Thursday, May 20, 2010

Welcome to the Arava Institute

“Arava Institute provided a liberal and free atmosphere I thought existed only in my dreams.”
(From Interview with “Sawsan”)
Many of the Israelis and Arabs I met at the Arava institute in the fall of 2008 still hold onto the pains of history. Israel still occupies the Palestinian Territories; Palestinian refugees continue to live in slums in the West Bank as though they are still waiting to go home to a place they have not lived in for sixty years. Despite increasingly limited freedom of movement, Palestinian terrorists continue to penetrate Israeli society, reminding many Israeli Jews feelings of Holocaust-era anti-Semitism. Israel still awaits recognition of its right to exist from many of its neighbors, without recognizing its responsibility for its own provocation of the terrorism it faces; all the while, Palestinians continue to wait for recognition of their right to a state of their own. These continue to be arguments among my friends, the students of Machon Arava.
The demographics of the fall 2008 students were 13 Israelis, 15 Americans, seven Palestinians, and three Jordanians. Of the American students, one was raised Christian but was in the process of converting to Judaism and becoming an Israeli citizen, one was born in Israel and had dual citizenship (though she spent the majority of her life in New York state), one had made aliyah that semester and would not be going back to the United States anytime soon (aliyah means “ascent,” and is the term for moving to Israel and becoming a citizen), and the rest were Jewish Americans, mostly of Ashkenazi (or Eastern European) descent and white-skinned. The staff of the Machon, too, reflected diversity. Though most of the staff were Jews, they hailed from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Curacaos, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Venezuela, and of course Israel. There was also a Palestinian professor, and a couple of Jordanians who worked in the office (the Jordanians were all Arava alumni).
I am a part of this ethnography as well, as I was also a student at the Machon Arava, growing and learning right alongside those whose stories appear in this chapter. It is important to note this aspect of my study, in order to properly understand my own opinions which I’m sure have become clear in various parts of this thesis. Most of the observations I make from the time that I was there, I make as a friend and colleague of the people I observed. The interviews I conducted one year after our semester together were each tailored individually to the student I was interviewing, based on what I already knew of them and what they told me during the interview. When I first sent out the email asking my friends to let me interview them, I received responses from the following: four American students, two Palestinian students, and an Israeli student, as well as a British teacher’s assistant (TA) and an Israeli teacher (a married couple, though interviewed separately). When the Arava recruitment group came to Hampshire, I was able to have brief interviews with another Israeli student from my semester, and a Jordanian who was in his second year of the Arava Masters program during my semester at Arava. Though this meant he was living and studying in Beer Sheva, at the Desert Studies campus of Ben-Gurion University, we had the same Kibbutz host family, and he came back to the Kibbutz to visit them often. He also worked on developing the solar power with our “father” at the Arava Power Company, so I met him many times in my stay in Israel.
Certain questions were specific and presented to everyone: “What is your family background/how were you raised to view this conflict?” “Can you name one moment from Machon Arava that sticks out to you or encapsulates your experience there?” and most importantly, “Do you really believe that this environmental approach to conflict resolution can help bring about peace for Israel and Palestine?” Other questions regarding their studies or where life has led them in the last year varied according to the interviewee. The interviews were mostly conducted via Skype, not in person, and were directed more through casual conversation than formal interrogation, though each interviewee knew that these questions were specifically for my academic purposes. As certain students requested specifically that their names be changed, I have decided that most names in this study be changed, to protect their privacy.
Sawsan, quoted at the top of this chapter, was the only Jordanian student in our semester that did not have Palestinian roots. She was also the most guarded in our interviews. She was the first to insist upon a name change. During our interview via Skype, for which she was using a computer in a public internet café, she had to type the words “Israel,” “Zionist,” “UN,” “Palestinian,” or “liberal,” in case anyone else in the café could hear or understand her. By coming to the Arava Institute, she estranged half of her extended family, and the other half only still speaks to her under the assumption that she will never return to the land of the “Zionist Enemies” (Sawsan, personal interview). Sawsan found at the Arava Institute a world where people cared about one another. In Jordan, she has fellow liberal friends, but outside her circle of communists, there is no one she can talk to about Palestine, or really about her political beliefs at all. At the Arava Institute, even the people who disagree with her are safe to talk to, to be honest with. This liberal bubble outside of corrupt, negative influences inspired to Sawsan to continue fulfill her dreams of transboundary environmental education (in secret from her family), and is exactly what the Arava Institute should be all about.
The Machon is located on Kibbutz Ketura, in the Southern Arava Valley of the Southern Negev. The Southern Arava Valley is just over 30 miles north of Eilat, Israel’s southernmost port city. Kibbutz Ketura was about six miles from the Egyptian border, and three miles from Jordan. It is possible to walk to Jordan from the Kibbutz, though it is a dangerous endeavor. There is no fence or any sort of border mark on the other side of Kibbutz Ketura’s date fields, but if one walks too far out, even accidentally (as some Machon Arava students and Kibbutz Ketura volunteers have done), the military will track the border-jumper down, and arrests could be made. However, these soldiers are used to this sort of foreigner accident and I was told they were more likely to come and intimidate the volunteer or student who crossed the border rather than actually arrest him/her.
Kibbutz Ketura as a whole consists of a handful of Israeli-born kibbutz chaverim (meaning “comrade,” a term carried over from when all kibbutzim were actually communist), and some Jewish immigrants from South America, South Africa, and a single Arab family (the family of a professor at the Machon), though the vast majority of the 140 adult members of the kibbutz are Americans who have made aliyah, mostly in the 1970s. The founders of Kibbutz Ketura were a part of the Young Judea youth movement, a non-sectarian Jewish-American organization for education 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, which falls in the middle of the orthodox-liberal spectrum of Judaism, and is egalitarian, but otherwise includes a traditional prayer service. The Kibbutz store, pub, coffee shop and library are shut down for the Sabbath, and everyone gets the Sabbath off from work. 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, and one can take the regional bus to Eilat on Saturday, for those less traditional. The idea is that a middle-ground approach provides an atmosphere that is most accommodating to the varying degrees of observance among the chaverim.
Relations between Machon Arava students and the majority of the Ketura chaverim are passive, at best. The students live in housing units in their own neighborhood, separated from the other Kibbutznikim, but are otherwise meant to be integrated in Kibbutz living. The founders of the Machon Arava (such as Alon Tal) happened to be members of the kibbutz who felt that environmentalism was an under-taught discipline in Israel, and saw that it could be a path toward peace for Israel with its neighbors that share so many of the same resources. As a result, they were able to create this institute on Kibbutz Ketura land. Perhaps at first the chaverim were more open to the idea of foreign students. Considering that everything on the Kibbutz must be voted on by various committees, it seems likely that they must have been friendlier in the beginning, to have let the institute open on Kibbutz Ketura. By the time I studied there, twelve years after the founding of Machon Arava, most chaverim were less than pleased by the presence of these students because of problems that had arisen in the past. Mostly, the chaverim felt that the Arava students were self-righteous Leftists and were fed up with being told how they should water their gardens, though there were a few incidents of pub brawls within the student community that the chaverim resented being brought into their living spaces.
