With Gaza recently engulfed in conflict, we thought it fitting to re-run a feature from our archives that explores the use of walls — literal ones, that is — as socio-political barriers. Whether constructed to block refugees, labor migrants, or terrorists, or to curb illegal trades, walls have been used in recent years (and well after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall) to assert a state’s national sovereignty. Walls often embody economic divides, such as that between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, or India and its poorer neighbor, Bangladesh. Even amidst the rise of phenomena like “globalization” and “transnationalism,” states continue to rely on physical barriers to reinforce intangible ones. Length, height, and building materials vary, but the notable examples we review here were all built with the explicit purpose of keeping people out – in many cases, to limited success.
Israel’s West Bank barrier
The cement wall separating the West Bank from Israel serves as a physical reminder of this region’s seemingly intractable schism. Construction of the 26-feet-high and 420-mile-long barrier – for reference, that is twice as high and four times as long as the Berlin Wall – began in 2002, in the thick of a Palestinian uprising that killed several hundred Israelis that year alone. Ostensibly built for security reasons (i.e., to block illegal entry of Palestinian militants planning terrorist attacks on Israeli soil), Palestinians view what they call the “apartheid wall” as an attempt to annex the Palestinian territory. According to local human rights groups, the wall, which surrounds thirty West Bank communities, incorporates 10% of Palestinian territory into the Israeli side.
Both the International Court of Justice and the United Nations General Assembly have ruled the separation barrier illegal, though the rulings were non-binding. But despite opposition from much of the international community, construction continues. Amid renewed fighting between Israel and Hamas, and the disastrous death toll on the Palestinian side, the barrier will no doubt remain in place for some time.
The Berm of Western Sahara
The Moroccan berm, or sand wall, dividing the Western Sahara stems (unsurprisingly) from a land dispute. Construction began in 1980 to prevent the Polisario Front – a liberation movement representing Sahrawi tribes native to the region – from entering their home territory that Morocco had itself claimed several years earlier. Outside of Africa, little attention has been paid to the military wall, which at 1,600 miles is four times as long as the West Bank barrier. It is lined with trenches and landmines (reportedly as many as 7 million – the highest density in the world.)
Despite a 20-year-old stalemate, both the Moroccan army and the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army (ALPS) maintain active military presences along the berm. The Western side – a.k.a. the “occupied zone,” according to the ALPS – boasts 160,000 Moroccan patrols. Via the sand wall, the Western Sahara was effectively annexed to Morocco, which now controls over 75% of the territory. The berm also created a massive humanitarian crisis by displacing 165,000 Sahrawis (over half the population) to refugee camps in Algeria. Nonetheless, with billions of dollars at stake — Morocco makes over $1 billion a year from phosphates found in the mineral-rich region – the berm’s longevity will likely soon rival that of the decades-old land dispute behind its creation.
India’s Bangladesh fence
To shut out illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, and curb a vibrant smuggling trade, India is erecting an 8-foot-high, 2,500-mile-long barbed wire barrier dubbed the “Great Wall of India.” Construction began in the 1980s, and the fence – reportedly inspired by the West Bank barrier — now spans 70% of India’s 2,544-mile border with Bangladesh. When completed, the barrier will have cost an estimated $1.2 billion although it may be more symbolic than anything else. Thanks to the existence of 450-feet-wide “no-man lands” lining the fence, many villages are split along the demarcation; as a result, some houses have a front door in India and a back door in Bangladesh.
India’s “Great Wall” is manned by the 80,000-strong Border Security Force (BSF), whose itchy trigger fingers have prompted a darker nickname for the barrier: the “Wall of Death.” According to Human Rights Watch, BSF officers have killed almost 1,000 people trying to cross the border in the past decade. What’s more, many of the victims were unarmed or, at worst, carrying a sickle. Of particular alarm to human rights groups, however, is the ever-present threat of environmental calamity in Bangladesh. Risk of heavy flooding and severe climate change has already pushed millions of “climate migrants” to seek refuge in India, “Great Wall” notwithstanding.
The U.S. wall with Mexico
Every year, some 500,000 people cross the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border illegally, despite the presence of 8-foot-tall steel barriers created under the 2006 Secure Fence Act. The wall is manned by 20,000 border agents with 24-hour surveillance along some stretches. While detentions of illegal border crossers have decreased radically in many cities along the wall – notably in San Diego, where arrests dropped from 400,000 before the barrier’s construction to 28,000 in 2012 – critics have questioned its efficacy. They argue the wall is an ineffective deterrent, which in reality only delays illegal immigrants by a matter of minutes.
Adding to the debate are accusations that the wall’s presence poses a risk to humans and animals alike. Environmentalists emphasize that countless conservation regulations were flouted in order to erect the structure. Human rights advocates argue that illegal immigrants are increasingly forced to take dangerous detours to circumvent the wall: approximately 10,000 deaths have occurred along the border as a result since 2006. However, key to the wall’s survival is its emblematic role in the U.S.’s ongoing debate about immigration policy, which is widely framed around the so-called “onslaught” of illegal immigrants from south of the border.
Saudi Arabia’s security fence with Yemen
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – home to the largest oil reserve in the Persian Gulf – is building one of the world’s longest security fences: an 1,118-mile barrier along its Yemeni border. While relations with its poorer neighbor have been historically fraught, tensions intensified following Arab Spring protests in Yemen, which eventually resulted in the ouster of President Saleh, the rise of militant groups, and a decline in border security.
With the $3 billion barrier, Saudi Arabian authorities hope to keep out terrorists — namely members of Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – and squash drug smuggling networks. However, the fence has not proven to be a failsafe deterrent, slowing rather than halting the influx of militants, illegal immigrants and smugglers. (Sound familiar?) Border crossers have adopted new tactics, notably secret paths and “smart” donkeys that can recognize (and avoid) Saudi border policemen uniforms. Saudi Arabia plans to expand the Yemeni fence to span borders with Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman: completion of the all-encompassing barrier is estimated for 2018, with a price tag of $40 billion. Then again, for one of world’s richest countries, money isn’t likely to be an issue.