Israel's Great Wall

How do China's Great Wall and the Berlin Wall compare to the security fence being built on Israel's West Bank?

November 17, 2003

How do China's Great Wall and the Berlin Wall compare to the security fence being built on Israel's West Bank?

The security fence being constructed by the Israeli government, which roughly traces the lines of the country's pre-1967 borders, bears an uncanny resemblance to the infamous Berlin Wall, built by the East German government in 1961.

Like in the case of East Germany, it is an elaborate complex. It is much more than merely a fence. It was created for the purpose of tracking and eliminating infiltrators into Israel. And while the Berlin Wall on average was 11.8 feet high, in Israel's case it is 137% taller — reaching 28 feet in some places.

It will have ditches, sections of barbed wire barriers and no-man zones, and will be supplied with electronic sensors. Hence the huge cost, measuring about $1 million per kilometer. Based on current planning, it is expected to be 400 miles long.

The security fence will also be surrounded by unpaved roads, on which footprints of those who come close will be clearly visible. Such dirt roads were a feature of the heavily fortified border between Eastern and Western Germany, which cut right through the middle of the divided country.

Technical aspects aside, there is a key difference, of course. The East German government built the Berlin Wall to keep its own oppressed population at home. It simply could not claim any real legitimacy as long as its own population kept slipping away by the thousands into West Berlin.

But Israel is a democracy, and its own citizens are free to come and go as they wish. And, unlike the former German Democratic Republic, Israel does not have a problem of insufficient patriotism. If anything, it probably has too much of it — especially among the armed settlers.

Since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's security fence is meant to keep outsiders out, its function is more similar to another great wall in history — the one built by China, which even today remains one of the wonders of the world.

The Great Wall of China is the largest man-made structure on Earth — and the only one that is clearly visible from space. According to legend, it was begun as early as the 3rd century B.C., but its largest portions, which are still standing today, were completed under the Ming Dynasty, between in the 14th-17th centuries A.D.

The origins of the Great Wall were, in fact, quite similar to the causes that brought forth the Israeli fence. China had always been bothered by incursions from the north by the Huns and other nomadic tribes inhabiting what is now southeastern Russia and the former Soviet republics.

The Chinese, too, tried pre-emptive strikes and built garrison towns around its northern border. But those, just like Israeli incursions into the West Bank and Palestinian refugee camps, never had much lasting effect. Security for its northern provinces remained a major problem.

Of course, there was another path — that of establishing close ties with the nomads and conducting negotiations. It was tried on several occasions, and seemed a promising solution.

However, the nomads — being barbarians in the eyes of the Chinese — were difficult counterparties to negotiations.

Besides, the rulers of the Middle Kingdom looked down upon their uncivilized neighbors — and treated them accordingly. For this reason, the wall became the only workable solution.

While it did keep the nomads out and reduced incursions into Chinese provinces, some historians believe that the overall impact of the wall on China's security situation was actually negative.

That's because it reduced trade and other contacts with tribes on the other side of the wall. Being nomads, they needed to trade with a settled population. Otherwise, they would be compelled to take what they required by force. As a result, the entire region along the 6,400 kilometer length of the Great Wall remained restive and dangerous.

Throughout late antiquity and the Middle Ages, Europe also suffered from frequent invasions by barbarian tribes. Later, Arabs, Mongols and Turks invaded and threatened major European cities in the East and South of the continent.

Yet, the Europeans, while suffering from those invasions, nonetheless remained open to the influences of those invaders — often for the benefit of their own civilization.

For example, after around 1000 A.D., Western Europe made great cultural strides by maintaining contact with the Arab kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula. They had a more advanced civilization than early Modern France and Italy. In fact, the first impetus for the Renaissance came as a result of contact with Muslim cultures.

The result has been the dramatic development of Europe over the past 500 years or so. China and Europe entered modern history as roughly equal technologically — and in some areas, China even held an undisputed edge.

But the Middle Kingdom remained closed in upon itself — the state of mind that was perfectly exemplified by the Great Wall. And, by the time the 19th century came along, China had stagnated and had fallen far behind Europe in all aspects of technology and military prowess.

In the end, both new technology and new ideas did penetrate into China — but they came from the east, as those European "barbarians" circumnavigated the wall and appeared on China's doorstep from the sea.

And by then, "backward" China was in no position to resist.

The story of the Great Wall could probably provide a warning to the Israelis — especially since in the modern world openness and open-mindedness provide a major advantage in the global economic and cultural competition.