Students do, however, have their allies among the chaverim. There are still several Arava professors, office staff, and sympathizers of our cause living on the kibbutz. However, even some of these sympathizers cannot always leave aside their personal opinions to perpetuate the message of peace and equality the Machon is trying to spread. When the war in Gaza broke out, Machon Arava staged a peace vigil. We thought our signs were benign (messages like “We refuse to be enemies,” “Violence is not the answer,” “Jews and Arabs stand together”); we were not trying to scold Israel for its military actions, but to speak for peace for all. But because the signs were in Arabic, as well as Hebrew and English, the vigil raised a ruckus in the area, among neighboring kibbutzim as well as Ketura. The timing may have also been an issue, as the Hamas rockets had been striking Israel for years, and only when Israel reacted was there a response from the “yafeh nefesh,” as one angry Israeli called us (meaning “beautiful soul,” which is like calling someone a “bleeding heart”). During my interview with Rinat, who was raised in a religious Jewish home, she recalled being asked “why she hates Jews” in response to her involvement in protesting Israel’s actions, to which she had no answer at the time. The vigil was cathartic for the student body; my roommate who went home to Ramallah every weekend to take a class there stayed in Ramallah for over a week after the outbreak of the Gaza War. It was only after our peace vigil that she felt comfortable coming back to us. We know we did the right thing for the Machon, but Kibbutz Ketura felt as though Machon Arava had betrayed and insulted them as hosts, and tensions were high for the remaining month and a half of the semester.
Though Kibbutz Ketura is made up of mostly American-born Jews who would probably consider themselves liberal, and some of them even work for this idealistic cooperative environmentalist network, it is important to remember that these American-born Jews uprooted their lives with their families to move to Israel. They were raised to be Zionists, Jewish nationalists, though still living in Diaspora, to believe that Israel belonged to the Jews, that it is the birthright of the Jews that has finally been restored after 2,500 years of Diaspora, as though in apology for the Holocaust, the latest and most brutal attempt – of many – to annihilate Jews. They believed in Zionism enough to end Diaspora for themselves and become Israeli. To them, each war Israel fights is a holy nationalist war for the very survival of the Jewish people. This is the atmosphere in which Machon Arava is placed.
The student body itself has similar difficulties drawing lines between Palestinian Solidarity and Zionism. Moti, the one Israeli who responded to my interview requests, told me how his family and friends were all moderately left wing, and yet he and his father and most of his friends and their fathers all fought in combative tank units during their military service. Moti served in Gaza and on the Lebanese border during the Second Intifada, and was called up from the reserves to fight in the Lebanon War in 2006. He believes in defending his country, but also, he and his family would gladly leave their home in the Golan Heights if it truly meant peace with Syria. Then there’s Mordecai, the one self-proclaimed Zionist American student, who spent a lot of the semester defending Israel against all the criticism of the rest of the students, but who came to the Arava Institute in the first place to find a new perspective because he is not “a stereotypical Zionist” and was fed up with the racism found in some of his Zionist circles in the U.S. Alice, the teacher’s assistant for the mandatory climate change class, told me that in her university days she was just starting to be involved in environmental and anti-Iraq War activism but was still also involved with Zionist organizations. It took her a while (and a fact-finding tour through Israel) to be comfortable confronting her hypocrisy of being anti-war but pro-Israel without asking questions. For students like this, I imagine the complex relationship with the Kibbutz was all the more reflective of what they were going through internally at the Arava Institute.
Once a week at Machon Arava, there is a mandatory, but uncredited, three-hour peace seminar, Peace-Building and Environmental Leadership Seminar (PELS). In my experience, most often these PELS sessions would dissolve into what I would call “competing victimhood”: shouting or crying, or both. 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. These discussions 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. Since leaving Machon Arava, anytime Israel or Palestine make it into the news, Mordecai now thinks “What does this mean for my friends?” before making a decision to support or oppose any action Israel does (Mordecai, personal interview). Sadly, though, during the semester itself, the PELS would often end with 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 and continue chronologically to competing about the pain in their personal lives of suicide bombers, checkpoints, Hamas rockets, bombs.
Rinat notes that throughout most of the semester, we were able to leave PELS at PELS: to shout and cry for three hours, break for lunch, and come back together for an afternoon of laughing and fun together. But at the end of the semester, with the violence in Gaza, there was a short period of time where we could not leave PELS out of our social life. Groups split off by nationality and a general sense of sadness descended upon us. Still, we bounced back quickly with our vigil at Yotvata (pictured below), and Sawsan even says that the intensity of those few weeks made us finally realize how to run a PELS session and our dialogue more meaningful (Rinat and Sawsan, personal interviews).
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 ignore that observation. To observe how stuck in their own narrative the Palestinians were, felt like a betrayal of the recognition of Palestinian oppression under Israel. The complete lack of balance of power makes the violence from the Palestinian side more understandable. But violence is still violence, and being understandable is not the same as justifiable.
In one of the more emotional PELS, the discussion was about the balance of violence, power, and the comparison of life on one side of the conflict versus the other. It was December, the week following the first air raids on Gaza, and the discussion started because the count of Israelis killed by Hamas rockets had reached maybe seven by that point, and the Israeli military had already killed hundreds of Palestinians. Gaza is a small and crowded territory. It is not possible to shoot large weapons from planes and hit only Hamas targets. In the process of defending nationality and the “competing victimhoods” once again, someone mentioned Gilad Shalit, a young Israeli soldier who was kidnapped during the violence of 2006. In exchange for his release, Hamas demanded 450 Palestinian captives. The same story flipped: one life for hundreds. Israel refused to release any of their Palestinian prisoners, and Gilad Shalit remains a hostage. The Israeli student sitting next to me pointed out that an Israeli prison is more humane than whatever hole Hamas keeps Shalit in, where the Israeli public is not even sure if he is alive or dead. The tensions rose, and we were dismissed for a break by the PELS facilitator. A Palestinian student approached the Israeli beside me, in tears, and said, “The prisons are only humane for the names the public pays attention to. There are other prisons where Palestinians ‘disappear’ to. Women and children, Neta. Why would children need to disappear?” I do not know of the reality of such prisons, but the energy that is created by believing them to exist is moving enough. I think it’s this level of emotion that makes Bridget nervous about “fact-checking.” In addition to the need to check gut reactions with reality, there is also a level of sensitivity that is missing from fact-based discussion. “Common ground is not in the facts,” Bridget says, “A lot of gray developed,” (Bridget, personal interview) and the question of secret prisons is certainly a gray area that requires sensitivity along with the questioning of its truth.
