Today’s Berlin Walls

The fall of the Berlin Wall united Germany and eliminated the Cold War's most potent symbol. Here are five barriers that continue to divide nations and disrupt lives today. Part of an FP series, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A Palestinian woman walks by the Bethlehem terminal where US artist Philip Nash is finishing a mural representing a hand bearing the symbols of the five main religions on the finger tips connected, in his vision, through the heart in the centre of the palm, on the concrete seperation barrier, 07 November 2007. AFP PHOTO/MUSA AL-SHAER (Photo credit should read MUSA AL-SHAER/AFP/Getty Images)

The Israel/Palestine “Separation Barrier”

The Israel/Palestine “Separation Barrier”


What: The Israeli government first proposed a physical barrier between Israel and the West Bank in 2002, saying it was necessary to prevent terrorists from entering Israeli territory. It is now more than half complete. Although often referred to as “the wall,” in most places the barrier consists of an electronic fence surrounded by trenches and barbed-wire fences and is roughly 60 meters wide.  The barrier has 66 gates, though many are often closed.

How it divides: The most controversial aspect of the barrier is that most of it runs not along the “green line” separating Israel and the West Bank, but through ostensibly Palestinian territory. Palestinians living between the barrier and the green line require permits to remain in their homes. The wall has also been extended in several locations to encompass Israeli settlements on the West Bank, effectively annexing sections of Palestinian territory. The relatively few crossing points, even fewer of which are open at any given time, disrupt cross-border Palestinian trade. The International Court of Justice at the Hague has declared the wall to be in violation of the Geneva Conventions and ordered construction to stop. Like the Berlin Wall, the solid sections of the barrier have become a target for Palestinian graffiti artists. 

Future: Israel has been forced to make several adjustments to the route of the wall due to challenges filed in Israel’s Supreme Court. It now expects the wall to be completed next year, though that is already seven years behind schedule.  Thanks to delays and cost overruns on the $2.5 billion project, some analysts now predict it will never be completed.

The U.S.-Mexico border fence

David McNew/Getty Images

What: In 2006, President George W. Bush approved a congressional plan to build 700 miles of fencing in several sections along the U.S.-Mexico border, citing the need to curb illegal immigration. The fence consists of both physical barriers and “virtual fences” of cameras and motion detectors. About 613 miles of fencing have been constructed so far. There have been several congressional proposals in recent years to extend the fence along the entire U.S. border.

How it divides: There are an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and more than a million people are arrested each year trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. The current round of fence construction was approved over the protests of then Mexican President Vicente Fox — who likened it to the Berlin Wall and warned that it would damage relations between the two countries — and border protection agents themselves, who argued that immigrants would simply find new routes. In addition, the fence’s proposed route would divide the territory of several American Indian reservations and disrupt the migratory patterns of a number of animal species.

Future: U.S. President Barack Obama promised to review the current construction plan during his campaign, but has so far made no moves to halt fence construction. A majority of Americans support building a fence along the entire border.

The Korean Demilitarized Zone


What: Running along the 38th parallel that has marked the division between North and South Korea since World War II, the demilitarized zone (DMZ) is, in fact, one of the world’s most heavily militarized borders. On either side of the 4 kilometer-wide border, nearly 2 million North and South Korean troops are stationed. 

How it divides: Described by former U.S. President Bill Clinton as “the scariest place on Earth,” the DMZ has been mostly peaceful in the five decades since the end of the Korean War, so peaceful, in fact, that the area has become a haven for wildlife, including several endangered species. There has been something of a competition in recent years to see which side can build the most impressive guard posts and fortifications along the DMZ, a contest known as the “skyscraper wars.” Although more than 16,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the end of the Korean War, most of them have chosen to cross into China first, a much less dangerous proposition. The recent, and unusual, defection of a South Korean man to North Korea through the DMZ has prompted Seoul to launch a review of border security.

Future: A recent program allowed some South Koreans to cross the border to meet with relatives, from whom they’ve been separated since the end of the war. The program was halted after North Korea captured a South Korean fishing boat. For the most part, cross-border contact between the two Koreas remains almost unheard-of and given Kim Jong Il’s nuclear provocations, is likely to stay that way.  

The Wagah Border Crossing (India-Pakistan)


What: With the exception of the restive Kashmir region, the India-Pakistan border has remained mostly peaceful for the last six decades. But in Wagah, a divided town that hosts the only road link between India and Pakistan, the bitter division between these two rivals is literally on display every night. At the nightly “retreat ceremony,” Indian and Pakistani soldiers parade just inches from each other across the demarcation line before shutting the road for the night and lowering their flags.

What it divides: The partition of India divided communities and families and sent millions fleeing across the border. The two countries have remained in a state of heightened tension over nuclear competition, fighting in the disputed Kashmir region, and more recently, terrorism committed by Pakistani-based militant groups. The insurgency in Kashmir has claimed more than 47,000 lives and, much to the consternation of U.S. authorities, has remained Pakistan’s top military priority despite its own growing insurgency. During times of particularly high tension, the border crossing is closed.

Future: Despite the simmering tensions over Kashmir, cross-border trade between the two countries has increased in recent years. As one small sign, the nightly confrontation between the two countries militaries at Wagah has been toned down to make it less aggressive. The guards now end the ceremony with a brief handshake.  

The Great Firewall of China


What: China’s Ministry of Information Industry has set up the world’s largest system of Internet censorship and filtering. Through regulation of the country’s Internet service providers, authorities block users from accessing content on controversial subjects like Tibet or Falun Gong. International sites like the New York Times, BBC, and Wikipedia are also frequently censored. An estimated 40,000 cyberpolice are employed to monitor the country’s Internet users.

What it divides: Not all of today’s Berlin Walls are physical. The world’s largest population of Internet users is still unable to access the entirety of the World Wide Web, stifling public debate and the ability of Chinese citizens to interact with the outside world. China’s efforts to clamp down on online dissent go beyond blocking content. Amnesty International estimates that the country has the world’s highest number of imprisoned cyberdissidents. Other authoritarian regimes like Iran and Burma have begun to take note, employing Chinese methods to control their own growing Internet populations. International companies like Cisco, Yahoo!, and Google have also taken heat for facilitating, and at times even cooperating with, China’s censorship efforts.

Future: Savvy Chinese Internet users have proven extremely adept at circumventing the regime’s Internet controls, using false ISPs and other tricks to deceive the censors. Recently, a “Berlin Twitter Wall” website was set up in Germany, allowing users around the world to post messages in honor of the wall’s 20th anniversary. The site was overwhelmed with Chinese Internet users demanding that Beijing loosen its Web restrictions.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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