Sat, Nov 23, 2013 - Page 9 News List

The new age of the wall

Although doomed to crumble, humans have always built walls. From the failed Maginot Line to the Great Wall of China, they are an indelible part of our history

By Jon Henley  /  The Guardian

Belfast’s walls, he says, originated in 1969 as “defense mechanisms, barricades made of bedsteads and doors to stop vehicles coming in to your street.”

Thirty years on, they have become “part of people’s reality” and are still — perhaps uniquely — supported by almost all those who live beside them. Running for the most part parallel to the roads into the city center, though, they are not “huge impediments” to day-to-day life.

The barrier separating Israel and the West Bank is different.

“This was a state project,” Anderson says. “Certainly some, especially the settler movement, welcome it as protection, security against suicide bombers. Palestinians see it as a mechanism for a land grab.”

At times it also causes almost unimaginable inconvenience and hardship.

However, walls can have unforeseen consequences, says Mick Dumper, professor in Middle East politics at Exeter University.

“Israel built the separation barrier to separate two communities and prevent terrorism,” he says.

“One result has been that 60,000 to 70,000 Palestinians who had moved out of Jerusalem have moved back, as they didn’t want to be cut off from the services they need. At a time when Israel is seeking to assert the city’s Jewish identity, its Palestinian population has sharply increased.”

And a wall changes a city, even after it has come down.

Wendy Pullan, senior lecturer in the history and philosophy of architecture at Cambridge University, calls this a “disruption of urban order. A divided city changes its whole metabolism. And divided cities do not flourish.”

The physical reorganization engendered by a wall is accompanied by an inevitable impact on the psychology of those who live beside it, adds Pullan, who heads the Conflict in Cities (CinC) project run by Cambridge University’s center for urban conflicts research: “There’s a tendency to vilify those on the other side. It’s very easy to say: We can’t see them, we don’t know them, so we don’t like them.”

Mainly, walls just do not do their job very well.

“We don’t have examples of walls solving problems,” Pullan says.

Suicide bombings may have fallen dramatically since Israel built its wall.

“But it’s hard to say whether that’s cause or correlation. The regime has also got much firmer, in other ways,” she adds.

Anderson, also a member of CinC, argues that national border fences are at least partly intended for show: to let governments be seen to be doing something.

If the US were truly serious about tackling illegal migrant labor “it would prosecute more employers,” he says.

So in general, walls are “more symbolic than anything else. However, their symbolism is enormous. Even now, Berlin remains best known for the wall. The most recognisable image of Jerusalem is now, arguably, its wall. The visual impact is so very strong. If you want to get across the idea of division, a wall is very, very powerful,” Pullan says.

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