I cannot condone acts of terrorism from Hamas anymore than from the IDF, but I can comprehend why my Palestinian friends do. To understand the lack of acknowledgement of Israeli pain from the Palestinians in our PELS sessions, it is necessary to deeply examine the state of occupation, and the power dynamics in which they live. I found Michel Foucault’s theory on Sovereignty and the balance of power a perfect template to understand the persistence of the Palestinian “competing victimhood.” Foucault speaks of the relations between “truth” and “force” (Foucault, 53), getting to the heart of my investigation. He explains that to de-center oneself – that is, to choose a side – allows for clarity in the perception of the conflict, and thereby allows for that clarity in truth to be used as a tool to assert one’s rights, and this conflict will only end when the “truthful” are the victors. Although that explanation leads to new questions on these matters, it does at least explain the philosophy behind the dynamic of the PELS that surprised me so. Within this historic-political discourse, the Palestinian students needed (even if this need is subconscious, as I suspect it is) to assert the truth of their hardships over those of the Israelis in order to assert their demands to human rights, currently denied them by the Israeli government. Only by using truth as their weapon can they establish victory over the current Sovereignty that occupies them, thus ending their constant state of war. My roommate, Bissan, told me that living in the bubble at the Arava Institute was often difficult because of the “conflict between the peaceful life that I had with my friends inside the Institute and the real painful life outside the Institute,” (Bissan, personal interview). This conflict fed the need to cling to the Palestinian pain, as though in fear that listening to Israelis would be a betrayal of those dying in Gaza and a denial of the truth as their only weapon left.
In Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book, Environment, Scarcity, and Violence, he analyzes the debate surrounding environmental scarcity and its effects on society. The debate dates back to Thomas Malthus, an eighteenth century economist who believed that “finite resources place strict limits on the growth of human population and consumption” (Homer-Dixon, 28), and that once we’ve exceeded those limits to reach a point where the world has an unsustainable number of inhabitants, society will break down in the fight over remaining resources. Optimistic economists argue with Malthusian thinkers, believing that technological advances, along with properly functioning economic and political institutions, will allow infinite population and consumption growth. Distributionists (whom I agree with most) argue that neither view is quite correct, because imbalances of power will always occur and the unfair distribution of scarce resources – not the scarcity itself – will cause the breakdown of society. The Malthusian argument prevails within most environmental movements, especially among ecologically disadvantaged groups – those that are socially marginalized and therefore subjected to higher environmental risks, such as industrial parks being built near their homes – because it drives the lobby for environmental conservation, whereas the optimistic argument prevails within the World Bank (Homer-Dixon, 28) because it allows for the developed world to continue to grow and consume under the assumption that technology and social reform will clean up the environmental degradation before the Earth becomes unlivable. Distributionists are often left out of the mainstream debate because their view puts too much emphasis on the problems of social and economic inequalities that those in power are trying hard to ignore.
Homer-Dixon names five general types of violent conflict, though I will only talk about two here. They are ethnic clashes arising from population migration and deepened social cleavages due to environmental scarcity, and civil strife caused by environmental scarcity that affects economic productivity, and, in turn, people’s livelihoods, the behaviors of the elite, ability of the state to meet changing needs, etc. (Homer-Dixon, 5). Environmental scarcity is the rarity of natural resources basic and necessary to life: water, land, etc. There are different forms and causes of scarcity, but in the case of Israel, it is the “structural scarcity” – the unequal distribution of resources – that is the key to the violence. Structural scarcity is likely to occur when the resource is excludable, meaning that access can be easily blocked by some actors with the aid of property rights and other institutions. Water, being that it can only be accessed at certain extraction points in the desert regions of Israel/Palestine, is an easy resource to control in this way. The natural water scarcity alone would not need to cause violence, if the resource was used cooperatively, but since Israel blocks Palestinian access and uses three times more water per capita than the Palestinians, the structural scarcity of water becomes a vital point in the larger conflict. Homer-Dixon uses the Israeli/Palestinian water conflict as an example of “resource capture” (Homer-Dixon, 15), one form of interaction between supply, demand, and structural scarcities that lead to violent conflict. He defines resource capture as the occurrence of powerful groups within a society using their power to shift in their favor the laws and institutions governing a scarce resource. As the populations of both Israelis and Palestinians rise, the resource comes into higher demand, lower supply, and stricter distribution laws are enforced by Israel, the powerful party, against the Palestinians, the ecologically and politically disadvantaged party, as a result.
Ideally, environmental issues, Homer-Dixon says, may be used as vehicles to rally dissent, and the movement that arises can end up bettering institutions and governance, as well as fairly distributing resources. If the government is perceived to be responsible for the people’s hardships, then the people will revolt. The likelihood that this will lead to physical violence is higher in societies that already have “clear social cleavages” (Homer-Dixon, 145), such as ethnicity or nationalism, as Israel/Palestine does. Change cannot happen if grievances are not addressed, and Homer-Dixon implies that even violent social movements can produce positive results, but does not offer examples of this working. Of course, the environment is often also used as a weapon and becomes a victim of war, so violent conflict of natural resources – even if it ends with a more just system of allocation – will likely end up destroying resources in the meantime, and self-reinforcing this spiral of violence, institutional dysfunction, and social fragmentation, before any stabilization occurs. In the case of Israel/Palestine, this cycle has been continuing for forty years, and there’s little hope at the moment of any fair distribution of water or stabilization of negotiations any time soon.
But how do the students of the Arava Institute view the hopes for the future? Bridget “feels like there’s a solution because there has to be a solution… life goes on after shit happens.” It’s not clear what the solution will be, but the fighting can’t go on forever. Mordecai and Rebecca both think that more focused should be placed on the environment. As Rebecca says, “you need something for [Israelis and Palestinians] to talk positively about and work together for,” but as Mordecai points out, first more resources need to be fed into that route. A lot of money and emotional energy goes into getting politicians around a conference table, but maybe more resources should be put to use through alternative environmental methods that “could definitely do a lot for peace-building.” Rinat and Bissan are less certain of the efficacy of environment in peace-building, but agree that in the meantime it is essential. Bissan is now “a strong believer in peace negotiations” because of the faith in people that grew out of her interactions at Arava, and is pursuing a Master’s degree in Environmental Policy. Rinat says that the conflict still feels too far away to know if environmental cooperation will truly lead there, but in any case, transboundary environmental work is essential for the betterment of the world, and Arava has certainly taught us all that “Nature Knows No Borders” (personal interviews).
Others from the Arava Institute feel less secure speculating on the future. Sawsan and Moti seemed to have positive outlooks, but did not want to directly comment on the possibilities for positive change in the Palestinian struggle or environmental conflict. Hazem completely ignored the question, but his new company working toward making Palestine more environmentally sustainable in their development efforts, spreads more optimism on the change Arava inspires in people. Amitai and Alice, on the other hand, the two faculty members I was able to interview, are less inspiring. Alice talked about feeling out of place in Israel, and how malleable identity is there, and insinuated to me that because she doesn’t belong there, she is not allowed to speculate on the possibilities for change in other people’s futures. Amitai outright says he does not think environmental cooperation or organizations like the Arava Institute make a difference. He has little hope for the future, and any solution there could be will only come through serious peace negotiations within the political realm. What we do at the Arava is “virtuous and beautiful” (personal interviews), but ultimately too small and marginalized by the greater politics of the situation. It concerns me to see his pessimism, and that he keeps teaching at the Arava Institute, perpetuating hope he doesn’t actually feel.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Water Politics

