For the past three and a half months, I have had the privilege to work at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura. Like many Americans in Israel, I have been able to see the beauty of Israel, from the acacia trees in the Negev, to the mystical waters in the Dead Sea, to the white stone in Jerusalem. I feel that my experience may be particularly unique because at the Arava Institute I have had the opportunity to experience how Jews and Arabs have the potential to not only live peacefully together in Israel, but also become great friends.
Of course, due to the timing of my stay, I have also seen that this is not always the case. Only weeks ago, the State of Israel was in armed conflict with Gaza. At the Institute, we all had to watch together as Israel was again in the spotlight of the world stage, and hopes of peace in the Middle East seemed even further set back. For many new residents of Israel, this surely represented a first opportunity to witness the tragedy of the conflict here in person.
For me, this first eye-opening moment was quite different, and came only one day before the violence escalated. For my internship at the Arava Institute, I work under Dr. Clive Lipchin in the Center for Transboundary Water Management, and on that day, we were out in the field installing a hydrological monitor in the Hebron stream west of Be’er Sheva. A tractor was digging deep into the stream bed, revealing layer upon layer of grey muck. As Clive and I stood atop a pile of soil, observing the progress, he turns to me and says, “You see, this is all because there is no peace process.”
The stream we were studying, the Nahal Hebron within the Besor Watershed, begins in the West Bank, flows into Israel through Be’er Sheva and multiple Bedouin villages, and out to the Mediterranean through Gaza. It is heavily polluted, and because it crosses multiple hostile borders and through so many varied administrative districts, no one wants to claim responsibility. We were installing monitors in the stream in multiple locations to try to get a sense of what kinds of pollution are in the stream and map the entire watershed to show how it is truly a regional issue that cannot be solved unless parties on both sides work together.
Another element of our project had been planning a conference where we would bring stakeholders in wastewater management from Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan together to frankly discuss the latest innovations and challenges. It was meant to supplement our research and bring home the idea that these issues must be worked out on a regional scale. Before Operation Pillar of Defense, the conference was only in its planning phases. We debated whether the timing would still be right or if we would need to cancel. Ultimately, we decided the issue was too important, and we would try our best to bring everyone together less than a month after the violence had ended. Amazingly, late into the night before the conference began, our guests from Gaza gained permission to come, allowing us to truly include all voices.
The conference commenced with a statement from the director of the Arava Institute, David Lehrer. He explained how what brought the group together was not that this region lacks water: “What we really lack is trust.” Over the course of the conference, professionals from government, NGOs, and the private sector discussed an array of topics in Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian water management. At times, issues were hotly debated, as century-long conflicts revealed sharp differences in opinion on how to fairly distribute and treat water in the region. The conference truly showed how such a universally essential natural resource has become so political here. However, at the end of the day, everyone at the conference was exchanging cards and planning future transboundary projects, regardless of nationality.
This spirit of collaboration mirrors the experience at the Arava Institute, where students and interns from Israel, the Arab world, and the international community meet together as part of our curriculum each week to discuss the tough issues of the conflict through a personal lens. Like at the conference, it is often difficult to reach consensus. However, while the rest of the world is focused on the divisions that keep us apart, the Arava Institute brings everyone together, face to face. As a group, we can see that we all walk on the same land and drink the same water, regardless of how much we may fight about it. This is how we have built the trust in each other, so lacking everywhere else, that will be so necessary for finding peace in this region.