Political Sociology of the Middle East
10 March 2009
The Israel/Palestine Conflict: An Inside View from an Outsider’s Perspective
Part I: Background about Kibbutz Ketura and the Machon Arava
I recently spent four and a half months in Israel at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, or Machon Arava. The Machon is a peace-building, environmentalist cohabitation program, located on Kibbutz Ketura, in the Southern Arava Valley of the Southern Negev.” The demographics of the Fall 2008 students consisted of 13 Israelis, 14 Jewish Americans (one of whom is Israeli-born but grew up in New York, another of whom has just made aliyah and will soon be a full Israeli citizen), one non-Jewish American (in the process of converting and becoming an Israeli citizen), seven Palestinians, and three Jordanians. The staff of the Machon, too, reflected diversity, consisting of Americans, Canadians, British, Curacaos, Jordanians, Palestinians, new Israeli citizens originally from all previously mentioned nationalities, as well as South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Venezuela, and of course, Israel-born Israelis.
The demographics of the Kibbutz were not nearly so interesting. While there were a handful of Israeli-born kibbutz members, and some immigrants from South America, South Africa, and a single Arab family (the family of a professor at the Machon), the vast majority of the 250 members of the kibbutz were Americans who have made aliyah, mostly in the 1970’s. The founders of Kibbutz Ketura were a part of the Young Judea youth movement, a non-denominational Jewish-American organization for
indoctrinationeducation on Zionism. As such, Kibbutz Ketura is a “pluralistic religious” kibbutz, unlike others in the area, which are mostly secular. Religious pluralism, in this case, means that prayer services are lay-lead by a different Kibbutz member every Friday night/Saturday morning/holiday in the traditional Conservative fashion. The Kibbutz store, pub, coffee shop and library are shut down for the Sabbath, and everyone, including the Kibbutz volunteers (comprised of Gareen, an Israeli youth movement for army-age kids; Young Judea groups, all American; and miscellaneous volunteers from all nationalities, most of whom are Zionist and volunteering as part of their “absorption” period while they wait to get their Israeli citizenship, but some of whom are not Jewish), get the Sabbath off from work. So it is for all intents and purposes a religious community. However, being religious is in no way a part of the Kibbutz Ketura rules, and there is always a Kibbutz car going to one of the neighboring kibbutzim for Friday night pub.
The Southern Arava Valley is about 35 miles North of Eilat, Israel’s southernmost port city. Kibbutz Ketura was about 6 miles from the Egyptian border, and 3 miles from Jordan. A common problem Kibbutz Ketura members had with Machon students was that students would cross the street from the Kibbutz, to go for long, ambling walks through the date orchards, and end up in Jordan. Though Israel and Jordan currently are at peace with one another, it is not a border one should illegally cross, even if by accident.
Part II: Academic and Programming Issues
Programming and academics at Machon Arava are all geared toward their motto, “Nature knows no borders.” Non-academic programming was focused on peace-building, sometimes summer-camp style: late night hikes, trust falls, free writing. Moreover, once a week, there is mandatory three-hour peace seminar, Peace-Building and Environmental Leadership Seminar (PELS). In my experience, most often these PELS sessions would dissolve into shouting or crying, or both. I would call this the “competing victimhood.” The PELS session would start out as Israelis and Palestinians trying to relate to one another the personal pain the conflict has caused them, while the Jordanians and especially the Americans tried to understand what it means to live in a state of constant war, or at least the threat of it. It would seem promising for a while. How else do we start to create peace than to put faces to the targets that bullets and rockets hit, faces to those on the buses that get bombed, faces to those starving in Gaza? Once each side realizes young enough that to continue the fight would be to potentially hurt someone they love, they will not have the desire to continue the fight. That is the hope of Machon Arava, anyway. Sadly, though, the PELS would often end up in people feeling as though they had to impress upon the “other” that their pain was worse. Conversation among ten people who shared a deep friendship would become a rivalry starting all the way back with grandparents, the Holocaust and the Naqba (the Palestinian Diaspora during and following Israeli independence), and continue chronologically to competing the pain in their personal lives of suicide bombers, checkpoints, quassams, bombs.