“Peace with Syria… will obviously require the return of the Golan.” (from interview with “Moti”)

In its hegemonic control of water in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel violates UN Resolutions 242 and 338, and customary international law, as well as Jewish law. In this way it shows its lack of commitment to being a true democratic state that exists peacefully within a globalized context, as well as living up to its claim of being a Jewish State. In this study, I show how Israel has intentionally used water as a tool of warfare and occupation. However, even Israel knows that the water resources in its territories, on both sides of the Green Line, are scarce, and requires cooperative operations for supplying the demand. In this way, I believe that the water crises in the Middle East can be transformed into a tool of peace.

Currently, there are 359 abstraction wells in the West Bank under Palestinian control, most of which are privately owned. Combined, they yield 62 million cubic meters per year (mcm/yr). Israel controls an additional 36 abstraction wells in the West Bank, which yield 42 mcm/yr (Jayoussi, 60). Considering Israel also has access to the 600 mcm/yr from the Jordan River (a source which Palestinians are prohibited from using), and the use of five aquifers within its 1948 borders (Lake Tabariyya, the Western Galilee, the Coastal, the Naqab/Negev, and the Carmel), and considering the populations of Israelis and Palestinians are comparable, it seems unnecessary that Israel should commandeer almost half of the West Bank groundwater resources (Daibes, 10). Aside from the groundwater, Palestinians do control all 300 springs in the West Bank, which yield a total of about 103 mcm/yr, but half of that water is brackish and unusable for anything other than agricultural use. In Gaza, 53 mcm/yr is allotted to the Palestinian Municipal and Industrial sector, of which approximately 2% is bought from Mekerot, the Israeli water company. Because most of the water in Gaza is undrinkable, and desalination plants are expensive and require land that the Gaza Strip cannot afford to industrialize, 85% of the groundwater is used purely for agricultural purposes, with a small percentage of water, supplemented by Mekerot, going to public consumption.

Domestic Palestinian public consumption varies from 30 liters per capita per day (l/c/d) to 110 l/c/d, according to geographic area and time of year. This is an average of 60 l/c/d, which fall far below the World Health Organization’s (WHO) minimum of 100 l/c/d. Israelis within the 1948 borders consume approximate 300 l/c/d (Jayyousi, 67). Settlers in the West Bank (despite their very existence being illegal by International Law) consume on average six times more water per capita than their Palestinian neighbors.

