Borderline views: Border tourism in Israel, Korea, Germany and India

A VIEW ACROSS near Majdal Shams across the Golan border fence into Syria (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
A VIEW ACROSS near Majdal Shams across the Golan border fence into Syria
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Touring the Demilitarized Border Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, along with a group of border and geopolitics scholars, is a bit like a visit to a border Disney World. Visits to the area have to be arranged and coordinated well in advance, while the choreographed trip is taken over, especially in the Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmujom, by the United Nations Forces, some of whom have clearly been trained as tourist guides rather than a fighting force.
Visitors are allowed to step inside the room where the treaty was signed and where South and North Korean soldiers stand upright facing each other without blinking an eyelid, but one is not allowed to cross the mid point of the room. What is reputed to be the largest flag in the world is situated in the North Korean side of the DMZ, while visitors are told that they cannot take photos of anything which lies immediately on the other side of the border, for fear (of the North Koreans) that the pictures will be uploaded on Facebook and the world (as though Google hasn’t already discovered this) will find out the lie of the land.
There is a small “duty free” and border souvenir shop, the only place in the Western world where one can purchase a bottle of North Korean beer. The beer is dutifully purchased, and after taking a sip of this insipid liquid, the remainder is poured out on the ground, while the empty bottles are taken home as a unique souvenir.
A visit to the India-Pakistan border at Wagha, near the Sikh holy city of Amritsar in the Punjab, is also a highly choreographed visit. Three times a week crowds gather on either side of the closed gate, cheering and shouting to acquaintances or family members on the other side, as the gates are thrown open and the tall, imposing, border guards carry out what can only be described as ballet without music, as they face each other in a series of threatening movements and actions. One is puzzled by the accuracy and total synchronization of the movements until it is explained that on the days when the area is closed to the public, the gates are opened and the soldiers on each side of the border are put through their drill together.
During the past 10 years I have conducted numerous tours of the Israel-Palestine border, constructed as a perceived security barrier between Israel and the West Bank.
Groups of scholars, tourists and, of greatest interest, the diplomatic community have participated in tours of the new border crossing points and, depending on what their governments allow them to do, accompany me on visits of West Bank settlements and Palestinian villages and townships to get a feel for the impact of the border on daily life practices of people living in close proximity to the fence and who have to encounter and negotiate it on a daily basis.
There is no planned choreography in this case, but an arranged visit to the border crossing point (of which there are five along the course of the separation barrier) such as the one just three kilometers from my home in Metar, at five in the morning, when thousands of Palestinians cross the border to work inside Israel, is an eye opener.
Documents are checked, packages are searched, while cars have to be left on the West Bank side of the border, as workers are picked up by a fleet of Israeli buses and minivans waiting for them on the Israeli side, or as the trucks and lorries carrying goods from the Israeli side are checked, and their contents usually transferred to Palestinian trucks (at a great waste of time and cost) to take them on to their destination.
For Israelis, tourists and foreign diplomats, the Israel-Palestine border is fairly easy to cross, although this is not the case for the Palestinians, who can only enter Israel if they have a legitimate work permit, which requires a great deal of bureaucracy, security checks and not a few bribes to be paid to the agents on behalf of some of the Israeli employers.
An informal Palestinian economy has grown up around these crossing points, providing food and drink to those often forced to wait for hours before being allowed to cross, or wait to pick up their family members who are returning from Israel after a hard day’s work.
But it is still a great attraction point for border tourists who, like the visitors to the DMZ in Korea or the Wagha crossing between India and Pakistan, take numerous photos, particularly of the signs which forbid them from taking photos at these self styled “security zones.” There is nothing like a good conflict to attract the inquisitive visitor, and it often amuses me how few Israelis actually visit or cross the border into the West Bank because, as locals who face the conflict on a daily basis, they have a far greater sense of insecurity than do the foreign visitors.
Visitors display a particular interest in the “holes” in the fence which are tolerated by the Israeli military, as a means of providing a breathing space for some people who do not have the necessary documents but are enabled to cross the fence for purposes of work or for transporting small amounts of goods which may not otherwise have been permitted at the formal crossing point. This is also highly choreographed. A car or mini van suddenly draws up on the Israeli side, one of the passengers uses his mobile phone to call his brother/friend/taxi driver on the other side, and within the space of two minutes they run across the open fence and disappear quickly into the cars which have suddenly turned up on the other side, often under the watchful, but non-interventionist eye of the army jeeps. The soldiers are more often interested in the identity of the visitors documenting and filming the border theater, although they rarely prevent the “tour” from continuing.
Given the spurt of terrorist attacks in the past few weeks, the open “hole” policy has once again come under scrutiny.
Some security officials argue that this remains a point of entry into Israel for terrorists, and that the holes should be sealed permanently. Others are still of the opinion that the benefits – to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority – of leaving them open still outweigh the potential threat of a terrorist crossing at these points, especially as it has not been proved that this is the point of entry for those intent on undertaking violent activities.
It is not only the closed and sealed borders which are of interest to border tourists. Borders which used to exist but which have been removed are also a great attraction.
Visit the Disney World of Checkpoint Charlie, or the sections of the Berlin Wall which have been left standing (full of border graffiti which is replaced every few years as new artists demand their space on the wall) as a reminder of what was, but is no more. The same is true of isolated border posts throughout Western Europe, which have proved to be a great attraction to visiting American and Japanese tourists, also enabling the creation of a local informal souvenir industry, raking in tourist dollars and a new place for the respective tourism ministries to add to their list of attractions.
For people of my generation, for whom the Cold War, the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall were a central part of the political world in which we grew up, it is difficult to comprehend that next month we will commemorate 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Three years from now, the Berlin Wall will have been removed for as long as it was in existence (from 1961-1989). Without the museum at Checkpoint Charlie or the few remaining bits of wall, it will soon have disappeared into distant memory, and one wonders whether it will even have a footnote in the history texts which are written a hundred years from now.
Walking through the streets of Seoul one encounters a museum just south of the Gyeongbokgung Palace, the facade of which is decorated by a mock Brandenburg Gate and which is aimed at comparing the former Berlin Wall and the division of Germany to the present border between North and South Korea.
There are also five pieces of the original Berlin Wall in Uijeongbu, South Korea, 30 kilometres from the North Korean border, a symbol of the hope that the two countries may one day be peacefully united. The obsession in Korea with the North-South Korea divide is no less intense than is our own daily concern with the Israel-Palestine conflict – perhaps even more so if that is possible to imagine.
While Koreans seek unification as a form of conflict resolution, most Israelis understand that only separation between the two peoples will result in any form of conflict resolution. Unlike Korea and Germany where a single nation was divided into two, the separation barrier/ border between Israel and the West Bank reflects the fact that (Wesr Bank settlements aside) this is a border which separates two very different peoples and cultures who, at the end of the day, do not want to live together.
They desire separation rather than unification.
If and when there ever is the creation of two states, the border will remain – be it a closed and sealed border preventing movement from one side to the other, or hopefully an open border which allows full and free movement (perhaps even residency) on both sides of a line without fences or walls or guard posts – whose main purpose is to define citizenship and sovereignty, rather than security and safety. Either way it will remain a place for the border tourists to visit, to take photos and to buy new political souvenirs, reflecting a conflict that existed in the past (as in Berlin) rather than one that continues to reflect the animosity, tensions, violence and hatred which we are experiencing yet again on an almost daily basis and which proves that walls and fences do not provide the solution to the problem.
The writer, dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences and professorial chairman of geopolitics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The views expressed are his alone.