Throughout the semester, in PELS, everyone participated in the counter-productive blaming and competing victimhood, including Jordanians and Americans on occasions (often “siding” with those who share their ethnic background). However, it was noticeable how much the Israeli students took the stories of the Palestinians to heart. Although they would fall into the same trap of blaming “the other side” eventually, it became clear that of the students in our PELS, the Israelis were more inclined to see the Palestinian pain than the Palestinians were to see the Israeli pain. I noted this in my field notes toward the end of the semester, January 21st, that “it hurts me to say this, as I was never raised a Zionist, and have always been more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause,” but it was not possible to reconcile that observation. Seeing only such a specific section of each society, it becomes difficult to explain this reflection, except perhaps through the oversimplification that it is difficult to see beyond the walls of occupation. For one who is not allowed in Jerusalem, how can they understand or empathize with the terror of seeing the bus explode? For those who mostly see the violence against them being legitimized by an internationally-aided military, perhaps it is not so phenomenal that their strife is incomparable (to them) to rogue rockets and intermittent suicide bombs, internationally condemned?
As working through such an on-going conflict through personal contact is a slow and painful process, Machon Arava also approaches our attempt at peace through the academics. Classes are all centered on environmental studies, most specifically to the Israeli/Palestinian environment. As such, many issues are also central to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The best example of the academics at Machon Arava is “Environmental Mediation and Conflict Resolution”, a class entirely about solving conflicts, particularly over environmental issues. There was a lot of focus on the land rights and pollution issues surrounding Bedouins, and the water rights battle over the West Bank aquifers.
Part III: The Real Issues
Environmental scarcity is the “scarcity of renewable resources” inherent to life, such as water and farmland. This lack of resources will often lead to violence, but is never the direct cause of violence. It is the catalyst for violence that is truly about political and economic strife, or identity politics, or both. In the Holy Land, Israel’s constant land use battle with its Bedouins in the South, and its water battle with Palestine are the perfect examples of environmental scarcity, probably best defined as “internal with inter-state aspects” (between the government/identity groups and third-state immigrants). Palestine is currently under control of Israel, but is not quite a part of Israel. The Bedouin lands were traditionally left to their nomadic ways, but as Israel develops and industrializes, more Israel towns and companies are being built in the southern parts of their country. This puts Bedouins in a very complicated situation of being brought more under Israeli rule, but trying to continue to assert some autonomy.
Palestine’s aquifers yield between 590-690 mcm/year, and recharge 679 mcm/year. Why, then, is there a constant water crisis? Where is the water shortage coming from, and how does it affect society and everyday living within Palestine and Israel? There are many factors to consider, including population growth, demand rates for the future, potential depletion of water sources, as well as political power struggles, acknowledging Palestine as an autonomous entity, and protecting both nations under International Law.
Residing within the West Bank and Gaza, there are “359 abstraction wells” under Palestinian control. There is an additional 36 wells in the West Bank under Israeli control. Israelis consume, per capita, 300 liters a day, whereas Palestinian “per capita consumption of 35-80 liters a day [falls] far below the standard established by the World Health Organization (WHO), i.e., a minimum of 100 liters a day.” In addition to the simple absence of water abundance, the political situation of Israel/Palestine lends to this inequity. According to the UN, Customary International Law applies in cases where signed agreements regarding the use of “international watercourses are absent.” While determining legal entitlement to a shared body of water, all accepted allocation theories are based on the concept of State Sovereignty. As Palestine is has never been a Sovereign State, it is not accountable to, or protected under, International Law.
In the Interim Agreement signed in Washington on 28 September 1995, Annex III, Appendix 1, Article 40 stipulated “maintaining existing quantities of utilization from the resources,” along with a list of resources each side would have access to. The Interim Agreement was based on the existing situation, which means that it legalized the Israeli control of Palestinian wells in the West Bank. Palestinians are now forced to purchase water from Israel, and pay double Israel’s production cost for the water.