Though the situation looks bleak now, the promises of groups like FoEME making a difference in the future is encouraging. There is hope to progressively establish long-term sustainability, starting with understanding and agreements without the formality of binding agreements. Trust should be built first, and treaties that can actually be followed will come later. If Israel and the Palestinian Authority can work together, as they are trying to do with the Red-Dead Conduit, on gaining knowledge of the transboundary water supplies, they can explore options of water-sharing that will be satisfactory to everyone. Even though this will undoubtedly lead to some cessation of power of water that Israel enjoys, it will be ultimately good for Israel in the promise for peace that this trust will allow for. There will need to be lawyers, economists, and environmental scientists from both sides, so that every aspect of the water-sharing plan can be considered, and so that everyone feels included and listened to. There should also be a neutral third party with their own team of scientists, economists, and lawyers (no politicians allowed!). Everyone should agree on “interests, not positions” (Daibes, 45), and “seek a solution by mediation, conciliation, arbitration, and juridical settlement” (UN Charter, Article 33). The water dispute must be solved as an interlinking element to the conflict that calls for comprehensive, cooperative treatment before final status agreements can be reached.

The Systems of Occupation Add Up to Environmental Racism

“Recognizing Palestinians have equal rights to the land doesn’t make you anti-Semitic. It makes you a rational person… Is that allowed?” (From interview with “Rinat”)

The goal of any settler movement is to expropriate increasing plots of land from those who live on it to those who “should” live on it. The settler movement in Israel is often excused from its actions, and comparisons to South Africa or early America are brushed away because these Jewish settlers are not colonists, “but returning natives” (Mamdani, 244). The settlement of the state of Israel was seen as a “return home, but a return so marked by a callous disregard for the rights of those who were already home, who had never left home” (Mamdani, 246). Settlement in the West Bank and Gaza, which is internationally recognized as illegal and in violation of UN resolutions and human rights, did not begin until after the 1967 war of Arab aggression and so is seen as legitimized by some hard right Zionists. However, the continual civilian settlement in the Occupied Territories is inexcusable. Even most American Zionists at this point agree that “of course Israel should stop settlement construction” (Mordecai, personal interview), as is evident in the growing support for groups like Americans for Peace Now (the American lobby in support for Israeli settlement watchdog organization Shalom Achshav), J Street, and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, all self-proclaimed progressive Zionist organizations that promote a peaceful, just two-state solution, requiring the pullout of civilian settlements in the Occupied Territories, and the breakdown of the Barrier, or at the very least, a rerouting of the Barrier so that it actually follows the Green Line (to be discussed further down).

Map from

The motives behind the settlement movement in the Occupied Palestinian Territories vary by settler, or more likely, settlement, and the processes by which settlement is accomplished are many. For the Israeli government and military, supported by right wing Zionist organizations, the impetus for this settlement process is to establish a “demographical balance” (Weizman, 126) between Jews and Arabs in the Occupied Territories in an effort to suppress and thus more easily control Palestinians, under the guise of security needs. For the ultra-Orthodox, the goal is to settle “Judea and Samaria” (the biblical names for the area now encompassing the West Bank, adopted officially as the Zionist term for the West Bank in 1967 as a part of rhetoric of the ancestral right Jews have to the land) in order to be closer to the places of biblical importance in the West Bank. These ultra-Orthodox settlers are actually anti-Zionist, as they “don’t consider Israel a true state until the Messiah himself (it will be a him, in their mind; not a her for sure) lands on the holy ground” (Mort, I have seen some settlers fight IDF soldiers; I can only conclude that they have no respect for the government that protects them, and often cause more trouble for the Israeli government and military than the Arab residents of the region that the government chooses to vilify.

The majority of these settlements are built on the West Bank’s hilltops. Though this is highly strategic for Israel – in that, from the hilltops, the civilian settlers are safer from potential terrorist attacks from the Palestinians living in the valleys below and the military settlements are a point that makes constant surveillance of the Palestinians living in the valleys below for further security – this utilization of the high grounds actually turned out to be legally convenient for Israel. In 1979, under pressure from Palestinian farmers and Israeli and international human rights organizations, the Israeli High Court of Justice declared the use of the language of “temporariness” surrounding the early settlement building[1] null and void, based on the fact that entire families were being moved in, synagogues were built, etc. These settlements also did not solely fulfill the requirement of military necessity, being that they housed civilians. However, the Court did not directly outlaw settlements in general. Having lost the loophole of “temporality,” the Israeli government looked to history for another way to legitimize their land-grabbing.

According to Ottoman Law, any land that had not been cultivated for three consecutive years automatically became public land, called “makhlul.” Public land can also become privately owned, if it is cultivated for ten consecutive years by a single farmer. Israeli law allows the state to claim any public land as its own to use as it sees fit. All land that the Palestinians could not prove ownership to, and even land that could be proven as private but could not be proven as being cultivated for three consecutive years, was claimed as “state land” for settlement building. Most often, these were plots of land that were unsuitable for farming, such as the tops of the hills, where soil is too rocky and water does not collect. By the 1990s, if one were to draw a horizontal line a few hundred meters above the sea level across the West Bank, almost all of the land above the line would be Israel-owned, about 38% of the total land mass of the West Bank (Weizman, 117).

When this program of claiming uncultivated land began, many Palestinian farmers began fervently planting on their unused plots of land, in an attempt to prove their ownership over the land. In response, the Jewish National Fund began planting pine trees wherever they legally could. Pine trees not only grow quickly, but also deposit acidic needles which kill all other plant life that share the same plots of soil. These trees created the “Green Belt,” realizing the Zionist mission to make the desert green in the aesthetic of the European lands from whence they came, and purposely made the land unsuitable for anything else, to allow for further claims to state land (Weizman, 127).

Sometimes, the Israeli government would find pieces of land that were “unused” that it could claim for settlement that surrounded an island of Palestinian-owned orchard. For the first thirty years of the Occupation, these Palestinian farmers were able to get permits to cross through the Jewish settlements to get to their orchards. In 2000, however, at the start of the second Intifada, these permits were revoked, forcing Palestinians to leave these plots of land unfarmed for three consecutive years, and allowing the settlements to move in to these islands (Weizman, 117).

