It's the perfect union of art, pub and politics: Ever since the start of 2010 World Cup, Joseph Hasboun, owner of "The Wall Steak House" in Bethlehem, has made a tradition of projecting World Cup matches onto Israel's eight-meter-high separation wall.
On the night of June 21, a quiet and breezy Saturday, a small crowd of locals and internationals gathered at the restaurant as the sky went black. A string of flags representing different World Cup teams fluttered off the restaurant's outdoor awning. Relaxed and smiling — and staring at a white painted screen just inches from scrawled messages like "I hate Israel," "Long live the intifada," "Zionists are modern-day nazis" and "We all bleed the same colour" — the crowd watched Argentina whoop Iran and Germany go head-to-head with Ghana.
"We like to come here to watch the game," said Ihab Jaser, 33, a clean-cut Palestinian attorney with a Brazilian flag lighter who was watching the Germany-Ghana match. Along with most of the crowd, Jaser was rooting for Germany. His friend's little boy monkeyed across the restaurant booths as we spoke.
"It's something like civil resistance," Jaser said. "They can put up the wall, but they can't stop us from doing this."
Like any group of soccer fans in any city across the world, he added, "We just like to live and share nice moments with friends."
Even if you don't factor in the novelty of watching a soccer game projected onto such a charged — even iconic — symbol of pain and conflict, this stretch of the separation wall might be the best World Cup viewing spot in the region. In an upgrade from 2010, Hasboun has expanded the screen to about four meters high by five meters wide for the 2014 games.
"It's a beautiful setting, it's outside — and it has some meaning," Hasboun told a news crew that had come to report on the game on Saturday.
(Also key: Compared to 30-to-40 shekel beers at bars screening the World Cup an hour west in Tel Aviv, Israel's modern capital, the beers at The Wall Steak House go for a clean 20 sheks.)
Regulars at the screening told me that the audience is usually much larger — in the dozens, sometimes hundreds. However, the air on Saturday night was a little nippy by summer-in-Palestine standards. And a music festival one mile away, in Bethlehem's Old City, had drawn thousands to celebrate the re-opening of shops along Star Street that had been closed since the last intifada.
But there was another, darker factor affecting turnout. For the past week and a half, all West Bank cities have been under varying states of lockdown by the Israeli army, as soldiers conduct a staggering search for three kidnapped Israeli boys. Almost 500 affiliates of the Palestinian political party Hamas, which Israel believes to be behind the abduction, have been arrested in the sweep. However, it has also had a profound effect on the rest of the West Bank's residents, whose living rooms are being ransacked and whose streets are being blocked by soldiers under orders to find the boys at all costs. (And perhaps stamp out Hamas' presence in the West Bank while they're at it.)
"If they will [continue to] come every night and enter homes, there could be another intifada," said Jaser, who lives about 100 meters from the World Cup screening spot. He spoke of reckless arrests throughout the Dheisha refugee camp in Bethlehem a couple nights before.
Restaurant owner Hasboun said he knew of at least two regular groups of Palestinian soccer fans in nearby villages who hadn't come to Saturday night's screening out of fear they'd get stopped and searched by soldiers.
One group who did come — five German government workers based in Jerusalem — did not wish to be identified because they said they were under strict orders not to enter the West Bank during the raids. But they mentioned that when they attended a game in 2010, the crowd was spilling into the street. "The cars couldn't even pass," said one woman in the group. This year's crowd, she said, was much more sparse.
Even so, in Bethlehem — in contrast to to more pressurized, high-conflict West Bank cities like Ramallah and Hebron — residents have managed to maintain some sense of leisure and community.
Many familiar faces from around town were present at the steak house on Saturday night. A man the others greeted as the "king of shisha" (pictured below with his son) showed up, as well as a pretty Nigerian-Brazilian girl named Sabrina. When I asked Sabrina about the conflict, she said, "I don't think about it. Israel and Palestine? I don't care."
Also present were Hamud "Moodi" Abdalla and Yamen Elabed, the well-known Bethlehem duo that runs "Banksy's Shop," a souvenir stop for everything Banksy located just around the bend. They smoked some shisha and greeted nearly every new tourist posse or Palestinian family that trickled in during the game.
Abdalla, a local graffiti guru, told me that while painting the white rectangle onto which World Cup games are now screened, steak house owner Hasboun had covered up a giant painting of a camel — a piece reportedy done by Spanish street artist Sam3 during the outdoor Santa's Ghetto exhibition in 2007. This had royally pissed off Abdulla, as he makes a living giving tours of Bethlehem's world-famous street art, including nine pieces by Banksy.
(When I asked Hasboun why he hadn't painted the screen a few meters to the left to avoid covering up the camel, he shrugged, pointed to his film projector and said: "The projector was already here.")
It could also be argued has Hasboun created something new and magnificent on the camel's back.
"No one likes the wall," said Elabed, another street-art tour guide in Bethlehem. Yet there is something empowering about reclaiming the region's most infamous barrier as a canvas for the galaxy's most widely enjoyed sport theater.
"It's a very difficult situation," Hasboun explained. "So we're trying to make something from it."
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