From landscapes of conflict to open borders

Borderline Views: We should be creating our own borderscapes, destroying walls and fences instead of constructing them,

Abu Dis, Jerusalem, security barrier_521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Abu Dis, Jerusalem, security barrier_521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Borderscapes III conference, which took place in Trieste, Italy, last week, was attended by border scholars and political geographers from throughout the world, including Israel. The three-day, intensive conference, arranged by Prof. Ellena Dell’agnese of the University of Milan and a member of the Political Geography Commission of the International Geographic Union, was followed by a four-day field trip to Croatia and Bosnia.
Expertly guided by Croatian professor Mladn Klemenjcic, the trip, focusing on the ethno-territorial conflicts in this region, which just twenty years ago resulted in mass killings, ethnic cleansing and brutality to an extent Europe had not witnessed since the Second World War.
When they meet, border scholars must almost always undergo a series of border crossings – it is part of the anthropological experience which repeats itself at conferences and seminars of this type. Last week, as the group travelled from Northern Italy to Slovenia, Croatia and ultimately to Bosnia-Herzegovina, they went through three sets of borders in one day.
But the experience at each border is completely different.
Driving from Italy to Slovenia, as in most other countries in Western Europe today, one hardly even notices crossing a border, with the unmanned border installations recognizable for what they were, rather than what they are.
From Slovenia into Croatia takes slightly longer, 15 minutes or so, as all passengers are expected to show their passports, as if only to demonstrate that these are different countries.
There were no questions or suspicions raised.
And finally, crossing from Croatia into Bosnia takes slightly longer, as the non-EU country still makes a show of examining the passports and delaying the passage of the bus in order to make some sort of statement concerning the right of entry into its sovereign territory.
A lot of it is pure theater. Not least the halfhour delay at the Bosnian border, just one hour before the final game of the EURO 2012 competition is due to take place, with most of the conference participants, especially those from Italy and Spain, desiring to arrive in time for the beginning of the game. Suddenly, borders become significant barriers again. Perhaps the border police on duty this evening are simply disgruntled at having to work, rather than being at home themselves to see the game.
In Israel we can only be jealous of the relatively peaceful relations which exist between most European countries today. Even in the bitterly contested Balkan countries, one is struck by the economic rejuvenation which has already taken place in such places as Sarajevo and Mostar, even if the scars and memories of what happened just 15-20 years ago are unlikely ever to be forgotten, or forgiven, by those whose families and friends were killed, driven out and effectively disinherited.
Accession to the EU was dependent on the full right of return of those who had fled or been driven out. But while some did return, many chose not to take up this option, either out of fear of becoming an ethnic religious minority again, or because they have started new lives elsewhere and do not wish to be reminded of the events of the past.
Ironically, war tourism has become a big money earner in this area. Thousands of visitors come to stare and take pictures of those houses which have not yet been reconstructed, the bullet holes which remain in the walls of many existing buildings, or the famous – but reconstructed – old bridge in the town of Mostar in Herzegovina – perhaps the single most recognized symbol of war period during the 1990s.
In Israel too, the conflict – past and present – has become a well-oiled part of the tourism itinerary. Sites of past battles, the security barrier around Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the fortified borders with Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, have all become part of the popular tourism itinerary.
It may be ghoulish, but all these countries recognize a money-spinner for what it is.
Perhaps the biggest theater of this kind in the world today are the heavily fortified border zones between North and South Korea, and India and Pakistan near Amritsar, where visitors are taken on official tours.
In Bosnia, the large and impressive Jewish cemetery in Sarajevo, located high above the city, was used by Serbian snipers, resulting in much return fire and the destruction of many gravestones, some of which have now been restored. The site of the last remaining synagogue in Mostar, destroyed in the war, remains untended and desolate, as the 4,000-strong Jewish community of the town left, never to return.
But the Jewish heritage is there for all to see, with Sarajevo in particular having served as a center for Ladino-speaking Sephardi communities in Europe for centuries, ever since their arrival from the Iberian Peninsula in the wake of their expulsion by Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century.
Borderscapes is about the way border landscapes and regions are transformed through political and social events. Europe has undergone major spatial transformations, first through vicious and ferocious wars, resulting in death, mass suffering and ethnic cleansing.
This has been followed by periods of reconciliation, the opening – and ultimately total removal – of borders, and an understanding that, whatever the ideological, national or religious differences and mistrusts and animosities, the world is simply a better place and works better when national stereotypes and exclusive narratives are put to one side.
Not because groups no longer believe in their exclusive narratives and histories, which don’t have room for other national groups other than as ethnic minorities, but because the desire for exclusive control and sovereignty in multi-ethnic regions only results in suffering and destruction all round. No one is a winner, all are losers.
In Israel, we cannot but envy the fact that the warring Europeans have found the way to avoid further conflict, and to turn the ravages of warfare into a way of working together. It happened between France and Germany after World War II, and it seems to be happening, even reluctantly, in parts of the Balkans today – as all desire to become full members of the EU.
Perhaps it is something worth thinking about in our neck of the woods. Warfare and destruction have not achieved anything. The growth of religious fundamentalism has only served to strengthen and fuel the narratives of exclusion and national hegemony. Occupation and the expansion of the settlement infrastructure has not served to strengthen Israel’s control of the region, while suicide terrorism and Katyusha rockets across the border have not served to weaken Israel’s sovereignty in its own territory or to further the cause of Palestinian independence.
On the contrary, it has only served to create new walls and fences of separation and push the cause of peace even further away from this region.
We should be creating our own borderscapes, destroying walls and fences instead of constructing them, increasing the social and economic quality of life of both Israelis and Palestinians, and seeking new ways of reaching out to each other across the divide which, in contrast to the borders in Europe, are becoming even more difficult to cross as each day goes by.
The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the international journal Geopolitics. The views expressed are his alone.

Tags bosnia