Ben-Gurion University, together with the Israel Association for European Integration (IASEI), hosted a major international symposium yesterday, with the participation of some seventy scholars from throughout the world, to discuss and analyse the impact of COVID 19 on the management and control of borders in Europe, Israel and the rest of the world. A large group of the world’s leading border scholars and practitioners, some of whom are engaged on behalf of their own governments or international agencies in assessing the changes which are currently taking place in the management of borders, made presentations – all of them, it should be said, sitting in the comfort of their homes – from the Borders in Globalisation (BIG) project in Victoria, Canada, to the Center for Border research at the University of Joensuu in East Finland, and the Laboratory for Territorial Analysis at the University of Grenoble in France – enabling other participants to compare and contrast the structural changes which have resulted from the desire of governments to close down their homeland spaces to non-residents and non-citizens and to prevent the further spread of the Corona virus.
The Geopolitics Unit at Ben Gurion University has now been asked to be the Israeli participant in two major international border surveys which will be taking place over the next few months, in what will surely be the largest international cross-country comparison of border management and border control to have taken place at a global scale. Not only do countries learn from each other but they also share the important questions concerning the future role of borders, if and when we can safely say that the Corona threat is behind us, something which no government is able to guarantee at this stage.
For Israel, closing down its borders was a lot simpler than in most other countries. Although Israel does have land boundaries with both Jordan and Egypt, the number of people who actually cross is limited. These consist mostly of tourists travelling through Aqaba or Taba into Jordan and Egypt respectively, with almost no return flow of Jordanians or Egyptians into Israel. The two exceptions to this are the group of Jordanians from Aqaba who have been working in the Eilat hotel industry in recent years, all of whom were laid off as a result of the tourist shut down, and Palestinians who cross in and out of Jordan from the West Bank via the Allenby Bridge crossing to the south of Jericho, a crossing which Israelis are not allowed to use.
Almost ninety percent of the people arriving in, or departing from, the country come through one border point, namely Ben-Gurion International Airport. Closing down the airport, the cessation of international flights to and from Israel, and the permission of entry only to Israeli citizens returning home, effectively closed down the country in an hermetically. The existing security controls which are stringent at the best of times, were able to keep close control of movement, as indeed the big brother ability to track down Israeli citizens who were not adhering to the quarantine regulations. The Hamagen app on our smart phones which allowed every Israeli citizen to receive and update his /her movements and to ensure that they haven’t been in contact with people carrying the virus over any given period of time, was one of the first of its type to go into operation in the world. But it also carries with it a worrying feeling that one’s human rights are being infringed and that each and every resident of Israel is – or could be – under constant surveillance in an Orwellian scenario which even Orwell himself could not have imagined, given the limited technology available at the time of his writing 1984, the book in which the State keeps track of the movement of every citizen.
Indeed, our surveillance technology of today is far far beyond what Orwell, James Bond or other future oriented spy masters of the 1960’s and 1970’s could ever have dreamed of, with their primitive spy cameras or listening devices.
Given the severity of the Corona virus and the success of the Israeli government in taking action swiftly, the long term civil society implications of this system of control, clashing as it does with basic democratic and liberal values of freedom of movement, has not yet become an issue of national concern. But as the virus gradually recedes and the controls stay in place, this will worry most of Israel’s citizens. It is ironic that in the wake of the Knesset passing the Norwegian Law (the law allowing new Knesset members to replace those who have a Ministerial position – almost a third of the current Knesset) there was not enough time to renew the emergency police powers which enabled the virus control measures to be enforced or for citizens to be fined for infringing the rules. While this seems likely to be reinstated within the next few days, one does not hear tens of thousands of people objecting to the continuation of such draconian measures, for as long as they appear to be working in the fight against the spread of the virus.
Another border crossing to have been affected by the Corona restrictions is the movement of Palestinians in and out of Israel from the West Bank, at any one of the five crossing points along the Separation Barrier / Wall / Fence. In the first days, all such movement was stopped altogether, excepting a few thousand who were allowed into Israel for a period of a few weeks without returning to their homes, so as not to become infected (even though the infection rates inside Israel were even lower in the West Bank). But within days this policy proved unworkable as Israeli employers were unable to provide adequate living conditions for the workers. They all returned home and went back to their daily trek across the border – at least those who still had jobs to come to. But the overall number of Palestinians crossing into Israel on a daily basis has been significantly reduced and is today approximately 40-50 percent of the numbers who were crossing into Israel in the immediate pre-Corona era. Those who do cross are not subject to any increased medical checks – that is the responsibility of their employers.
A growing number of Palestinians have taken to crossing through the many gaps in the fence which still exist, especially in the remoter areas, often under the watchful eye and with the full knowledge of the border control police. This has always been an unofficial policy to enable a “breathing space” for those who wish to visit family or undertake work but do not have the necessary, expensive and hard to come by, official employment permits. Even in the southern section of the Green Line, where much of the fence has been replaced by an ugly concrete wall from Metar almost as far as Amatzia and Bet Guvrin, there are still many such “breathing points” further east, where uncontrolled movement continues unabated.
For their part, Israeli citizens continue to drive in and out of the West Bank at will, the majority being the settler population. While for Palestinians the Separation barrier is almost equivalent to a national border, for Israelis – at least for those who travel in the West Bank – it is no more than an administrative hindrance, while no new medical checks have been put in place for Israeli citizens crossing into, or out of, the region.
The Separation Barrier crossing gates can be shut down by the government if and when they desire, in much the same way that curfews are imposed during festival periods (for Palestinians) or at times of heightened security risks (for Israelis as well).
A country’s borders have always been a key way by which movement in and out of the homeland space is managed. If in the past, security and terrorist consideration were used by the Israeli government to undertake such practices, the heightened risk of the pandemic has justified the government imposing such controls and closing down the country, in a way which has never happened in the country’s 72 year history.
Out Geopolitics unit at Ben-Gurion University will continue to assess the impact of the way in which the country’s borders are being controlled, managed and closed down. Information will be shared with similar research units throughout the world and, it is hoped, will be used as a means of informing practitioners and policy makers of those practices which are more, or less, effective. Equally we will monitor the threats and dangers to our democracy which occur as a result of the excessive use of security narratives, which are often used to justify the continuation of such measures, even when the initial reason for them being implemented no longer apply.
It is a two edged sword. Israel has used its control and management of borders successfully to combat the spread of the virus, but it also needs to know when such controls must be eased and when the population is allowed to get back to living their lives without undue surveillance or control.