Between the wall and a hard place

Between the wall and a hard place
5 min read
21 Aug, 2017
Comment: Walls built to divide communities all ultimately prove futile, writes Paul Monaghan.
Israel's wall separates Palestinian villages from olive groves, annexing fertile land to illegal settlements [AFP]

November 9, 1989, was a remarkable day. It was the day the Berlin Wall fell, ending almost 30 years of division between East and West Germany. At the time, 16 countries had built walls in attempts to restrict movement and divide communities. Today, 65 of the world's nations have built huge walls to reinforce their border claims or to restrict the movement of people.

History shows us that all attempts to reinforce borders by constructing physical barriers ultimately prove to be futile. Examples include the Berlin Wall itself, as well as the so called "peace lines" that attempted to divide unionist and republican communities in the north of Ireland, but which generated only hatred.

Marcello Di Cintio noted that the "one thing all these walls have in common is that their main function is theatre". Elsewhere, the psychologist Dietfried Muller-Hegemann argued that the real stories of separation walls were told in the miserable symptoms of depression, fatigue and abuse that characterise the "wall disease" he diagnosed in people living and working beside the Berlin Wall in the 1970s.

Despite history being littered with examples of the futility of separation walls, many contemporary governments appear ignorant of the lessons provided by the past, and are more eager than ever to subject their people to the theatre of barriers and the accompanying psychological misery. The stifling lack of imagination represented by separation walls means we are right to question the political motivation behind their intentions.

What precisely is the problem that a wall is supposed to answer?

No wall is more contentious than the separation, or "apartheid", wall that wanders for 708 kilometres around the "Green Line" that established the borders of the State of Israel between 1949 and 1967. We should use the word "wander" advisedly, because the wall is in fact more than double the length of the Green Line, and in places drifts up to 18 kilometres into the West Bank - subsuming almost 10 percent of Palestinian territory - isolating in the process an estimated 26,500 Palestinians from their wider community.

The wall is hopelessly counter-productive - in attempting to isolate the people of Palestine, the whole world has come to recognise the hardships forced upon them

Theatre or not, the isolation is real for families that have chosen to remain on their land, in Palestinian territory, but now on the Israeli side of the wall.

The wall is hopelessly counter-productive - in attempting to isolate the people of Palestine, the whole world has come to recognise the hardships forced upon them. The theatre of separation, it seems, has proven to be compulsive viewing.

The Palestinian villages of al-Walaja and Um al-Heeran provide examples of families trapped on their land, isolated from communities and neighbours on both sides of the wall. These families have fought through the court system to remain on land that has sustained their families for generations. In these villages, the separation wall has been built around Palestinian homes, restricting movement and making daily life almost impossible. The declared purpose of the wall is, of course, to provide a defence for Israeli communities built on occupied land.

These villages leave many wondering how vulnerable a community must be to require an eight metre-high wall to protect it from a family of rural farmers?

[Click to enlarge]

A more plausible interpretation than defence is that some hope the wall will eventually be seen as a provisional "fact on the ground" that will ultimately help determine the future border of an embryonic Palestinian state.

That hope seems flawed on several grounds. First, history will never allow the Palestinian state to be considered embryonic - the state's assets have been fought over for too many centuries for it to be considered in any way embryonic. Second, the true borders of Palestine are not provisional, they are in fact so immovably etched on paper that they could never be realigned - and certainly not to simply conform to the presence of a temporary concrete wall.

A visit to al-Walaja or Um al-Heeran quickly reveals the true purpose of the 708-kilometre separation wall and evidences the reason it drifts so frequently, and so far into the West Bank. The wall is an attempt to take control of land that has been owned by Palestinian farmers for countless generations.

For those caught in this trap, life is hard. Trips to the market that once took 15 minutes might now take seven or eight hours, naivigating circuitous routes littered with military checkpoints. Overnight stays away from home can lead to land being confiscated under abandonment regulations. Attempts to access medical or public services quickly lead to the realisation that the family no longer has any entitlements.

Without electric, sanitation, water, refuse collections, dentists or basic health services, these families are forced to adapt - and to develop a level of self-reliance that is utterly complete.

Caught quite literally between the wall and a hard place, the provisions for these people are non-existent and they face unrelenting pressure to leave their land.

The fact that separation walls have no power to erode the social history of a people is what ultimately makes them futile

The theatre in which these families find themselves living is appalling. Communities on both sides of the wall present our world with a problem for which no wall can offer a solution. But like others before them, these people stand as immovable reminders of where the true borders can be found - and as injustice followed by injustice is heaped upon them, their dignity and solemnity acts as a magnet, drawing ever more of the world's attention to their plight.

The fact that separation walls have no power to erode the social history of a people is what ultimately makes them futile.

The sadder aspect is that such walls appear to be the product of a mindset that seems able to understand the relationships of humanity only by interpreting length, breadth and height. Human relationships are much more complex.     

What we learn from that remarkable day in Berlin is that walls are not an answer to political problems concerning migration or security. Ultimately, concrete and barbed wire, wherever constructed, always proves too flimsy to hide the injustices perpetrated against those they attempt to control.

It may take some time but we can be certain that further remarkable days are inevitable.

Dr Paul Monaghan is the former MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. A psychologist and sociologist by training, he has worked with many of Scotland's most vulnerable communities and leading charities. He is a member of the Scottish National Party.

Follow him on Twitter: @_PaulMonaghan

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.