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Will Trump’s wall work?

Image credit: Dean Hochman (Flickr: Creative Commons)

By all accounts, it appears that President Trump is proceeding with his signature policy of building a wall between the United States and Mexico. As such, it’s worth asking whether walls are an effective security measure to begin with.

In a recent interview, President Trump cited the success of Israel’s border wall:

‘All you’ve got to do is ask Israel. They were having a total disaster coming across and they had a wall. It’s 99.9 percent stoppage’.

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted:

‘President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea’.

However, this is only part of the picture. In his tweet, Netanyahu refers to the wall that Israel built along sections of its border with Egypt. This wall was built in 2013 to curb the influx of people fleeing from Sudan and Eritrea and travelling to Israel through Egypt’s Sinai Desert. But this is not the only barrier Israel has built to keep people out and, while Netanyahu may have explicitly referred to this wall, it’s unclear that President Trump was referring to the same one.

Israel has also built varying degrees of walls and fences around Gaza and the West Bank. Israel’s security fence along the West Bank was built in 2000 during the Second Intifada, after more than 900 Israelis were murdered in terrorist attacks. As such, Israel argues that there is ‘a clear correlation between the construction of the fence and a drop in the number of terrorist attacks’, with numbers falling from 135 terrorist attacks in 2002 to only nine in 2012.

However, Israel’s intelligence and army have also stated that the reduction is not from the wall itself, but can mainly be attributed to increased intelligence and operations. Whilst the fence does make it harder for Palestinians to enter Israeli cities, terrorists are still able to exploit its gaps. Critics argue that the fence did not prevent the recent spate of stabbing terror attacks carried out by West Bank Palestinians, and they also point to the tens of thousands of Palestinians who regularly scale over or crawl through gaps in the wall to work illegally in Israel.

For these critics, the wall is cast as a security theatre, meaning an action ‘taken by governments in order to make citizens feel safer because they can “see” something is being done, even when that action makes an almost entirely negligible contribution’ to overall security. Alternatively, the wall is seen as a method of annexing West Bank territory by Israel.

In addition, Israel’s wall falls short on security by another account. Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement that ‘the security fence erected by Israel around the Gaza Strip shall remain in place’ as part of the Oslo Accords. During the Second Intifada, the wall was torn down by Palestinians. However, even after it was subsequently rebuilt, thousands of missiles have been fired at Israeli civilian centres over the top of the wall. Moreover, Hamas built tunnels underneath the wall into Israel, with the ostensible purpose of attacking or kidnapping Israeli targets.

It should be noted that not only Israel, but also Egypt and Lebanon have built walls to protect against Palestinians. In the case of Egypt, a sophisticated tunnel network ran underneath the border for many years, which at one point included the smuggling of lions and monkeys for a local zoo. Since the Arab Spring, Egypt has shut down many of these tunnels, and has also created a ‘buffer zone’ by illegally demolishing thousands of houses and forcefully evicting their residents. In Lebanon, a wall has been built around the country’s largest Palestinian refugee camp ‘to stop the infiltration of terrorists’.

While it’s often raised in the media, Israel’s security wall is not without precedent. In 1989, India built a wall hundreds of kilometres long through Jammu and Kashmir, despite 80% of this route covering disputed territory. More recently, throughout the Syrian refugee crisis, many European nations have built walls to keep people out.

The United States itself already has in place a comprehensive network of security walls and fences. President Trump’s authority to extend this along the entire border comes from the 2006 Security Fence Act which received bipartisan support at the time, including from then Senator Hilary Clinton. The existing fence cuts through private property, and critics of the wall point out that the land along the Texas border also belongs to private citizens. Trump’s wall will also not be immune to the other issues faced by walls around the world: people climbing over or tunnelling under. In fact, since 1990, more than 200 tunnels have been found underneath the US-Mexico border.

As Christopher Wilson the deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center has argued, ultimately a wall on its own can only ever be but one part of a solution. Whether or not the proposed US-Mexico wall is only security theatre remains to be seen, but two things appear to be clear. First, the wall is a ‘nice one-liner and it sells well’. Second, building a wall is symbolic, both as a signal to international leaders and, for many, as an item of ‘division, fear, and detachment’.

Shmuel Levin is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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