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Israel: Up Against A Wall?

What does the historical record of walls tell us about Israel's new construction along the "Green Line?"

July 11, 2002

What does the historical record of walls tell us about Israel's new construction along the "Green Line?"

History is filled with walls. Walls built to repel invading armies. Walls erected to divide warring neighbors. Walls designed to imprison the people of a nation-state. The Berlin Wall (1961-1989) is perhaps only the most notorious of such walls.

As for the security wall/fence Israel is currently constructing along the West Bank, its place in history will be defined according to which side of it one lives on.

Israelis, no doubt, will feel more secure from Palestinian suicide bombers. Palestinians will feel the economic cost — as employment opportunities and commercial traffic are reduced by the new barrier.

Both sides should be concerned by the longer term implications of the wall. An arbitrary line in the earth and rock of the West Bank could become a lasting political boundary. It represents a fait accompli facing Palestinians — and an uncertain future for many Jewish settlers living on the wrong side of the new divide.

If you look back in history, you find that every wall built is a response to a perceived threat — or at least concern. The Tijuana Wall that runs for 47 miles along the United States-Mexico border near San Diego was constructed to provide an impassable barrier to drug smugglers as well as undocumented aliens.

However, the rest of the U.S. border with Mexico is made largely of chain link fences and other obstacles. And no one on either side of the frontier claims that it is "impassable". But then, that is the story of most every wall that money — and ingenuity — have built.

The Great Wall of China was one of the largest construction projects ever, nearly 4,000 miles long — and centuries in the making.

It reached from China's northeastern coastline into Central Asia to provide a defense for the prosperous Middle Kingdom against the nomadic tribes to the north and west.

The Maginot Line that was built by France on its border with Germany, following World War I, was more than a wall.

A vast complex of bunkers and underground fortifications, it was deemed to be impregnable. German generals agreed, and in 1940 they marched their armies around the Maginot line, through Belgium, and into France.

In Northern Ireland, the walls separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods did little to diminish the terrorism committed by both communities.

Even the Berlin Wall and the mined death strips communist East Germany built along its entire border with the West were not "fail-safe".

In the nearly 30 years of that wall's existence, some 5,000 East Germans were able to penetrate it and escape to the West.

The old cliché about "good fences making good neighbors" may be true, but only in situations where the neighbors are happy to remain peacefully on their side of the fence.

But the Middle East is not peaceful, middle-class suburbia. From Berlin to Belfast to the West Bank, history has shown that a wall that promises protection (or imprisonment) also challenges human ingenuity to find a way through, around, under or over it.

The story of all these walls is that what goes up eventually… and inevitably… comes down. Or, it becomes irrelevant as time passes, attitudes change, reason triumphs and people learn to live together.

In the meantime, we wait and watch … as another wall goes up.