06/11/2009

Berlin: A History Lesson

Germans will gather on Monday to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This 27-mile-long Cold War concrete edifice dividing East and West Germany formed a symbol of Cold War divisions between Communist East and the West. The fall of the Berlin Wall on November, 9th 1989 following the collapse of the Soviet Union marked a turning point for the future of Germans, Eastern and Western alike.

Although current German chancellor Angela Merkel may claim to have remained relatively indifferent to the course of events in 1989, having indeed maintained a weekly sauna appointment on the day of reunification (see Kate Connolly for the Guardian), one cannot obliterate the historical significance of November 1989 for Germany and the future of the European Union. Indeed, the fall of the wall not only reunified a divided city; it also symbolized a moral victory for millions of Europeans keen on building a Community where peace, security and stability could prevail.

Unfortunately, walls serving similar purposes still stain landscapes across a number of regions worldwide. An enlightening report presented by the BBC analyses some of the most important barriers present today (see BBC). As this special report underlines, two of these walls can be found in the Middle Eastern region: The wall separating Israel and the West Bank, as well as Saudi Arabian projects to develop high-tech protective fences along its borders.

The wall built along the West Bank is the most controversial of three barriers built in the East Mediterranean in recent years, alongside the Gaza strip barrier and the wall separating Gaza from Egypt. Israel believes that the wall constitutes a necessary measure in ensuring its security in the face of Palestinian attacks. Its construction has nonetheless been condemned by the International Court of Justice as a breach of international law for its attempt to annex Palestinian populations in the West Bank. Although attacks on Israel have considerably diminished since the creation of the barrier, a question mark remains over its deviation into occupied territories limiting the mobility of Palestinians in the West Bank region. The “security fence” supported by Israelis is seen as an “apartheid wall” by most West Bank Palestinians (see Palestinian News Network).

A similar fortification has been erected along Saudi borders, exposed to unstable environments in neighbouring Iraq and Yemen. Unlike the concrete barriers of Berlin and the West Bank, the range of sensor cables, ultraviolet night-vision cameras and barbwire make this fence one of the most advanced border control systems in place across the globe. Fearing degrading violence, illegal migration, trafficking and threats to its oil reserves, Saudi Arabia is estimated to have poured three billion dollars into the reinforcement of its 9.000-kilometer-long border. While projects are under way to further secure borders with Iraq, Saudi Arabia’s common frontier with Yemen is an equally important security priority. These fences will “help our performance at the border” claims Mansour al-Turki, a Saudi Brigadier General (see Aljazeera).

Questioned on the importance of erecting a barrier, there is no doubt that Soviets, Israelis and Saudis alike will have played the security card, unfolding a range of reasons why such preventive measures have proven necessary. The absence of Western influence and presence in Eastern Europe, reduced violence across the Israel-West Bank frontier as well as greater security in Saudi Arabia may indeed legitimize the construction of these barriers as a means of achieving stability and security.

Decades of division at the heart of Europe for Soviet security, came at the expense of many Berliners cut off from one another and alienated by an impenetrable barrier. A similar situation can be observed in the West Bank where families have seen their lives severely affected by the erection of the wall (loss of land, no access to jobs, etc.). Although Saudi Arabian efforts to reinforce its border security have not been conflict-driven, people’s lives will unquestionably be affected.

These barriers may prove necessary security measures; nevertheless, questions will always subsist as to the negative impacts of such alienating and prison-like fortifications. On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the fall of one of the most notorious constructions of the 20th century, it seems that little has been learnt from history. According to a famous proverb, good fences make good neighbours. However, history has shown that with these walls tensions arise, therefore making the disappearance of these barriers a systematic matter of celebration.

Andrew Bower