security fence graffiti 248 88.
(photo credit: David Newman)
Precisely 20 years ago today, November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Foreseen by no one, the fall of the wall also marked the crumbling of the Soviet empire which, within a few short years, had all but disappeared from the world scene. A new global order emerged, with the US becoming the single dominant world superpower in what had previously been a bipolar world. Germany underwent a quick reunification, while the EU expanded eastward, incorporating countries which had previously been under Soviet influence, opening up and erasing all the intervening borders along the way.
To mark the occasion, Ben-Gurion University is today hosting an international seminar which will look at the impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall on the role of borders and boundaries in the contemporary world. Four of Europe's leading border scholars will discuss the role of borders, walls and fences in today's world, drawing on diverse examples from North America, Europe and, of course, our own backyard in Israel/Palestine.
This is one more meeting in what has been a half year festival of Berlin Wall related conferences which have been taking place throughout the world by border scholars and practitioners - from the ABORNE (African Borders Network) in South Africa, to IBRU (International Boundaries Research Unit) in the UK, to BRIT (Border Regions in Transition) in South America and, just last week, French-speaking scholars at a major international meeting in Montreal.
But the present discussions of borders are very different from those which took place 10 years ago, when we were marking a decade since the collapse of the wall. Fresh from the break-up of the Soviet Union, pre-9/11 and influenced by the arguments of globalization, there was a conviction that we were heading toward a "borderless" world, a world in which the flow of capital and information, as well as the movement of people, from one place to another, was becoming open and free, as the physical restrictions of walls, fences, visas and entry permits were gradually being removed altogether.
It wasn't true at that time; it is even less true today. Borders may have been disappearing in some places, such as in Western Europe or, for a short while, between the US and Mexico, as a result of economic pressures and open markets. But borders continued, even then, to constitute the lines that separate states from each other in a complex international system.
MANY POSSESSING more than one passport or making a living through the Internet and cyberspace may have felt, like today, as citizens of the world with fewer and fewer restrictions on their movement and access to information. But this remains today, as then, the luxury of the few, as millions of people still hardly ever leave the village or region in which they are born, let alone their country.
International migration from poor to rich countries increased significantly during this period, but a combination of economic recession, national xenophobia and racism, the renewed focus on security post 9/11 and a desire to keep "alien threats" outside has also served to make such movement across borders much more difficult in recent years.
The events of 9/11 served to refocus the world's attention on borders. Borders were once again seen as a means through which external threats could be kept out. Nowhere has this been more evident than along the thousands of kilometers separating First World US from Third World Mexico, or closer to home in Israel/Palestine. In both cases, physical walls and fences have been constructed as a means of preventing the influx of "global terrorism" or suicide bombers, regardless of the many other negative social, economic and human rights consequences of enforced and imposed separation between peoples and families.
It doesn't take someone living in Israel to know that absolutely everything can be done when it is in the name of security, even if some of the negative consequences of such actions may, in the long term, outweigh the short-term security benefits.
And in a world in which the gap between the haves and have nots is increasing daily, borders and fences are proving to be a very convenient method of physically separating groups from each other. The borders inside the EU may all have disappeared, but the external Shengen borders which governs movement into the EU from other countries have become even more difficult to cross, as Western European countries try to limit the influx of poor migrants seeking menial employment and a better life.
The economic boom period has been replaced by economic recession and, it is argued, there is no longer a supply of jobs or a demand for labor as in the past. Moreover, the events of 9/11, followed by the bombings in Madrid and London, have made Western governments increasingly suspicious of Third World immigrants, automatically suspecting all of them of harboring terrorist motives simply by virtue of the fact that they are different.
Just over a year ago, at a meeting of border scholars and government practitioners at the University of New Mexico in Las Cruces, a senior official of the US Department of Homeland Security put it to us as follows: "As far as we are concerned in Washington DC, each and every one of a million Mexicans crossing in and out of the US on a weekly basis is a potential terrorist until proven otherwise."
This is reflected in the hundreds of miles of fences, walls and surveillance cameras along the US-Mexican border, assisted by private militias, known as the Minutemen who, in a fit of overzealous patriotism, patrol sections of the border in Texas and Arizona. They even donate money to an "Adopt a Post" project, much in the same way that other organizations adopt sections of highway throughout the country. For as little as $200 you can fund the next few meters of border fence and dedicate the next border post to a loved one, a departed pet or, as is commonly the case, to an individual killed by an "illegal alien."
My colleagues in the US tell me that if they were seeking funds for border-related research projects in the 1990s, they would apply to NAFTA (North America Free Trade Association) or other related organizations interested in making borders more flexible and easier to cross.
Today, these same scholars send their funding applications to the Department of Homeland Security and related security organizations interested in the exact opposite question - how to seal the borders and to make them impenetrable.
THIS IS, of course, all very familiar to us here. We have spent much of the past five years constructing a physical barrier between us and the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. Although depicted throughout the world as a concrete wall, less than 10 percent is actually concrete, but even where there is fence it is an impenetrable barrier of international proportions, with electronic surveillance, border crossing points and electrified fencing which none can cross.
I often travel from Beersheba to Jerusalem via the West Bank and the Hebron bypass road. During the course of my journey, which shortens the route from 130 kilometers (via Kiryat Gat) to only 75 kilometers (via Hebron and Gush Etzion), I have to pass through two strongly fortified and patrolled boundaries at Metar and south of the Jerusalem tunnels, show documents and speak in Hebrew to prove I am not a security threat.
In the other direction, no Palestinians are allowed to cross the border, while even the few who have permits to work in Israel have to leave their cars on their side of the boundary and either walk to their places of work or wait for their employer to pick them up.
This border simply did not exist five years ago. The government argues that it was constructed only as a security measure, but to all effects it is an international border, constructed by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert which, with some possible changes to its route will, sooner or later, become the international boundary between independent Israeli and Palestinian states. It must surely be one of the strangest cases in history where the border is up and running long before the political agreement is in place.
The US-Mexico border, the outer borders of the EU, the wall separating Israel/Palestine - the walls and fences are here to stay for the foreseeable future. They won't be disappearing any time soon.
The Berlin Wall only existed for 29 years but for many of us it was a defining story of our entire lives. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a momentous event in our contemporary history, but it did not, as many of us hoped, signify the disappearance of borders, fences and walls. As Robert Frost said in his famous poem, good fences make (for) good neighbors - and even if they do not make for good neighbors, they continue to constitute the lines which separate us from each other.
The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. He has convened today's international seminar on 20 Years since the Fall of the Berlin Wall.