Daily Archives: October 1, 2010

Good fences make good neighbors?

by Rhodri C. Williams

A few reminders of how so many of the more festering conflicts we see today can be reduced (perhaps somewhat simplistically) to real estate disputes.

First, and most monotonously familiar, we have the protracted negotiations to end the Middle East conflict. The latest wrinkle, reported in the New York Times, involves an alleged US threat to state the obvious if Israel refuses to extend the OPT settlement construction ban and allow negotiations to continue:

…if Mr. Netanyahu turns down the United States, officials said, Mr. Obama could provide the Palestinians with their own assurance: his formal endorsement of a plan under which Israel’s pre-1967 borders, with land swaps, would form the baseline for negotiations over territory.

Second, in India, the NY Times reports on a case of micro-partition, with a court decision dividing a religious site contested between Hindus and Muslims between them, with the proportions allocated apparently significantly correlated to the statistical likelihood that a deity was born on exactly that spot:

…each of the three judges issued a separate opinion, diverging in interpretation of certain facts, including over whether Ram was born precisely on the contested site. Yet the court did hand a significant victory to Hindus, who had argued that Ram was born beneath the central dome of the destroyed structure. That portion of the contested property was granted to Hindus as part of their two-thirds share, presumably to erect a new temple to Ram.

Meanwhile, in the run up to the South Sudan independence referendum, commentators in the Boston Globe remind us that the fate of the peace process now hangs on similar line drawing exercises in three patches of turf most of us have never heard of – and hopefully never will:

… efforts [to prepare for the referendum] should not come at the expense of progress in the three transitional areas established by the agreement. The people of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile were promised a democratic process of popular consultations, while residents of Abyei were given the right to decide, through a separate referendum, whether to stay in the north or join the south. Regrettably, preparations for the Abyei referendum remain deadlocked and the popular consultations have been postponed. These three areas have received much less attention than the southern referendum, but they are a weather vane of the north-south relationship and have the potential to derail the entire peace deal.

Land is unique, indispensable and inherently limited in supply, which is why it is the source of so many disputes even in relatively peaceful parts of the world. Add a shake of spiritual identity and a dash of conflict and you have a problem that can fester for decades.

Drawing a line usually involves an allocation of unfairness rather than an achievement of justice. It is, as the Times pointed out in the India case, Solomonic. But if everyone can ultimately live with the line, then they can stop dying for the land.