Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Building Walls

In conflict resolution work you often hear of societal connectors and dividers.

Connectors are relationships, institutions, networks and other things that allow or promote interaction between different groups. These might be national unions, sports clubs, mixed neighborhoods, and anything else that lets people connect.

Dividers are things that do the opposite. They might be ethnically or racially seperated institutions, like clubs or schools, structural issues as political access and marginalization, or divided neighborhoods, for example.

In peace work you try to strengthen and expand the connectors, and reduce or eliminate the dividers. Walls are, without exception, dividers.

During the Irish civil war, especially during the time of "The Troubles", youth from the Catholic and Protestant communities of Belfast would often riot against each other. Someone had the brilliant idea of building "peace walls" to seperate the communities, and stop the youth from provoking each other or attacking the other community. The walls failed to stop the violence, and only deepened the animosity and isolation of these two communities from each other.

A few years ago Israel applied the same logic the the Occupied Territories, building a "security wall", ostensibly to stop suicide bombers, but much more for the purposes of defining the acceptable borders of Israel. The result has been ever greater isolation of Palestinians and Israelis, with some Palestinian villages and towns completely surrounded by a 14 meter high wall of concrete.

Now the US, in its wisdom, is applying the wall logic in Iraq, surrounding the Sunni majority district of al-Adhamiya in Bagdad with a large concrete wall, for "the protection" of the residents of this city. As Reuters reports, "Many residents in Adhamiya, a Sunni Arab area surrounded on three sides by Shi'ite communities, had complained bitterly that the concrete barriers of the 5-km (3-mile) wall would isolate them from other communities and sharpen sectarian tensions."

Despite the vicious sectarian killing that's going on in Iraq, Iraqis, by-and-large, still see themselves and act like a mixed society. In Baghdad some Shia and Sunni families are even "swapping" houses as various neighborhoods are cleansed by militias and militants. The residents of al-Adhamiya rightly refused to be penned in with concrete, and many Shia joined them in denouncing the wall. Now the Maliki government has ordered construction of the wall halted, leading some Sunni residents of al-Adhamiya to rethink their belief that Maliki and his government are intent on oppressing them, as the New York Times reports.
This is a good sign that the connectors in Iraq still outweigh the dividers, and most Iraqis don't want any more dividers. Unfortunately the US doesn't necessarily agree. Aljazeera reports that, "the new U.S. ambassador to Baghdad defended the thinking behind the Adhamiya wall.
Ryan Crocker said the U.S. would "obviously... respect the wishes of the government and the prime minister" regarding the Adhamiya wall, but added that building the barrier made "sound security sense".
US officials have stopped short of saying that construction of the wall will be permanently halted, and there are another 10 communities in Baghad that are slated to also become, "gated communties."

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