The remnants of the wall that divided Berlin between 1961 to 1989 have become
transformed into one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. Everyone
visits Checkpoint Charlie and the East Side Gallery – a stretch of the wall
which has been adorned with political paintings and graffiti by artists
throughout the world.
The wall that divides large parts of Jerusalem, and
which has been constructed during the past 10 years, also attracts many visitors
and tourists – unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons. Whereas most of
the world has been pulling their walls down during the past 20 years, Israel has
constructed a new concrete scar.
Walls are built to exclude someone or
something. In Berlin, the wall was constructed as a means of preventing
the migration of refugees seeking to escape the “socialist utopia” of Soviet-
controlled East Germany to the “evils” of the capitalist west.
case of the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank, the wall has
been constructed in the middle of dense urban areas (such as Jerusalem, Kfar
Saba – Kalkilya, and Baka al-Gharbiya) as a means of restricting the
movement of Palestinians into Israel, for the fear that they will import terror
The Berlin Wall, during its almost 30 years of existence, was
fortified by large slabs of ugly concrete, guard towers from which a anyone
attempting to cross the line of separation would be ruthlessly shot and killed.
Many tried to escape from east to west, hidden in hollow compartments in cars,
through secret tunnels or simply by attempting a sudden sprint from one side to
Like its Berlin predecessor, the separation barrier between
Israel and the West Bank has a limited number of crossing points, at which those
forbidden from crossing are checked to ensure that they have the correct
documents. Unlike the Berlin Wall, where crossing points were closely
guarded by armed soldiers with orders to kill, the crossing points in Israel
have been franchised out by the Ministry of Defense to semi-private security
firms who operate according the strict guidelines of the military
In divided Germany, West Germans could visit their relatives
in the East under very strict conditions and surveillance, but East Germans
could not cross into the West unless they were part of official cultural or
sports delegations, in which case many of them defected and chose to remain in
Along the Israel – West Bank divide, Israeli citizens (Jewish
or Arab) are free to cross in any direction, as though the wall was invisible,
while Palestinians are unable to cross unless they have a valid work permit.
Even then they are no longer allowed to remain inside Israel overnight. Many
Palestinians can no longer access their places of employment in Jerusalem, and
there have been many cases of women who have been denied entry to Israel to seek
medical treatment or to give birth.
TWENTY YEARS after the fall of the
Berlin Wall it remains a major theme in the rich, and sad, political history of
that city. Its remnants have been memorialized, its former location has been
marked on city sidewalks, a new museum is being constructed in the area of
Checkpoint Charlie and there is hardly a tourist site or book which does not
mention the Wall in almost every context of city life. Beyond the lessons
of history, the Wall has proven to be a great money spinner.
For those of
us who grew up during the Cold War, the division of Europe and the physical
separation of Germany into two entities remains a major political theme within
our consciousness. Nothing epitomizes that separation more than the physical
division of a single city – Berlin – into two entities.
We are liable to
forget that the division of Europe lasted for little more than 45 years, while
the Berlin Wall was in existence for only 29 years, from 1961-1989. The wall has
been gone for almost as long as it existed, yet it remains an event of such
proportion within the national history books and collective memories, that it is
as though it existed for centuries.
The initial division of Israel from
the West Bank lasted no more than nineteen years, from 1949-1967. We often
forget that more than twice as much time has passed since the conquering of the
West Bank and the so called “erasure” of the Green Line in 1967, than the period
in which it existed prior to the Six Day War. But the administrative division of
these two distinct territorial entities has remained in existence for the entire
60-plus years of Israel’s existence.
True, there was a period of
approximately 20 years from 1967 – 1987 (when the first intifada broke out) when
there was no border fence, no official crossing points and when both
Palestinians and Israelis moved freely in both directions for the purposes of
work, but not for residence inside Israel.
For the Arab-Palestinian
population of the country, the impact of the division between 1949-1967, and to
a lesser extent the reimposition of the physical barrier during the past decade,
is similar to the impact of the Berlin Wall on the German population.
single people, speaking the same language, with the same customs and cultural
norms, but separated by a politically constructed wall, on each side of which
the political regime, the economic system and the social and educational norms
have given rise to the emergence of separate societies.
I return from a
visit to Berlin, not for the first time, with many questions concerning our own
wall and separation fence. How long will it take for this artificial barrier to
eventually be removed? And if, and when, it is eventually erased, will it signal
the end to artificial separation between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean
Sea, or will it signal the emergence of two states, in which Arabs sharing the
same culture and history will be citizens of two separate states – one in which
they are the majority under Palestinian sovereignty, and the other in which they
continue to be a 20 percent minority under Israeli sovereignty?
How long will it
take for our generation and that of our children to forget the Wall and the
barrier? And what sort of memorials and remembrances will we put up along the
course of the border to remind us of the political absurdities of
ethno-territorial conflict, and the desire to keep the “other” out?
The wall in
Jerusalem and the fence along other parts of the West Bank divide have already
become a tourist attraction for groups of visiting politicians, diplomats,
academics and other travelers. Walls have a fascination, especially for those
coming from free and open societies. Either we will eventually forget the wall
altogether, or at the very least the sort of tourism that it will attract will
be the type which now visits Berlin as a historical curiosity and as part of a
peaceful and open society.The writer is professor of political geography
and dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion
University of the Negev. The views expressed are his alone.