There is a way to be hopeful for the situation. Potentially, the hegemonic control over water resources can actually stabilize the tensions over water, if used correctly in fulfilling the minority needs, as well as coming up with mutually satisfying technical solutions to the water problem. For example, if Israel took control of more aquifers, and continued to withhold information from the Palestinians on the whereabouts of others, some Palestinians, already under occupation and angry, might decide to bomb a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. This would unleash a whole new cycle of violence and a scramble for security on Israel’s part. All in all, no one would benefit. On the other hand, if Israel maintained control of aquifers for its security purposes, but desalinated and distributed half its water to the surrounding Palestinian populations, tensions could be avoided. This way, Israel still keeps tabs on the ground water sources and can ensure that no terrorist groups are poisoning the water (their main claim for why they must control and hide the whereabouts of the aquifers), but also a fair water distribution plan is created. A fair water distribution plan appeases the occupied Palestinian people, making it safer for Israel to continue to maintain control, while more people survive.
Israel’s treatment of its other Arab dependents is not so different, though unlike Palestine, Bedouins have not been violent toward Israel. Most Bedouin communities want to live peacefully. Many Bedouins work for Israeli companies, fight in the Israeli military, and are eager for the promise of development if they conform to Israel’s Westernized way of life. Much of the younger generation of Bedouins does not seem to even mind that stability and safety from the Israel bulldozers will mean that their culture will be stripped from them, or so we students of the Machon were told by a young Bedouin at Wadi al-Naam.
Wadi al-Naam is an unrecognized Bedouin “township” in the Northern Negev. There are seven recognized townships, and several more that are in the process of being recognized, though others that are so marginalized they have not even begun the legal process of recognition. Recognition from the Israeli government affords Bedouins many of the same protection and privileges as Israelis. In recognized townships, the Bedouins have completely given up any semblance to the old nomadic ways, and often turn to agriculture, or sometimes complete dependence on Israeli resources. In return, they must pay taxes to legitimize their ancestral home, so that they may receive healthcare, and the comfort of knowing nothing will be built on their land without their consent. Unrecognized villages have no such comfort. Wadi al-Naam, for example, is the site of a constant battle ground for environmentalists and justice-seekers.
In 1979, the Ramat Hovav hazardous waste disposal facility was built on Wadi al-Naam lands. Though the Israeli government knew there were people living in that area, they consider unrecognized Bedouin villages to be illegal squatters and void of any rights to the land. Any understood sense of ownership for the Bedouins dating back to the Ottoman Empire was nullified by the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Thus the Israelis have complete legal sovereignty to build dangerous facilities on top of Wadi al-Naam. Ramat Hovav not only served as a waste disposal facility, but became a rather large industrial park, serving as the laboratories for many Israel companies. Many men at Wadi al-Naam were employed by Ramat Hovav and were for many years loyal employees of an industry that made them sick through unsafe disposal practices, by a system that continued to deny them rights to their land, no provided healthcare to the many diagnosed with cancer or other incurable illnesses in the lungs, eyes, and reproductive organs.
Even among those seeking environmental justice there is an on-going battle over the issue of Bedouin rights and Ramat Hovav. Some environmentalists are just as dismissive as those who work for Ramat Hovav. Alon Tal, the founder of the Machon Arava and the Megama Yarooka (the environmentalist political party), would love to see Ramat Hovav shut down, or at least making a stronger effort to produce their much needed products (pharmaceuticals and cosmetics central to Israeli economy) without environmental degradation. However, as much as he would like to see Ramat Hovav out of the desert, it seems he would like to see Bedouins out, too. In an article that appeared in Ma’ariv, a widely read daily newspaper in Israel, Tal names Bedouins as Israel’s number one environmental problem. He blames their over-grazing, poor heating and waste disposal tactics (Bedouins do often burn trash), all the while ignoring the fact that it is the Israeli government’s campaign of systematically confining the Bedouins to smaller pieces of land that are causing the harsh environmental effects of Bedouin culture. Anything human society does will impact the environment. When Bedouins were nomadic there was not a problem of over-grazing or intense air pollution because their grazing and their waste disposal were dispersed over vast lands, stretching across Sinai into the Northern Negev. Now there are border controls and Israeli urban development’s and laws prohibiting the Bedouins from being nomadic, but not enough laws to help the Bedouins, or at least the unrecognized ones, develop safer ways of life in response to their confinement.
