Peace lines or apartheid walls?

IssueNovember 2007
Feature by Kat Barton

Last month, over a thousand Iraqis took to the streets of Baghdad in protest at the building of a separation wall in the poor, mainly Shi'ite neighbourhood of al-Washash.

It is not the first wall to be built in the city: the US military - which regards separation walls as a centrepiece of its strategy to end sectarian violence in the area - began construction of a three- mile, 3.6-metre-high concrete wall in April and are currently in the process of erecting more in at least five other Baghdad neighbourhoods.

However, in a country where inhabitants are usually too paralysed by fear of violence to venture out onto the streets, October's demonstration is a clear Peaceline dividing Falls Road from Sha sign that opposition to the wall is strong.

The use of separation walls in modern conflicts is hardly a new phenomenon. The wall separating Israelis from Palestinians is the most well-known, but several other walls around the world fulfil similar functions.


In 1989, India constructed a security barrier along the frontier with Pakistan, and in 1983, Morocco built a massive 1,500-mile, three-metre-high barrier of sand and stone to separate itself from the Saharawi people - who for 30 years have lived in tents as a result of Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara.

In the 1990s, Saudi Arabia unilaterally began constructing a barrier on land disputed by Yemen, and in Cyprus, the UN sponsored a security fence reinforcing the island's de facto partition.

Closer to home, so-called “peace lines” in Belfast have been used to separate Protestants from their Catholic neighbours.

Safe behind walls?

Proponents of such walls argue that they are a necessary evil which ensure the safety of one side or another and enable residents to feel safe from the risk of terrorist attacks.

According to Ben Thein, writing in the right-wing Middle East Quarterly, as a result of Israel's wall, suicide attacks on the country “declined 75% in the first six months of 2004 compared to an equivalent period in 2003”.

In addition, physical barriers between opposing groups are perceived as a means of creating a space in which stability can be restored, as is the case in Baghdad.

Supporters of separation walls claim that in places such as Northern Ireland, the resulting decline in terrorist attacks have allowed diplomats to resume negotiations for peace.

It seems that for some at least, as Robert Frost wrote ironically in his 1914 poem “Mending Wall”: “good fences make good neighbours”.

Which side are you on?

In each of the cases where a separation wall has been constructed, it is described as a temporary measure: for defensive purposes only. But in reality, such walls inevitably - and sometimes, no doubt, intentionally - serve other purposes as well.

In the Israel-Palestine case, the Israeli-built wall severely encroaches on Palestinian land, effectively re-drawing the border lines, and enabling Palestinian land to be appropriated by Israel.

For the Palestinian people, the consequences of the wall - which the International Court of Justice ruled to be a violation of international humanitarian law and human rights law - have been devastating.

Thousands of homes have been destroyed and much of the population finds daily life impossible as they are simply unable to get to school or work, or to access essential water resources, health services and fertile land.

One needs only to read the accounts of those who have visited the West Bank to understand the impact that the wall is having - both economically and socially. Even Tony Blair, on his recent visit to the region, was reported to be shocked by the reality of what the wall means for ordinary Palestinians.

Barriers to peace

Further, examples of the use of separation walls have been revealed as counter-productive to the process of building peace.

A Guardian study conducted in 2002 showed that in the case of Northern Ireland segregation between Catholics and Protestants living near “peace lines” in Belfast had actually grown worse since the 1994 ceasefire, a period in which the number of “peace lines” doubled.

Despite these and similar findings, in Northern Ireland today, 40 “peace lines” remain, with new ones still being built. Some of these, as in Palestine, cut through schools - areas of shared space which are essential if peace is to be created in the long term.

Even if one were to accept the view that separation walls can be of limited use in creating short-term stability, the fact remains that as Michael Wardlow, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, said recently: “the reality is that if walls go up, they don't come down.”

So why do separation walls continue to be a feature of modern-day `peacebuilding'?

In the Dragh neighbourhood of Baghdad - formerly a wealthy area where Sunnis and Shi'ites lived side-by-side - it was the residents who demanded that US forces put up a barrier to protect them from gangs in nearby Washash and Iskan.

Quite clearly, it is fear that is motivating residents to make such requests. But as history has shown, policies driven by fear rarely, if ever, bring lastly peace and security. The polarisation caused by what is actually a form of “spatial apartheid” solidifies group identity, making it ever harder for communities to live comfortably alongside one another.

Walls came tumbling down

In the West Bank last month, one hundred Palestinian and international activists gathered - as happens every week - to protest against a wall that is regarded as a “terrorist fence” by the Israeli government and as an “apartheid wall” by Palestinians and many observers.

Meantime, however, the Israeli government has recently confiscated more Palestinian land near Jerusalem for the purpose of building a segregated road, literally underground, for Palestinians. Israeli settlers will be able to commute back and forth from the territories without so much as having to see a Palestinian, essentially making Palestinians all but invisible.

Of course, making a “problem” invisible does not make it go away. In fact, a policy which tries to contain problems rather than address them is likely to exacerbate things further still.

Whilst relationships between different communities are clearly stifled by separation and segregation, it is at the very interface between these communities that positive social relationships are formed.

What is needed is for an environment to be created whereby people can imagine what it would be like if the metaphorical walls came down. Ultimately, erecting physical barriers can never contribute to that process.