Walls Can Come Down

The fear sown by the ideological gap between East and West is surprisingly similar to the apprehension about the prospect of a greater Palestinian presence among Israelis.

Berlin is marking 20 years since its reunification. The wall, which was breached in 1989 and smashed up throughout 1990 in furious anger, has reassumed its presence in the city. Attitudes toward the wall have changed during those 20 years, from its complete eradication from the landscape to the minor acknowledgment of its presence. This has evolved into a sober, piercing debate on the difficulty of living with the wall and adjusting to life without it.

The city's cultural activity is vibrant. Recreations of drawings on the wall remind us of what was, an exhibition of newspaper photographs chronicles the unification, and impressive street displays tell about the city's division and the dismantling of Checkpoint Charlie. Even foreigners unaffected by domestic events in Germany and the history of the Cold War can understand the chasm and difficulty in bridging it.

For Israelis, this experience invites some soul-searching, particularly if they consider the odd separation fence that has been built between Jewish areas and Palestinian towns. The low wall would be a crime were it not for the threat to order. Unlike in Germany, there are no uninhabited areas that can expose infiltrators to indiscriminate fire as they flee. On the contrary, the fence has many gaps. Many kilometers are made up of regular barbed wire.

But even administrative detention - one fate that can befall anyone who crosses the fence - is awful.

On the surface, there is no room for comparison. In Germany there was a split between members of the same nation against the backdrop of intervention by the great powers, while in the West Bank there is a separation between two nations, with the fear of terrorist attacks lurking in the background. The differences, however, are less than meet the eye.

The fear sown by the ideological gap between East and West is surprisingly similar to the apprehension about the prospect of a greater Palestinian presence among Israelis. The possibility that capitalism would strike and corrupt the East terrified the communists no less than the threat of death. On the other hand, the "domino theory," which viewed the spread of communism as a looming threat, fomented wars and caused many casualties.

The gap between east and west in Germany was not born with the wall. Throughout history, the agricultural eastern part lagged behind the west, the north and the south - areas that were more vibrant and enjoyed geographic advantages. With or without a wall, the east suffered from economic stagnation. Much time will pass until unbridled entrepreneurship extricates the east from its deficiencies.

In the West Bank, even the wall has trouble creating the desired gap. The landscape remains the same landscape, the crops are the same crops. Even the residents look alike; it's easy to image them living side by side in peace.

We may learn something from the mistakes and achievements of the previous century. Multinational reunifications came and went against the backdrop of loyalty to a previous national identity, one that was clearly defined and provided a sense of security. But the walls came down, the walls between East and West in general, and in the heart of Berlin in particular.

The difficulty in administering a piece of territory that includes more than one national group is obvious. But the damage caused by artificial separation should also be obvious. The continued division will not stop population growth in the territories. In the end there will not be any distinction between small settlements and large blocs. All the blocs will have to be reorganized, a solution similar to the one being implemented in China: relocating whole towns, much to the chagrin of everyone.

We should think of a less cruel solution as soon as possible, rather than plod along for 40 years in the shadow of a wall. A discussion free from immediate threats and replete with thoughts on future dangers is likely to minimize the damage.