A Wall by Any Other Name

“Mending Wall,” penned in 1915 by American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963), includes a line that has become an American aphorism: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Those who quote Frost’s line generally do so uncritically, undoubtedly thinking that the poet himself approved. In reality, Frost was highly dubious of this bit of “common wisdom.” As the poem shows, he was questioning, not declaring: “Do good fences really make good neighbors?”

It’s a question that should be asked more often by more people as soon as policymakers try to justify programs and laws that erect new or add to existing psychological, cultural, and physical walls designed to separate “us” from “them”–usually to “upgrade security.”

The “security” mantra is at work right now in the Middle East as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pushes the rapid construction of the barrier wall designed to cut off the Palestinian West Bank from Israel proper, from Jerusalem, and from a number of post-1967 Israeli settlements on the West Bank. The wall’s deep inroads into territory designated as part of a future, viable Palestine state renders moot the so-called “Green Line” that for decades has served as the unofficial boundary of the West Bank.

Alarmed that a viable Palestinian state would never emerge if Israel completed the wall, Syria, a current rotating member of the UN Security Council, introduced an Arab League-backed draft Security Council resolution calling for the wall’s removal on the basis that it violated international law. On October 14, the resolution was defeated on a split Security Council vote: 10 votes for, 4 abstentions, and 1 against–a U.S. veto. (Subsequently, on October 21, the General Assembly passed {144-4} a resolution introduced by Italy demanding Israel cease construction of the wall. However, the Assembly action does not carry the force of a Security Council resolution.)

This was not the first time the issue has come up this year. Last summer, when then Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Sharon visited President Bush in quick succession, the media focused on the “security fence” cum concrete wall that Israel was building by expropriating Palestinian land in Gaza and the West Bank. News stories (e.g., Washington Post, July 30, 2003) said the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) had recommended that the barrier encompass the entire nascent Palestinian state as well as Israeli settlements that were not to be dismantled. If the IDF proposal were implemented, it would leave Palestinians about 45% of the West Bank and 75% of Gaza, which is already fenced in.

Walling Out Reality

Israelis who credit the Gaza fence with stopping attacks from that area believe that a similar West Bank barrier would provide the same physical security for Israel by limiting points of ingress and egress. But militants have already started to adjust, using home-made mortars and rockets to fire into Israel. These attacks drive further Israeli targeted assassinations and ground operations against the militants in an endless bloody tit-for-tat that does nothing to advance the declared goal of two independent states living side by side in peace.

As with so many human undertakings, creating barriers creates unintended consequences. These often arise because the “follow-through” questions are never asked. Frost himself makes this clear: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know//What I was walling in or walling out,//And to whom I was like to give offence.”

All too often, what is walled out is reality.

The reality is that the wall, once completed, will displace or cut off thousands of Palestinians from their livelihoods. It will effectively create a huge ghetto with large numbers of young, unemployed youth. It risks a new unity of purpose among a significant minority of Palestinians, many of whom are not now tied to militant groups, to support terror tactics. Israel says the Palestinian Authority must dismantle the militant organizations, but its own military assaults simply reinforce the militants’ standing and undercut any political support for action by the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, the continued pounding and mounting death toll among innocent bystanders risks creating a permanent psychology of despair, which could trigger a level of violence against Israel not seen before in the intifada.

Conversely, ideas can never be walled out. Nor can truth.

On March 5th, 1946, in Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill delivered a speech entitled “The Sinews of Peace.” Ten paragraphs from the end of his address, Churchill uttered the sentence that overshadowed the rest of that speech: From “Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” This geo-political barrier symbolized the clash of competing ideas and visions of humankind’s future. But as events were to show in 1956, 1968, 1980, and conclusively in 1988, this curtain, as dark and menacing as it seemed in 1946, remained porous to the flow of ideas and aspirations for liberty–and it finally was pulled down.

Similarly, the Israeli wall will not inhibit the flow of information and ideas into and out of Palestinian areas. But Israeli actions may well have the effect of pushing Palestinians toward the darker side of thought, to an unwanted tipping point where more and more Palestinians believe that only through more violence can they gain liberty. Such is the fear expressed by former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres: “We are dealing with a nation that is fighting for its freedom, and don’t take them lightly” (New York Times, October 20, 2003).

Power’s Accountability

Strikingly, Frost captures the full force of the psychology of darkness underlying all violent conflict as he regards his neighbor’s effort to repair the fence separating their properties:

“I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying….”

This gentle rebuke involving a New England stone wall becomes a significant commentary when the one who “moves in darkness” possesses the power to meld or sever, to raise or level great barriers, to make war or peace. On this scale, each option represents political, economic, social, or ideological integration or division of immense proportions. In 1946, the United States stood on the pinnacle of power. Of all the major nations, only its economic base remained intact and only it possessed the secret of splitting the atom. Yet, as Churchill reminded his audience and the world, “[W]ith primacy in power is also joined an awe-inspiring accountability to the future.”

In today’s Middle East, Israel stands on the pinnacle of military power. But its use of this power is divorced from any apparent sense that it is accountable, in Churchill’s terms, for the manner in which events unfold. Because it is the dominant regional military power, it is within Israel’s ken to gain or lose the future, both its own and that of the region as a whole. The road to peace demands exposing the prejudices and hatreds on both sides that pass for ideals, principles, and truth. It also demands that both sides work in concert to prevent the emergence of “new threats” to replace those that are discredited, “discoveries” that some would use to justify continuing violence in the name of preserving their dominance.

In1946, Churchill was ready to engage Stalin over the “difficulties and dangers” that Soviet tyranny presented to the West. But unlike the current U.S. administration, Churchill was adamant that inaction or disengagement were not options no matter how tough the circumstances: “Our difficulties and dangers will not be removed by closing our eyes to them. They will not be removed by mere waiting to see what happens; nor will they be removed by a policy of appeasement. What is needed is a settlement, and the longer this is delayed, the more difficult it will be and the greater our dangers will become.”

The longer that an equitable settlement eludes the actors, the greater becomes Israel’s danger. Walls rarely remove insecurities; they only remind one of the absence of security. The sense of security that all humankind craves will exist only when the psychological walls that prevent “different” peoples from interacting with each other are permanently leveled by the global acceptance and implementation of the principles of equality, mutual respect, and human dignity.

Israel’s fortunes and future still are largely in Tel Aviv’s hands, giving the government the power to shape and save the country’s future. Israel will succeed only to the extent it achieves the peaceful resolution of its current war with Palestinian militants and accepts the Palestinian people as equals. Conversely, Palestinians must do their part by demythologizing the violence and tearing down their own walls of prejudice.

War and walls have demonstrably failed to make good neighbors in the Middle East. That leaves peace the “road less traveled.”