The symposium, organized by the Center for Intelligence Community (MALAM) just before Passover, was a fascinating insight into the history of borders in general, and Israel’s borders in particular. The event was held to mark the publication of a new book, International Boundary Making, by the International Federation of Surveyors. The book was edited by Haim Srebo, for many years the director general of National Survey and Mapping Department in Israel and whose signature is to be found on most of the official maps which Israel has signed as part of peace agreements (with Egypt and Jordan) and other interim agreements concerning land and maritime boundaries.
Contributors to this fascinating collection of international case studies included the director-generals of the mapping departments in New Zealand and Nepal, as well as the head of the United Nations Cartographic section.
The speakers at the event included Israel prize recipient Professor Moshe Brawer, known throughout Israel for his atlases, which generations of children, students and politicians, diplomats and army officers have grown up on. He belied his age of 94 by delivering a 40-minute lecture, without notes, presenting a masterly overview of the geographical factors influencing the demarcation of world borders, past and present.
Anecdotal material, no longer secret, from the Israel-Egypt and Israel-Jordan negotiations were presented, along with the many factors which continue to affect the complex negotiations aimed at reaching a final border line between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
Today’s demarcation techniques are vastly different from those used just 50 years ago. Maps are much more detailed and comprehensive, and the use of sophisticated GIS (Geography Information Systems) techniques enable today’s negotiators to simulate many alternative locations for the border line. The impact of different lines on a wide range of factors – settlements, demography, roads, water aquifers, strategic considerations – can be evaluated at the micro scale, allowing for detailed trade-offs between any two sides engaged in bilateral negotiations.
The study of borders has undergone a major renaissance during the past two decades. This is witnessed by the large number of professional seminars and conferences on the topic, the publication of books and research articles relating to borders, a growth in the number of professional and international organizations, such as the ABS (Association of Borderland Studies), IBRU (the International Boundaries research Unit), BRIT (Border regions in Transition) or ABORNE (African Border Research Network) to name but a few.
There are many international research projects such as the FP7 EUBORDERS project, involving 20 universities throughout Europe (including Israel), the Borders and Globalization project funded by the Canadian Research Council, the RELATE center of academic excellence funded by the Finnish Academy of Science, or the COST Eastbord research network, all of which bring border scholars and practitioners together from around the world.
Forthcoming meetings of border scholars and practitioners, in 2014 alone, will take place under the auspices of ABS in Finland in June, BRIT in France and Belgium in November, and the FP7 in Israel in December.
Discussions do not only focus on the demarcation of boundaries, which in most cases is no longer considered to be a major question, given the fact that almost all of the world’s territorial boundaries have long been determined and are rarely the cause for contemporary conflict. The focus has been switched to issues such as the management of boundaries, how borders are crossed, ethical and political dimensions of boundary construction, surveillance techniques along modern borders, and even the ways in which borders are represented on maps, in literature, art and film and on the Internet.
Borders have also become a magnet for tourists – whether they are places of conflict or borders which have ceased to exist.
The heavily fortified border between North and South Korea is as much a tourist attraction as are the new fences and walls which have been created along large parts of the USA-Mexico interface. An almost obligatory part of any visit by tourists, diplomats or politicians visiting Israel is to the separation barrier/border between Israel and the West Bank.
But equally tourists come to see places where borders used to exist and have been removed, especially in Europe along the old east-west divide, nowhere more than in Berlin at Checkpost Charlie where a major tourist industry and museum has grown up at the point of crossing. Some countries have retained their last pieces of border posts, fences or walls (such as in Berlin), around which souvenir shops, museums and photo opportunities have developed to serve the photographic needs of the many Japanese and American visitors.
Twenty years ago many commentators were arguing that we were moving into a borderless world. The opening of borders within the European union, the collapse of borders between the eastern and western blocs, as exemplified by the removal of the Berlin Wall, cyber technologies which allowed information to flow freely beyond borders, along with the flow of global capital, had people believing in the notion of a world without borders.
But this was never the case, even if for many borders were easier to negotiate and to cross. The events of September 11, 2001, have given rise to a new discourse, and to the construction of new walls and fences by countries all over the world. Nowhere is this phenomenon more prominent than along the USA-Mexico border, or between Israel and the West Bank. A recent supplement in the British newspaper The Guardian demonstrated the large number of new walls and fences which have been constructed between states during the past decade, as the “safety of the homeland” (not only against potential terrorists but also against migrants from neighboring, poorer countries) have justified the construction and re-sealing of borders in many parts of the world.
Modern surveillance techniques to detect illegal crossing of borders are much more sophisticated than in the past. Homeland security officials, located in offices far removed from the physical border, are able to detect movement along the border on their digital and computerized systems, and to send instant messages back to the local police.
The location of the border has also shifted to the airports, where rigorous procedures for checking people who wish to enter the country (or leave it) take place even before the traveler has stepped on the plane.
The importance of the border in determining the extent of state territory and the area within which the government can exercise its sovereignty and control remains central to our world, a world within which borders create order in our international system of states.
This is no less important to Israel, where three of our five land boundaries – with Lebanon, Syria and a future Palestinian state – remain to be formally delineated and agreed. If and when this occurs, the agreements will be accompanied by appropriate maps, precisely outlining the course of the border of a state whose borders remain undetermined until today – 66 long years after it came into existence.
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University and editor of Geopolitics. The views expressed in this article are his alone.