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On the fence: Cornell sociologist Christine Leuenberger to study impact of West Bank barrier

The separation barrier at the Palestinian city of Qalqilya, West Bank.

The West Bank barrier began to rise in 2001 amid controversy inside and outside of Israel. When it is finished in 2010, the 436-mile-long wall will physically divide Israel and the West Bank. Cornell sociologist Christine Leuenberger of the Department of Science and Technology Studies (S&TS), who also has studied the Berlin Wall and Korea's demilitarized zone, was awarded a Fulbright Scholar research grant to study the social and cultural ramifications of the West Bank barrier. Leuenberger is one of approximately 800 U.S. faculty and professionals selected this year to travel abroad through the Fulbright Scholar program. She will spend four months doing fieldwork on both sides of the barrier beginning February 2008.

"It's an unfortunate commentary on our time that barriers again seem to have become fashionable," says Leuenberger, senior lecturer in S&TS. "We know from history that they can -- and often do -- have disastrous consequences for people directly affected by their construction."


The very name of the barrier is politically determined: To the Israeli government, it is the "security wall"; some Palestinians refer to it as the "apartheid wall." Leuenberger uses the neutral "separation barrier." She will work with social geographer Izhak Schnell, a professor at Tel Aviv University, and Riad Malki, director general of the Panorama Center for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development, in Ramallah.

Her project is not political. Leuenberger intends to "trace how different social groups and cultural entities are affected by this barrier in different ways, how they create and attach meaning to the barrier. We're building a three-country, collaborative project. We hope to pull in a lot of researchers and doctoral students from Palestine and Israel to really get a handle on the social and cultural implications of that barrier. We will try to document and analyze the whole array of meanings that various social groups and scientific communities ascribe to that object."

Leuenberger and her colleagues will study Israeli and Palestinian media references to the barrier and conduct interviews with individuals who encounter it every day. The study will examine a broad cross-section of both societies and review social science and psychology literature.

"I'm particularly interested in psychologists' and psychiatrists' perspectives on the effects of this barrier," Leuenberger says. "Palestinian psychologists point to the enormous psychological consequences for Palestinians in particular. The barrier disrupts social networks and social relations within their communities. I'm interested in comparing accounts of Palestinian and Israeli psychologists because they are often very different. You have the same material barrier made meaningful in very different ways, depending on which side of the barrier you live on."

Leuenberger will also consult with Eytan Heller, whose short film "Love Sum Game" -- of a Palestinian and an Israeli playing tennis over the 8-meter-high wall -- has attracted attention in Europe, and other artists and photographers living on both sides of the wall.

"I'm interested in how artists address the wall, how they construct and deconstruct the legitimacy of the barrier," she says.

Given her long-standing scholarly interest in barriers, Leuenberger has come to conclude, "Building such barriers is usually a desperate, and often counterproductive, move. You're not solving the underlying social problems. The wall just becomes representative of the conflict, which is not resolved and may even be intensified, as a result of it."

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