From East Berlin to east Jerusalem

How long will it take for our generation and that of our children to forget the Wall and the barrier?

Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
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.
In the 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 with them.
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 the other.
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 authorities.
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 the West.
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.
A 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.