Along the Borders

Are we living through ‘an age of walls’?
By Mini Kapoor

Unmindful, or perhaps too mindful, of the date, the U.S. inaugurated its new embassy building in Jerusalem last week, on May 14. Proceeding ahead full steam to shift its diplomatic mission in Israel from Tel Aviv to the disputed city, Washington sent Ivanka Trump to point proudly to the shiny plaque that had her father, U.S. President Donald Trump’s name in inordinately large font. The timing was significant as it was the eve of Nakba Day, on which Palestinians mark the forced exodus 70 years ago of hundreds of thousands from their homes in what became the state of Israel in 1948. Just a few miles away, thousands of residents of Gaza had surged in protest towards the barrier that marks the border with Israel — Israeli forces fired at the crowd, killing at least 60 Palestinians.

The way borders operate

In that overlay of cheer at the new embassy in Jerusalem and the bloodshed in Gaza could be found the different ways in which borders are heeded. Jerusalem is not just a disputed city, it was divided by the Green Line till the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israeli forces occupied East Jerusalem, where crucially some of the holiest sites of Judaism, Islam and Christianity are. Palestinians are firm that East Jerusalem be the capital of their state in the much recommended two-state solution. Many Israelis make a distinction between the West Bank and Gaza territories on the one hand and East Jerusalem on the other, contending that the city is an organic whole. The inauguration was a challenge to that old border. In Gaza, the barrier put up by Israel with inhumanely stern procedures to get past the checkpoints, and with the supplies of essential commodities so easily blocked in difficult times, the violence highlighted that fact that borders operate to the dictate of the militarily stronger party.

The Israeli wall — or security barrier or separation barrier as it’s variously called, depending on your politics — is among the most contentious and photographed physical demarcations of a boundary, whether imposed or mutually agreed upon. In a new book Divided, Tim Marshall, a British journalist and writer, explains the theme in the subtitle: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls. The data bear him out: “At least sixty-five countries, more than a third of the world’s nation states, have built barriers along their borders; half of those erected since the Second World War sprang up between 2000 and now. Within a few years, the European nations could have more miles of walls, fences and barriers on their borders than they were at the height of the Cold War.”

Marshall’s analysis

His analysis is sometimes unsatisfying, as he tries to see each wall (though in most parts they are not concrete walls, but fences, concertina wire, etc.) from the viewpoint of those who erect it as well as those it seeks to keep out, and the space is too limited for local nuances to be explored enough in this around-the-world tour. That equation in itself is a comment on the 21st century world, but Marshall’s tour of the great man-made barriers of today is instructive. Of course, he lingers at the Israeli wall — though as he points out, just 3% of the separation barrier is concrete. Other numbers are startling too: if the line drawn by the wall becomes a new fact on the ground, in a two-state solution, Palestinians would lose “at least 10 per cent of the West Bank land, as the wall’s current position lies well inside Palestinian land”. He describes the disparity in the checks that, say, Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents undergo, or those at the Palestinian end of the checkpoint and the Israeli. He explores the security dividend that’s accrued to Israel on account of the wall, and he also visits British graffiti artist Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem overlooking, well, the wall.

Around the world

Marshall roams the globe, looking at “the longest border fence in the world” on the IndiaBangladesh border, and also the issues of ethnicity, religion and humanitarian plight around the flight of the Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh in the most fraught conditions to cross international boundaries. He looks at the wall Iran has built along its border with Pakistan. He describes the 1,700-mile Moroccan wall through Western Sahara. There’s the wall Trump wants to build/reinforce on the U.S.-Mexico border, the walls Hungary started building on its border with Serbia and Croatia. And so on.

And there is the memory of that wall in Berlin that came down. Marshall doesn’t see the probability of a border-less world any time soon. But for now, he sees an antidote in the “great halls” that have been and are being built “to meet, discuss and try to resolve our differences”. Call it the alphabet soup of our hopes: “The United Nations, the EU, the African Union, ASEAN, MERCOSUR, OPEC, NATO, the World Bank…” Keep adding.

(The author is a columnist with The Hindu)

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