Furthermore, some of the so-called uncultivated plots of land were actually used for other purposes, such as grazing lands, and were indeed important to Palestinian livelihood. The confiscation of these lands illustrates Israel’s environmental condescension toward Arabs, as is described below in relation to leftist Israeli politician Alon Tal, in the assumption that the Palestinians did not know how to properly use their land. Not only did the Zionists not understand that there could be different ways to properly utilize a desert environment without planting or developing extensively, but by taking away grazing lands, and pushing Arab herders into increasingly small areas, they opened up the issue of over-grazing in other areas, creating entirely new environmental problems.

Separation Barrier through Beit Jalla

The Separation Barrier (the neutral term, though it is also known as the Apartheid Wall by the Palestinian Solidarity Movement and the Security Fence by the Israeli government and right wing Zionists) serves similar purposes as the settlements. Also under the pretense of “security needs,” which is a real concern but not entirely genuine in the building of this project, the Barrier allows the Israeli government and military to limit Palestinian movement, access to cultivatable land, and to expropriate lands for Israeli use. The Barrier project was developed with the policy-makers’ tool of “constructing inevitability” in mind (Latour), meaning that the possibility of the project was framed in such a way that made the wall sound like the only possible answer to the security threat from the Palestinians living under Occupation. The Israeli general public supported the building of the Barrier before the route was actually mapped out, because it was presented as the only effective solution to the security problem.

There were two theoretical notions of building inevitability employed in the building of the Barrier. The first is the Constructionist heuristic (the truth of a theory or the success of a project is the result of – not the reason for – its stabilization and acceptance), which is to say, the Barrier was proposed as the only answer for keeping so-called terrorists out of Israel and only after it is built could results be seen. This plays into the canonization process of building inevitability, the framing of a “project box” such that debate is made impossible, and convincing the public that it already approves (i.e. the Israeli public has always approved of reducing terrorist attacks, and the Barrier is the only way to keep out terrorists, ergo, the public has always approved of the Barrier). The Constructionist heuristic moves along this canonization process by eliminating debate through the claim that only after the Barrier is built and stabilized will Israelis see the decrease in terrorist attacks and fully accept the Barrier. The second notion employed by the constructionists responsible for the Barrier is the use of a “Whig history” (Latour), which is the process of rewriting a storyline after the project is built to establish its success, in the vein of “history is written by the victor.” Statistics, according to the Israeli government, do show that terrorist attacks within Israel have decreased since the building of the Barrier. So, according to the Israel government, the Barrier was clearly the only answer, as promised.

The third notion of building inevitability, clearly not employed in building the Barrier, is the act of putting enough resources and support into a project, such that overturning it becomes more expensive than the building of the project itself. The Barrier has been the most expensive project in the history of the State of Israel, costing $3 billion (a great deal of which was borrowed from the United States). It seems that almost any solution to the problems of violence coming out of the West Bank, even if begun after beginning the building of the Barrier, would have been more financially feasible.

But how do these awful and seemingly separate symptoms of the Occupation play into the water crises and the hope for environmental paths for peace? First of all, it is important to note how the Barrier and the settlers are intertwined with one another. The Barrier does not follow the Green Line, an issue on which Israeli public opinion is not as unified as it is on the building of the Barrier itself. Much of where it zigzags over the Green Line into Palestinian Territory is in areas where settlements have been, or are planned to be, built. Though this is done, for “security reasons,” to protect the settlers, it is done extravagantly to allow for further settlement growth and further expropriation of Palestinian resources. Lara Friedman from Americans for Peace Now says it best in her “Settlements in Focus – Top 5 Bogus Excuses for Opposing a Settlement Freeze” ( She explains the expanding of settlements based on the Barrier like a hand print: “Splay your fingers wide apart and … trace your handprint. Your handprint represents the built-up area of a settlement. Draw another line connecting your fingers… this line represents the land the settlers might argue is, in effect, already part of the built-up area. Draw a circle around the handprint, leaving a few inches of empty space between this new line and the handprint inside. This line represents the security fence surrounding the settlement, which the settlers might argue is already in effect the ‘footprint’ of the settlement on the ground.” They will keep building until they run out of land or legal loopholes to keep building on.

The Barrier not only closes off land from Palestinians so that the settlers can expand, it also separates families. There are many Palestinians between the Green Line and the Barrier within the West Bank and in the disputed Jerusalem area, totaling a staggering 250,000 people who are caught in closed military zones, or No Man’s Land, and cannot access their families, jobs, or farms (Weizman, 25). During the Machon Arava mid-semester field trip, we stayed in a hotel in Beit Jalla, an East Jerusalem village. One Palestinian student’s grandfather lived right next the hotel, but on the other side of the Barrier, which cuts through Beit Jalla. It was frustrating for him to spend two nights so close to family he could not visit and even that frustration pales in comparison with the frustration of those for whom the Barrier separates from their livelihood.

More to the point of the environmental misappropriation, the settlements, as they are built on high ground, often rest upon water extraction points on the hilltops. In some areas where the settlements are not so directly on top of a water extraction point, the Barrier is built around the nearest one, so as to still allow the settlers access to Palestinian water. The settlements themselves were largely constructed to be Zionist farms or a utopian “Garden City,” in the case of Ma’ale Adumim, one of the early settlements in the northern area of the West Bank. Though, as was already mentioned, the hilltop land was largely unsuitable for farming, thus making it legally possible for Israel to claim, this did not stop the settlements from trying to farm, and using a lot of water in the process. Even now, in the recruitment of new settlers, this image of “greening the desert” is used, through names like “The King’s Garden,” which is what the mayor of Jerusalem calls the area of Silwan that he would like to Judaize. The Israeli press reported in March Mayor Barkat’s plan to demolish 40 Arab houses in the area, in the effort to rebuild “the ‘gate of Paradise,’ where… the garden will one day be restored to its heyday, and those who come here … will feel exactly as King Solomon did when he wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes among the perfumed gardens and the roses that are mentioned in the Song of Songs” (Shalom Yerushalmi, Ma’ariv). The settlers are also enticed to Judea and Samaria with panoramic images, though they are often actually pictures of Palestinian orchards in the valleys below the settlements themselves.

