Few things are as monumentally ugly as the Israeli separation wall on Jerusalem's edge. For miles and miles, it runs along stony hills and across valleys terraced with olive trees, cutting through towns and fields, cleaving families from their homes, farmers from their land. Its concrete slabs are more than 20 ft. high and crowned with coils of razor wire; the wind seems to blow every stray plastic bag in the Holy Land into its cold shadows. The Palestinians like to say, accurately or not, that the wall can be seen from outer space.
In 2002, Israel started building the barrier--part concrete, part chain-link fence--to prevent suicide bombers crossing over from the West Bank. When it is finished, it will be more than 400 miles long, zigzagging deep into Palestinian territory. But for graffiti artists, all that bare concrete is too great a temptation to resist. Just as Yosemite's El Capitan beckons the bravest of rock climbers, Israel's wall has become the ultimate challenge for members of the global street-art subculture. Banksy, the British guerrilla artist, has already sprayed the wall with a few of his ironic creations (my favorite: a little girl in a pink frock frisking an armed soldier). One artist has written CTRL + ALT + DELETE, as if to reboot decades of Israeli-Palestinian mistrust and bloodshed. Another has drawn a giant pair of scissors cutting a hole in the wall along a dotted line.
Thanks to a group of Dutch and Palestinian activists, people can now immortalize their words on the wall without a passport or a can of Krylon. For $40, you can compose a message at www.sendamessage.nl, and a trio of Palestinian graffiti artists will spray your words on the wall and e-mail you a photo as proof. The only restriction: no messages of hate or anti-Semitism. When I caught up with the artists--Faris Arouri, Yousef Nijim and Raji Najam--Nijim was shooing a herd of goats away from his stencils, which were lying on the ground. "They'll eat anything, even plastic," he said, windmilling his arms as the goats scattered. When the artists' work began last year, Israeli soldiers chased them away but soon realized that letting them paint was likely to cause less fuss than arresting them. I asked the three whether the wall made a greater statement in its original state of ugliness or as a canvas for artistic expression. "To resist something, sometimes you have to interact with it," replied Arouri. "No way you can ignore the wall."
So far, the group has written 850 messages, ranging from the quirky (a falafel recipe) to the anarcho-romantic (JOIN THE RESISTANCE: FALL IN LOVE) to the sardonic (ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE IS NO MATCH FOR NATURAL STUPIDITY). But most are mushy love notes (M.L. LOVES HER FUNKY D). So one of the organizers, Dutch theater director Justus van Oel, decided to up the ante. He commissioned Farid Esack, a South African religious scholar and former antiapartheid activist, to write a 1,998-word letter, in English, to Palestinians urging nonviolent resistance to the Israelis. The work is now being painted in 2-ft.-high letters along a 1.6-mile stretch of wall near Ramallah. The writing will consume more than 400 cans of spray paint and has been paid for by private donations. The South African was chosen, says Van Oel, because "Esack gets beyond the anger. He is a reconciler." The letter, in part, reads: "Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their humiliation? In your land, we are seeing something far more brutal, relentless and inhuman than what we have ever seen under apartheid."
Israelis normally react furiously when comparisons are drawn between their treatment of Palestinians and the behavior of South Africa's racist regime. But this time, does it matter? The writing is on the Palestinian side, and the only Israelis who see it are soldiers patrolling in humvees. And as Van Oel points out, the Israelis aren't the only ones the messages are aimed at. "A Palestinian taxi driver once told me that he likes the writing on the wall, even though he can't read it," he says. "He's reassured that Palestinians haven't been forgotten by the outside world."