Bedouins and Palestinian face a similar fight against the Israeli government. Is it coincidence that both nationalities are of an Arab race? Is it possible that these fights over resources are really racially motivated? Israelis face danger constantly from their fellow Middle Eastern countries. There are many in the neighboring Arab and Muslim countries that would like to see Israel off the map. It is not a stretch to look at the way Israel treats the Arabs within its borders and think that perhaps it is reactionary. There could be enough land and water for all, in a peaceful world. As long as Israel lives in fear of Arabs outside its borders, it seems the Arabs within its borders will live in fear of Israel. But if nature knows no borders, it does not matter who controls the land or the water, the pollution from developments like Ramat Hovav, or from the lack of waste water facilities in occupied Palestine will harm Israelis, Bedouins, Palestinians, and neighboring nations all the same.
Part III: Conclusions
January 30th, 2009, I write in my field notes as I sit in the Ramallah home of my Machon Arava roommate, Ghadeer:
All in all, it’s been a great semester. Despite all the bullshit, the shouting and arguing in PELS, the disorganization of the administration of the Institute, the tension between Machon Arava students and Kibbutz Ketura members, the mutual racism of Zionists and Palestinian nationalists, despite all that, I wouldn’t change my experiences for the world. The studying, the student life, the coexistence, the traveling, the people. I think I’ll miss it here, even though I spent a lot of time this semester complaining that this experience has jaded me. I now fear that people do not want to change. People do not want to listen to each other, even when they are friends. Bureaucracy is strong and difficult to weed through. The great Revolution may never happen, world peace may never happen, and I’ll have to accept that I really can only save the world in small steps, throwing one starfish at a time back in the ocean. But this semester has given me the patience to do that. I guess I’ll just have to add Arava to the list of places I call home.
Now, reflecting back on those words, I see there really is not more to say about my experiences. I saw people shouting horrible, racially derogative, emotional things at each other, and saw the same people drinking coffee and smoking nargilah together later that same day. When the war in Gaza broke out at the end of December, I saw an Israeli girl, whose brother was fighting for the IDF somewhere in Gaza, and a Palestinian girl, who had relatives and old family friends living in Gaza, go off and cry together. Because even though they were coming from opposing sides, we had all realized at that point that it was the same pain. The next day, I saw Israeli after Israeli (strangers), come out to our peace vigil and shout in people’s faces. I saw them ask orthodox Jews why they were anti-Semitic, and say nasty racist things to the Palestinians, and threaten to arrest us all (which potentially meant deportation for all non-Israelis). This was at a unified peace vigil, a protest not just to Israel’s most recent actions in Gaza, but also to the Qassams falling on Sderot, and the suicide bombs in Jerusalem, and to the roots of such violence. But people see what they want to see. They saw our signs had Arabic, and they didn’t bother to read the Hebrew, and they just started shouting. After seeing so much pain and so much love from the same people, after the shared tears of 38 people coming from a diversity of backgrounds in race, nationality, education, families, and viewpoints, it is hard not to feel weighed down by our self-assigned task of creating peace in the Middle East and ecological stability at the same time. But seeing that there are 38 people from a diversity of backgrounds in race, nationality, education, families, and viewpoints who are willing to share pain and love and tears in the name of Middle Eastern peace and ecological stability, it is hard not to gain a newfound patience for the small steps towards our goal.
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 Maski, Rebecca. “Bedouin Villified Among the Top Ten Environmental Hazards in Israel.” Bustan. February 2006.