In addition to the settlements and Barrier being an excuse for Israel to expropriate land and water resources, the settlements also add to the large problem of waste water treatment that Palestinians face. Both in Gaza and the West Bank, due to the Israeli Occupation’s pressure on the Palestinian economy, infrastructure is poorly maintained. Particularly near the refugee camps, effluence runs over the ground, untreated, and damages the environmental stability of the surrounding areas. Despite the fact that the settlements could get the means from Israel to build waste water treatment facilities in their camps, they often do not. It is unclear if this is the choice of the settlers or the government, and I suspect it is because land is limited (legally speaking), and they (the settlers or the government) do not want to use it for such facilities when they could be using it to add more Jews to the demographics of “Judea and Samaria.” Because of their strategic placement on hilltops, however, this problem often just runs down into the Palestinian valleys below, and has little effect on the settlers themselves. In the Occupied territories, there are fewer environmental regulations and Israel has found it economically and morally convenient to blame Palestinian lack of interest in the environment for the levels of pollution in the area, while Israel continues to dump its waste into the West Bank (Freijat, 169).

Much of the Zionist rhetoric in settling and developing desert lands involves the condescension toward Arab use of land. In the first decade of the Occupation, Moshe Dayan’s Likud government used a process of “enlightened colonialism… [leaving] orchards and culture” in Palestinian regions around the settlements. In this time, Israel provided advanced agricultural tools, genetically modified seeds that grew better in the tough desert soil and money for Palestinian farmers, and agricultural productivity increased 16 percent annually on Palestinian farms, in the hopes of establishing a friendly relationship with their occupied people. This went on until the Likud government realized that this was counter-productive to increasing settlement growth. Although the productivity did not immediately cease after Israel stopped providing farming paraphernalia, as the water quotas for Palestinians continuously decreased in the subsequent thirty years, so did productivity, eventually leaving more lands uncultivated for Israel to take.
In some places around the borders of the West Bank and Israel, the Barrier has been rerouted over the Green Line into Palestinian territory without the need of settlements and the pretext of security. In many areas, the environmentalist movements within Israel lobbied for rerouting the Barrier in order to preserve “special and sensitive areas like cliffs and springs or eagle nests” (Weizman, 169) or in one particular case, a wild grove of rare irises that grow close to the Green Line, the implication being that Arabs are uncultured and do not know how to take care of the wildlife if left on their side of the Barrier.

Alon Tal is a revered Israeli environmentalist and politician for the left-wing party Megama Yarooka (Green Party). When he came to the Arava Institute for a week to guest teach, most of the Israelis and even some of the Americans behaved as if we were in the presence of the Messiah. The students of Machon Arava, which is supposed to be an organization completely unaffiliated with any political movement, staged a rally in the Northern Negev for Megama Yarooka. Alon Tal is the unofficial mascot for Israeli environmentalism, so much so that our peace-building environmentalist cohabitation program hung onto every green word he said.

But beneath his progressive ideals, Alon Tal is also an American expatriate. Like the chaverim living on Kibbutz Ketura, he felt Zionism was a cause worthy of picking up his life in the states and moving to Israel. When talking about pollution in the Israel/Palestine region, he hones in on any opportunity to blame the Arab population. When talking about the Yarkon River, made famous when a bridge collapsed, dumping high-profile athletes into the river below during the opening procession of the Maccabee Games (Jewish Olympics), he is quick to point out that the accelerated levels of pollution came from “Samaria” (Tal, 7). From the pollution levels alone, three of the athletes died, and many more have permanent crippling illnesses, and Tal has no problem insinuating that this level of pollution (and subsequently the deaths of the athletes) is the fault of the Palestinians. A few years later, Tal made similarly thinly-veiled racist comments, naming the Bedouin as one of Israel’s top ten greatest environmental threats in a Ma’ariv (an Israeli daily newspaper) article. Tal does not go on to point out that the Occupation of the West Bank has made infrastructural upkeep and improvements difficult, causing waste water treatment facilities to fall by the wayside. Nor does he mention Israel’s development of the Negev, refusal to recognize Bedouin villages, or general ignorance and negligence of this entire sect of their residents, all of which may contribute to the recently escalated environmental damage caused by Bedouin habits, which are – admittedly – environmentally unfriendly.

It is this lack of official recognition, coming even from the Left, which deters environmental cooperation, and does not encourage grassroots environmental movements within Arab communities. Israelis revere the environment, but “the Palestinian Arabs who dwell in it are viewed as part of its natural features – a kind of fauna: objects, not subjects” (Tal, 33). However, all hope is not lost. Beside his apparent underlying personal racisms (which many of his fellow politicians unfortunately share), Tal is a true environmentalist, and a smart man. He knows that the pro-peace camps and the environmentalist organizations are often filled with the same people. He knows that, prior to the existence of any formal “green party,” 68% of the activists and staff at the Society for the Protection of Nature voted for the leftist Meretz and Labor parties. Beside his condescension toward Arab non-environmentalists, he knows that environmental cooperation is the only way for enduring environmentalist policies to be developed, because nature knows no borders. This is why Alon Tal is the founder of the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies, or Machon Arava. It is through initiatives like Machon Arava, through the education of young people, that environmental cooperation can be made to be sustainable, and only if environmental cooperation is made to be truly sustainable, can it hope to lead to trust-building and peace talks. Tal believes in the beneficial social progress that comes out of disaster. If we talk about what went wrong in history, we can come up with a better plan for the future. As Rebecca, an Arava student with a familial background similar to my own said when I interviewed her a year after our semester together, “Environment is critical. You can’t just get people to talk about violence all the time; you need to have something for them to talk positively about, too, and work together for.”

