West Bank Wall at Bethlehem in Palestine


these four walls

infamous walls of division past and present


Walls are, in essence, constructions of safety: homes, boundary enforcers, protectors. Whilst walls are all of these things, they have a more sinister and less homely flip side: they can contain, restrict and curtail. Their docile bulk can shield but also impose and bully: a straight jacket rather than protective body armour. I have visited four places where walls feature heavily on the socio-political but also physical landscape of the country: these are walls of physical and emotional division, enforcers of sectarian divide, splitting apart communities but, some argue, enforcers of peace. So, here are my experiences of the world's four most infamous walls: the Berlin Wall in Germany, the West Bank Wall separating Israel and Palestine, the Peace Line in Belfast and the Green Line in Cyprus.


berlin: the original wall

The Berlin Wall was a precursor; the archetypal and original wall setting the foundations (no pun intended) for other walls to follow. This wall, as we all know, is 'dead'. It ceases to exist as a containment strategy; part broken large swathes of the wall lie in a sort of open-air museum for tourists like me to touch and experience. This wall was special: it did not just divide people, but represented the borderline between communism and capitalism. Initially intended to keep capitalism out, it merely succeeded to keep communism in. It did not protect the people of east Germany, but restricted and strangled them.

Also known as the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall has crumbled further since being 'torn down', along with a further crumbling of the ideology which built it. Communist countries are more commonly viewed as pariah states - anomalies going on their own unconventional, and ultimately doomed, journeys (north Korea, China). Whilst its physicality has deteriorated, the wall still exists in the psyche of many who still feel its effects and those, of course, who still, through rose-tinted spectacles, hanker after the Soviet age. The wall's 'Iron' nickname, for whom we have Winston Churchill to thank, must have seemed iron-like to those desperate to cross to the other world: immovable, impenetrable, cold. Its name seems far less deserved now: emasculated, daubed, stroked by tourists taking fun holiday snaps. A little humiliating really, considering its once feared and deadly reputation - on both sides of the Iron Curtain.


the west bank wall: the wall of strangulation

This wall is truly rampant. It is being extended so regularly, riding roughshod through Palestinian areas that, at the time of writing, it will soon hit 760 kilometres long. It is a gargantuan thing snaking through streets, cutting roads in half, splitting a neighbourhood in two. It is the most aggressive wall of the quartet featured here.

The West Bank wall is not about containment and separation in order to keep the peace. It is involved in a policy of exclusion, division and fragmentation. The wall is a politico-religious tool being used by the Israelis to fragment and divide the Palestinian people - driving them from their communities and from their families, brutally chopping streets in half, separating mother from daughter, children from school, fathers from workplace. Through a more palatable international discourse of 'keeping the peace' this wall is, in fact, about geographical strangulation. The wall has become a tool with which the lives of the Palestinians have been made increasingly difficult and painful. The end game is that the Palestinians become a fragmented populace: a minority in their own land. Minorities are disempowered by definition. You need to create a minority first, before it can fall. United they stand, divided they fall. Gaza City in the Palestinian territories has been described as the biggest "open air prison" in the world; testament to the brutal and uncompromising effectiveness of this particular branch of wall building.

Driving through the West Bank the sheer scale of the wall becomes clear: it snakes over hills, along roadsides - even chopping roads in half; grimly embellished with dozens of watchtowers. From ground level it appears to have little rhyme or reason: a grim stony squiggle drawn by a petulant child wanting to have their cake and eat it. Perhaps the wall's very psychological design has been to confuse; to avoid reason and rationality; to aggravate and frustrate; to baffle and bemuse? The wall's expansion has everything to do with evicting Palestinians from their land, and less to do with keeping warring groups apart for the sake of peace. It is fascinating to see how 'finding a way with words' has allowed this strangulation and expansionism to continue unchecked and unhindered.

Being explicit about visiting the Palestinian Territories to Airport staff in Tel Aviv is often met with refusal to enter Israel, thus isolating Palestine from tourism and the outer world. In Jericho, the world's oldest city, it was clear that many locals appreciated us visiting their city - unsurprising considering the Israelis at Ben Guiron Airport in Tel-Aviv try to block tourists from travelling there - another way they try to undermine and isolate the Palestinian people. Crossing from Israel into the West Bank means you are effectively crossing an international border by going through check points, entering into the land of the 'Palestinian National Authority', and out of the hands of the Israeli government. Our local guide was my first introduction to Palestinians and proved to be just like all others that followed; respectful, dignified, calm and always starting with the greeting, "You are welcome..". Little was I to know that having visited Palestine and the West Bank could, indeed, cause problems back in Tel-Aviv with the airport authorities. Our visits to Palestine were kept under wraps from them - literally as bags and receipts from Jericho and the Dead Sea were hidden or disposed of.

Graffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall reveals the raw emotions, the politics and creativity of the Palestinian people. Interestingly, the vast majority of wall graffiti is to be found on the Palestinian side, not the Israeli side. Banksy himself has also used this as a canvas for his work, although there was no Banksy on the part of the wall I saw.


belfast peace line: the wall of murals

The Belfast Wall,to be seen most brutally in the west of the city, has become home to artwork and murals. In a part of the United Kingdom where expressing one's political allegiances on walls in large scale seems to run in the blood, it is not surprising that the Peace Line, as it has been euphemistically christened, has become such a fertile canvas for artists and graffiti have-a-gos. Some sections of the wall are dedicated to visitors writing messages of condolence/support (delete as applicable) - a living canvas, a working document. Whereas the wall in Berlin is an historical relic of the Cold War, this wall is alive and thriving. Had I taken a pen, I would have added my own message along with the thousands of others. I would, however, have managed to generate an original response, rather than the oft-repeated and predictable 'Tear down the wall!' visible everywhere. What about "Walls are also in the mind"?

The walls dotted across Belfast were initially only constructed as a temporary fix to escalating tensions known as 'The Troubles', envisaged as needing to last months, rather than years. Perversely, they have been so 'successful' in reducing flair ups between Catholics and Protestants and therefore Unionists and Loyalists that they have been extended, laying in situ since 1969 and now stretching over twenty kilometres between them all. Whilst maintaining order, these walls curtail and restrict any contact between once warring groups, effectively freezing the conflict in time; it never moving forward. It clamps down on any opportunity to bring sides together. Interaction and resolution at a local and personal level has been stopped dead in its tracks.

Whilst all three walls have distinct parallels, it is wrong to assume that they originate from the same malice. Belfast is a wall to deal with localised pockets of conflict, parts of the wall stopping at the end of a road; used to keep one particular street away from the next.In the West Bank, the wall is part of a national strategy of displacement and ultimate completion of a Zionist state - without the Palestinians getting in the way. The Berlin wall was built from an ideology; an iron curtain which ultimately rusted and decayed like the ideology which erected it. These walls are similar in appearance and all have become artistic canvases. However, this is where the similarities end: the seeds from which they grew are fascinatingly different.


cyprus green line: the wall of frozen conflict

Despite Cyprus' major selling points, this remains an island with a split personality, having been partitioned into two de-facto halves since the Turkish invasion of 1974; to the south east is the Republic of Cyprus and to the north, the internationally-disputed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Each half has its own flags, governments and currencies. The two sides are kept apart by a UN-enforced buffer zone known as the Green Line which runs nearly two hundred kilometres across the island, chopping the capital Nicosia in two (named 'Lefkosia' and 'North Nicosia'). An uneasy stalemate has existed ever since.

You simply cannot avoid having to deal with the fact that the capital of Cyprus has the unenviable record of being the last divided capital city in the world: the Green Line, so-called because it was the British who drew the line on a map of the country using a green pen, cuts the Cypriot capital in half. The Green Line manifests itself physically in two lines of barbed wire, concrete-filled metal drums and general piles of debris which run parallel to each other but which are separated by a strip of no-man's land in between. Any houses or buildings falling into the catchment of no-man's land are empty and abandoned and perimeters are watched by UN-staffed watchtowers or CCTV cameras.‎ You happen across it at the most inopportune and incongruous of moments - like the time we left our trendy restaurant, walked to the end of the street a mere twenty metres and were faced with a dead end guarded by a white UN booth dressed in barbed wire. Away from the Green Line itself, the UN's presence on this island is difficult to ignore: soldiers wearing the characteristic UN blue berets saunter down streets as you shop and large white vehicles marked 'UN' in large black font, like those I've seen in Israel and Kosovo, park right next to you in the car park. Holidaying alongside an international peacekeeping force is a strange sensation to say the least!

Flags of the Republic of Cyprus and the EU mark the point at which you leave the European Union and head into, well, somewhere else. It's not clear what you're entering into - a frozen conflict? A part of Turkey, technically? Who knows - what I am sure of is that both sides seem a little tired of it all: on the Turkish side, a guard sits asleep in the sun, on the Cypriot side, the woman waves us through as if we are inconveniencing her by showing our passports at the window of her booth. This is a conflict frozen in time but played out daily by border guards pretending to care. Welcome to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus...


These Four Walls (clockwise from top left): Berlin Wall, West Bank Wall, Cyprus Green Line, Belfast Peace Line.



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