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The Culture of Building Walls

Israel has approved a plan to build a security fence along its border with Egypt. The decision follows a Palestinian suicide attack on the southern Israeli town of Dimona that officials say was a result of a breach of the Egypt-Gaza border fence. But many analysts say these barriers cannot guarantee security in the absence of political solutions, while others argue that the Egypt-Gaza wall has kept suicide bombers at bay for almost a year.

Palestinian militants blew up parts of the Egypt-Gaza border fence in January, allowing hundreds-of-thousands of Palestinians to break an Israeli blockade and cross into Egypt for much needed food and supplies. Israeli officials say the suicide bomber who killed one woman and wounded seven people at a Dimona shopping center this week left Gaza through the border breach before crossing into Israel.

Some analysts argue that these barriers are necessary to save lives. Others see the breach of the Gaza-Egypt fence as proof that walls come down as quickly as they are built and serve only as temporary security fixes. But for David Makovsky of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, these fixes are important deterrents to violence. He says security barriers like the wall Israel is building to separate itself from the West Bank help reduce Palestinian suicide attacks until a political settlement can be reached.

"The net effect is it [i.e., the West Bank wall] saves lives and it has basically created a new psychological stand that the West Bank and Israel are heading toward a border that will bring dignity to both sides. And this barrier was a barrier, in my mind, that Hamas, the Palestinian rejectionist group, built. There wasn't a barrier before the bombs and there won't be a barrier after the bombs," says Makovsky.

Israeli activist and founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement Uri Avnery disagrees. He concedes that some barriers serve defensive purposes, but he argues that the Israeli barrier that snakes around the West Bank is a wall of annexation.

"This obstacle is built inside the West Bank. Only a very small part of it is built on the so-called "Green Line". And lately, it has become clear why. This wall is actually the new border between Israel and the future Palestinian state, which the Israeli side wants to establish," says Avnery. "This wall is designed to annex about ten percent of the occupied West Bank to the state of Israel because most of the large Israeli settlements are located between the old border and the new border, which means it's an annexation wall."

Built to Last?

Throughout history, walls have been used for defense or separation with varying degrees of success. China built its Great Wall more than two-thousand years ago to repel invaders. Hadrian's Wall, built in England during the second century A.D., defended the Roman Empire's northern frontier until it was abandoned a little more than a century later.

Other walls have been less successful or have simply crumbled. In modern times, most experts cite the Berlin Wall as a testament to the impermanence of separation walls. Built in the 1960s by East Germany to isolate the communist country from the West, the Cold War structure was torn down in 1989.

Now, several countries, including the United States, Poland, China and Saudi Arabia, are building walls or considering border fences for security or to control immigration.

Military historian Adrian Lewis of the University of North Texas questions the effectiveness of some of these barriers. "It's always, always a temporary measure and it is not a very good measure unless it is integrated into a much larger strategic plan. The wall is there as a stop-gap measure until you can move other forces and other resources to the area. If you think about the Roman Empire, they had walls too," says Lewis. "But they were primarily maintained with high-speed avenues of approach. That's what's more important. The ability to project power is more important than the ability to put up a wall."

Lewis says well-defended barriers are necessary to slow attackers and give defenders time to react.

But in the age of nuclear arsenals and space exploration, Gush Shalom's Uri Avnery argues that technology has rendered defensive walls obsolete. "The whole idea of a wall for military means ignores the huge progress of military technology. When you have satellites in outer space observing everything which is being done, when you have intercontinental rockets and rockets which go even very short distances over walls, as we have everyday in the Gaza Strip, the whole thing of a wall looks to me rather ridiculous," says Avnery.

Lasting Solutions

Most experts agree that barriers are not solutions in themselves, but that on a psychological level, they provide a sense of security. Robert Perito of the United States Institute of Peace says barriers like the ones being built around some Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad could control traffic and provide added security, but they are likely to create new problems.

"There's probably a sense of security that comes by feeling that there is a wall around you and that you are protected. But over time, that proves to be in every case not an accurate assessment. And then, what happens when you try to go out? What happens when you try to leave your gated community and go out into the world? Unless there are programs that create dialogue among people so that people can safely interact with each other, then the walls have no effect," says Perito.

For some analysts, walls and defensive barriers provide a measure of security until conflicts like the Israeli-Palestinian problem are resolved. For others, walls hinder reconciliation and become themselves a problem once a solution is reached.