A new company in Palestine, the Palestinian National Renewable Energy Company (PNREC), was established at the end of 2009 and is the first of its kind. Its mission statement is to reduce regional disparities, enhancing economic units in decline throughout Palestine, to analyze and monitor ongoing developmental projects according to environmental issues of the area, and, overall, to understand the world’s environmental problems in order to accomplish sustainable, environmentally-friendly development for Palestine. Its first project is to implement in Palestine new waste treatment technology patented by Soluciones Termicas Aplicadas (STA), a Spanish company. The PNREC is running environmental assessments, cost/benefit analysis, and hopes to help to establish these plants in the West Bank in the near future, and eventually Gaza. Although it is a business, not a non-profit or non-governmental organization, and although it does not directly involve any peace initiative, this first wholly “green” business, based in the West Bank, has Arava Institute alumni written in its over-arching philosophy: “There is no Planet B,” and it is no coincidence that their first project deals with the transboundary issue of water.

PNREC co-President Hazem Ziada was a student at Machon Arava in the fall of 2008, and learned there that “together we can make peace and … nature has no borders. We built a strong relationship despite our different races and cultures,” (Ziada, interview). Ziada already had a degree from the Miser University for Science and Technology in Egypt before coming to Machon Arava, but did not know or care much about the Earth. Known for giving the best hugs on campus and for wandering around the kibbutz wearing his kaffiyeh (getting many suspicious glances from the chaverim), Ziada was always clear that his main concern was for his people’s freedom. Not environmental justice, but complete justice. Now, he is the co-president of a business boasting to be Palestine’s first “Ecological and Profitable” (from PNREC Mission Statement, given me by Ziada) development analysis company.

Aside from the many environmentalist initiatives being implemented throughout the Israeli/Palestinian/Jordanian region coming from Machon Arava alumni, there are a few unaffiliated grassroots organizations in the area, some of which even work on cooperation and transboundary environmental problem solving. Israel has the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), which focuses on numerous environmental issues, including the degradation of the Sea of Galilee, and Adam Teva V’Din, which focuses on preventing sewage water from leaking into rivers and streams, among others. Israeli groups tend to use politics as their medium for change; they lobby and rally until new policies are enforced to provide a more environmentally friendly future, rather than implementing projects for immediate change. While their approach is ideally more sustainable than an immediate, direct-action approach to change, their plans often get caught in the thickets of Israeli bureaucracy, and take a long time to come to fruition.

The decline of the Dead Sea is visible from the view from atop Masada

The Red-Dead Conduit is a great example of a transboundary environmental plan being put into place, requiring cooperation from Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the World Bank. It is also a great example of how these actions take a long time to come to fruition. In an effort to bring water and friendlier relations to Israel and Jordan, the Red-Dead conduit, a 110 mile canal and tunnel system to transfer water from the Red Sea to flow into the shrinking Dead Sea, has been in the planning and researching stage since 2005. Jordan, Israel, and the PA asked the “World Bank to oversee the implementation of a feasibility study and environmental and social assessment for the project in accordance with the Bank’s policies and guidelines” (Bank Information Center, The goals of the operation are to halt the degradation of the Dead Sea, both out of environmental responsibility and to continue the economic benefits that the Dead Sea affords Israel, and to allow Jordan and the Palestinian territories access to more water. The policy makers of all parties involved have agreed on the terms of this project, and it has the potential to be a great trust- building economic endeavor. Unfortunately, as of the summer of 2009, environmental scientists and Friends of the Earth Middle East were still skeptical of the environmental safety and feasibility of the project, and studies are not scheduled to be completed until the end of this year. After five years of researching and planning, how many more years the conduit would take to build is unknowable at this time. Although the idea of the Red-Dead Conduit was an inspiration for those invested in transboundary environmental cooperation, and as such is the subject of multiple MA theses at the Arava Institute, the length of time devoted to this project before results will even begin to be seen is unfortunate.

Organizations like the Palestine Hydrology Group (PHG) and the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC) were established solely for the most important environmental issue facing the Israeli/Palestinian societies: water. These non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are not non-political organizations, and both affiliate with left-wing groups within the Palestinian political world. This sometimes causes tension with the Fatah-centered Palestinian Authority (PA), with whom the NGOs have to interact on a regular basis. Adding to the inner turmoil of the Palestinian pecking order for water services is the added tension of the PA and the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) having so little actual power over the water resources in the West Bank.

These NGOs, in conjunction with international groups, have tried to set effective protection guidelines for drinking water sources, particularly the Mountain Aquifer, the West Bank’s main source for total water consumption and the provider for one-third of Israel’s drinking water. However, as NGOs, they do not have the ability to dissuade Israel from its firm control of the West Bank and its consequent economic downslide, nor do they have the ability to persuade the PA that waste water treatment facilities and water conservation plans should be prioritized and are worth making compromises for. The PA, meanwhile, continues to mostly ignore these NGO’s and focus on big-picture issues of security and statehood with little apparent concern for the immediate suffering of their people.

Despite the difficulties, Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), an Israeli/Jordanian/Palestinian chapter of Friends of the Earth International, has been able to implement and sustain the “Good Water Neighbors” project. The “Good Water Neighbors” project was established in 2001, and it works with neighboring communities in Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories, teaching about water security and encouraging peace-building dialogue. The project’s work has ranged from teaching at local grade schools and developing low-tech water treatments all the way through lobbying to the highest levels of European Parliament and the United States House of Representatives. Its annual meeting was held five months ago (November 2009), wherein 25 mayors from the participating communities were split up by geographic region (Jordan Valley, the Mountain Aquifer, and the Dead Sea) to discuss the role of communities in sharing water resources and why it is important for the communities to work together.

[1] Occupation is, by legal definition, temporary; thus, civilian settlement in occupied territories is against the stipulations of The Hague and Geneva Conventions. However, the Hague Convention did allow for temporary military settlements in occupied territories for security reasons, which the Israeli government used to legitimate the early settlements.