A long-lost painting by British graffiti artist Banksy has surfaced in an art gallery in central Tel Aviv, an hour away and a world away from the concrete wall in the occupied West Bank where it was initially sprayed.
The move of the painting, which depicts a cat with a slingshot and was probably intended to protest the Israeli occupation of the area, raises ethical questions about removing artworks from occupied territory.
The painting initially appeared near Israel’s separation wall in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem and was one of several works secretly created around 2007.
Banksy’s signature absurdist and dystopian imagery was used to protest Israel’s decades-long occupation of areas Palestinians want for a future state.
It is now located in the Urban Gallery in the heart of Tel Aviv’s financial district, surrounded by glass and steel skyscrapers.
Israeli art dealer Koby Abergel, who bought the painting, said the gallery simply displays the work and leaves the interpretation to others.
“We took it to Tel Aviv’s main street to show it to the public and to display its messages,” he said.
Abergel said the cracks and scratches in the concrete served as “a fingerprint” that showed it was the same piece that appeared on the artist’s website.
He said he bought the concrete slab from a Palestinian employee in Bethlehem, but declined to reveal how much he paid for it.
The 70-kilometer journey it made from the West Bank to Tel Aviv is shrouded in mystery.
The concrete slab, which weighs about 400 kilograms, is said to have passed through Israel’s serpentine barrier and at least one military checkpoint.
The graffiti artwork was sprayed onto a concrete block that was part of an abandoned Israeli army position in Bethlehem, next to a high concrete section of the dividing wall.
Some time later, the painting itself was subjected to graffiti by someone who obscured the painting and scribbled “RIP Bansky Rat” on the block.
Mr Abergel said Palestinian residents cut out the painting and kept it in private homes until earlier this year.
He said moving the work involved delicate negotiations with his Palestinian collaborator and careful restoration to remove the acrylic paint sprayed over Banksy’s work.
The solid block was then enclosed in a steel frame so that it could be lifted onto a flatbed trailer and rolled 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.
Israel controls all access to the West Bank and Palestinians require Israeli permits to enter or exit and to import and export goods.
Even when traveling within the West Bank, they can be stopped and searched by Israeli soldiers at any time.
Israeli citizens, including Jewish settlers, can travel freely in and out of the 60 percent of the West Bank that is under complete Israeli control.
Israel forbids its citizens to enter Palestinian Authority-controlled areas for security reasons, but the ban is rarely enforced.
The Palestinians have spent decades seeking an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War.
The peace process came to a halt more than 10 years ago.
Mr Abergel said the artwork’s move had not been coordinated with the Israeli military and his Palestinian associates were responsible for the move to Israel.
He said he had no intention of selling the piece.
Painting ‘theft of property belonging to the Palestinian people’
According to the international treaty on cultural property that Israel has signed, the occupying powers must prevent the removal of cultural property from the occupied territories.
It remains unclear exactly how the 1954 Hague Convention would apply in this case.
Palestinian Tourism Ministry spokesman Jeries Qumsieh said it was a “theft of property belonging to the Palestinian people”.
“These were paintings by an international artist for Bethlehem, for Palestine and for visitors to Bethlehem and Palestine,” he said.
“Transferring, manipulating and stealing them is definitely an illegal act.”
The Israeli military and COGAT, the body of Israel’s Defense Ministry responsible for coordinating civilian affairs with the Palestinians, said they had no knowledge of the artwork or its movement.
Banksy has created numerous works of art in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in recent years and has designed a guest house in Bethlehem that is full of his artwork.
A Banksy spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
It is not the first time that the street artist’s work has been lifted from the West Bank.
In 2008, two other paintings were removed from the walls of a bus shelter and butcher’s shop in Bethlehem.
They were eventually bought by galleries in the United States and Great Britain, where they were exhibited in 2011.