BETHLEHEM, West Bank — A little girl with pigtails in a pink dress pats down an Israeli soldier standing spread-eagle against the wall. Down the road, another soldier has stopped a donkey for questioning and is checking its ID.
Nearby, a large rat holding a slingshot appears ready to launch a few stones as he gazes up at Israel's towering concrete wall separating Bethlehem from Israel.
This is "Santa's Ghetto," an ongoing collaborative graffiti project that has evolved into the biggest artistic assault on Israel's separation barrier and the latest hope among Bethlehem's leaders to draw tourists back to this troubled town during the Christmas season.
Led by the enigmatic British artist known as Banksy, painters from around the world are adding works daily to the walls around Bethlehem in an attempt to draw attention to the impact the separation barrier has had on life in the Biblical birthplace of Jesus Christ.
Victor Batarseh, Bethlehem's mayor, sees "Santa's Ghetto" as a chance to help entice tourists back to his city. He's hopeful that more than a half million people will come this year, which is just a fraction of the record 1.2 million who visited in 2000, before a suicide-bombing campaign sparked construction of the barrier, which in the Bethlehem area is a 25-foot-tall concrete wall.
"I hope people will come visit because I don't see how things can change for the citizens of Bethlehem as long as the wall is here," Batarseh said.
"It's excellent artwork," he added.
There's Banksy's silhouette of the soldier questioning the donkey. There's a leg in blue jeans and a sneaker that appears to be smashing through the concrete wall. There's a dove of peace wearing a bulletproof vest with a red sniper's target aimed at its chest.
This week, noted American pop artist Ron English is expected to arrive to transform Bethlehem billboards into new political messages.
Banksy, who has managed to keep his identity a secret even as his popularity has skyrocketed, sees "Santa's Ghetto" as a chance to draw attention to the problems in Bethlehem.
"It would do good if more people came to see the situation here for themselves," Banksy wrote last week in a short text message to The Times of London. "If it is safe enough for a bunch of sissy artists, then it is safe enough for anyone."
The heart of "Santa's Ghetto" is a temporary gallery set up in a shuttered storefront on Manger Square, across from the Church of the Nativity where tradition says Christ was born. On display there, for example, is a large, olivewood carving of the Old City in Jerusalem that shows nearly a dozen drab gray pill-box towers looming over the streets.
The collaborative piece, like everything else in the gallery, is up for sale or auction. The asking price: $175,000. The money, according to Santa's Ghetto organizers, is destined for youth and children's programs in the West Bank.
One bidder in "Santa's Ghetto" already has offered $125,000 for one of Banksy's trademark rats with a slingshot that's painted on a bent metal grate.
The idea for the project evolved out of Banksy's visit to Bethlehem in 2005 when he first used Israel's separation wall as a canvas. Banksy's pieces then included the silhouette of a young girl being carried away by a bouquet of balloons and a piece showing two boys with pails of sand playing in front of what looks like a hole in the wall revealing a tropical beachfront on the other side.
Like the rest of the West Bank, Bethlehem was ravaged by the five-year Palestinian uprising that began in 2000 and saw hundreds of Israelis killed in suicide bombings and thousands of Palestinians killed in military raids.
In 2002, hundreds of Palestinian militants sought refuge in the Church of the Nativity as Israel staged a major military crackdown. Israeli forces surrounded the historic church for 39 days. The standoff came to an end only when dozens of Palestinian militants holed up inside agreed to be deported to the Gaza Strip.
Tourism in Bethlehem came to a virtual halt and has never fully recovered. Now, tourists and Christian pilgrims wishing to visit Bethlehem from Jerusalem must pass through the separation barrier, which Israel credits with helping to eliminate successful suicide bombings. Few West Bank Palestinians are allowed to pass through.
Banksy's initiative has sparked an interesting debate about artwork on the wall.
While some see the art as a form of political protest, others see it as a misguided attempt to transform the wall into something beautiful.
"I don't think they should do work on the wall," said celebrated Palestinian artist Suleiman Mansour. "In some way, artists become attached to their work and won't want the wall to come down."
Still, Mansour has contributed to the Santa's Ghetto gallery — a new version of his famous painting showing an elderly farmer carrying the Old City of Jerusalem on his back. The original was purchased in 1973 by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and was destroyed when U.S. jet fighters bombed Tripoli in 1986 in retaliation for the bombing of a German disco that killed an American soldier.
The recreated piece is on sale in "Santa's Ghetto" for half a million dollars.
ON THE WEB
The Santa's Ghetto Web site.
Examples of Banksy's other works.
Read more of Dion Nissenbaum's Middle East reporting at Checkpoint Jerusalem.