of a rat in a sling once stood near Israel's separation barrier and is one of several works created in 2007. AP

The work now sits on an ornately tiled floor, surrounded by other contemporary art. Baruch Kashkas, the owner of the gallery, said the block of about two square meters was so heavy that it had to be brought inside with a crane and could barely be moved from the threshold.

Israel controls all access to the West Bank and Palestinians require Israeli permits to enter or exit and to import and export goods.

Abergel said AP the movement of the work was not coordinated with the Israeli military and that his Palestinian collaborators, whom he declined to name, were responsible for moving it into Israel and passing it through military checkpoints. He said he had no intention of selling the piece.

You have viewed the photo gallery of Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel Guest House in Bethlehem

According to the international treaty on cultural property, which Israel is a signatory to, the occupying power must prevent the export of cultural property from the occupied territories. It remains unclear exactly how the 1954 Hague Convention will apply in this case.

“This is theft of the property of the Palestinian people,” said Jerris Qumsieh, a spokesman for the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism. “These were paintings by an international artist about Bethlehem, about Palestine and about visitors to Bethlehem and Palestine. So transferring them, manipulating them and stealing them is definitely an illegal act.

The Israeli military and the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli Defense Ministry body responsible for coordinating civilian 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 depicting a girl frisking an Israeli soldier, another showing a dove wearing a body armor and a masked protester throwing a bouquet of flowers. He also designed the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, which is filled with his artwork.

A representative for Banksy did not respond to requests for comment from AP.

This isn’t the first time the street artist’s work has been exported from the West Bank. In 2008, two other paintings – wet dog and Stop and look — were removed from the walls of a shed and a slaughterhouse in Bethlehem. They were eventually purchased by galleries in the US and UK, where they were exhibited in 2011.

Abergel says it’s up to viewers to draw their own conclusions about the artwork and its implications.

“We brought it to the main street of Tel Aviv to show it to the public and show its messages,” Abergel said. “He should be happy with that.”

Updated: August 6, 2022, 9:30 a.m

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