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Israelis, Palestinians must cooperate now on the environment

Cross-border environmental cooperation cannot wait until a final peace agreement is signed. But it also cannot completely disregard political realities: The recent Cross-Border Environmental Conference held by Israel in the settlement of Ariel meant that no Palestinian could dare attend, leaving Israelis to discuss cooperation among themselves.

By David Lehrer and Dr. Clive Lipchin

In the Middle East, as in most parts of the world, environmental issues cross borders.  Israelis share groundwater and watersheds with Palestinians, Jordanians, Syrians and Lebanese, air pollution travels without regard to political boundaries and animals do not halt or present a passport when they arrive at an international border.  In order to meet the environmental needs of growing populations in the region, there is no choice but to work in close concert with our neighbors.

Cross-border environmental cooperation cannot wait until a final peace agreement is signed.  The end of the occupation and a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is far from sight, but cross-border environmental degradation is ongoing.  More people continue to die from air pollution-related diseases in Israel and Palestine than from car accidents. Most of the rivers that originate in Palestine and cross into Israel are polluted, resulting in cross border pollution that has an impact on both sides. Aquifers, which are also shared, continue to be degraded from excessive pumping and seepage from domestic, agricultural and industrial sewage, causing massive damage to the drinking water consumed by both peoples.

If unsustainable development continues at its current rate without significant and meaningful cross-border coordination, we will quickly destroy the very land and natural resources that are in dispute.  While sustainable solutions cannot wait for a final political agreement, environmental cooperation cannot completely disregard the political realities.  Real environmental cooperation includes meetings, conferences and information exchange, and that can only occur if the atmosphere between both parties is open, honest and transparent; such interaction must be based on equality, symmetry of power and recognition of rights.

This does not mean that all political disagreements need to be resolved, but that discussions must take place on a level playing field – at present, that field is far from even. Take Item 40 of the Oslo agreements on water and sewage, for example. Item 40 called for an exchange of all relevant data on water resources. Such an exchange never took place, leaving both sides unable to develop a regional plan for water management.  In addition, Item 40 established a Joint Water Committee, which oversees the digging of new wells and water-related infrastructure.  According to the Oslo Agreements, all decisions must be made by mutual agreement between Israel and Palestine, which gives Israel a virtual veto power over any new water infrastructure project in the West Bank.

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the closure on Gaza make environmental cooperation extremely difficult; but not impossible.  Cross border cooperation on the environment and on other issues of human welfare such as health, education and natural resource management can and do take place when both sides acknowledge that there must be an equitable and just solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict – a solution that guarantees an end to military occupation and conflict and provides freedom and security to both parties.

If the actions of one side, however, signal a disregard for the rights of the other side or a lack of commitment to a just solution, no cooperation can take place and the environment will continue to suffer.   Any joint work on the environment will not be effective, or will not even take place, if Israel excludes Palestinians from participating in the forums designed to promote environmental cooperation among both parties.

The recent “Cross Border Environmental Conference” held in Ariel in the West Bank, was one such example.  The conference was organized by Israel; but holding the event in a settlement – a symbol of the occupation – the organizers excluded any serious participation on the part of Palestinians. That led to a situation of Israelis talking about cross-border cooperation among themselves.   Those courageous Palestinians who choose to stand against the current anti-normalization movement might have joined the conference if it had been held in a more neutral place. But to attend a conference in a settlement would have meant a tacit consent to the Israeli government’s settlement policy, and that would place them in even further jeopardy, which must not be allowed.

A conference initiated by Israelis that by its nature excludes Palestinian participants is at the very least a cynical use of the concept “cross border cooperation.” It perpetuates the delusion that environment can be separated from politics.

Given how badly this cooperation is needed, Israel should hold such conferences, workshops, information exchanges and coordination meetings of conservation efforts in areas where Palestinians feel comfortable, such as East Jerusalem and inside Israel proper. And we must continue to forge an atmosphere of trust, mutual recognition and respect.

David Lehrer is the Executive Director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.  Dr. Clive Lipchin is the Director of the Arava Institute’s Center for Trans-boundary Water Management. This article represents the views of the authors and does not represent the views of the Arava Institute.

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    1. Richard Witty

      Thank you for the sentiment and for your hard work.

      For those that mutually claim to love the land, it should be a natural area of cooperation.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Kolumn9

      So, just to clarify, Palestinians were invited to a meeting Aand didn’t show up because if they had they would have been in danger from their own people? Why are Palestinians that would be willing to sit with Israelis in a more ‘neutral’ location considered ‘courageous’?

      You also have a strange idea of how cooperation on the environment and other issues is supposed to work. According to your logic such cooperation excludes anyone that doesn’t agree with some group’s notions of what a ‘just solution’ would be. This is indeed a fascinating way to call for inclusiveness. Everyone is welcome except for those that disagree with me. Isn’t the whole underlying point of your argument that the environmentall issues are bigger than the political conflict? I am very confused by your artice.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Jehudah

      Since “Palestine” has been the territory presently controlled by Jordan, some 77% of it, and Israel, some 23% of it; and since the de jure partition of “Palestine” of 1921/22 and de facto of 1948 and 1967; whom do we consider “Palestinians”?
      I know, for a fact, that until the de facto partition of “Palestine” – the name of a territory, never a nationality or a state, of course – members of all nationalities who lived in “Palestine” were “Palestinians”, e.g. Arabs, Jews, Circassians, Armenians, Greeks and even Roma (Gypsies).
      And, since the Arabs were handed over in 1921 77% of “Palestine”, and the Jews were assigned in 1922 the rest, 23% of “Palestine”, who are today’s “Palestinians”?

      Reply to Comment
    4. Jehudah

      P.S. One only assumes that loving the country – be it called “Palestine” or Eretz Israel (Land of Israel), on both banks of the river that runs in its midst, the Jordan River, is shared by all who reside in this territory, of course.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Carl

      I must say that in every ME country I’ve visited, the residents have exclaimed to me how beautiful the land is. Setting aside that rock, sand, baked earth and the colour brown doesn’t really do it for me, the fact that the streets, fields and countryside double as landfills in most of the ME has always appalled me. Many is the time I’ve pointed put to locals that their country could look nice enough, but the only bits which aren’t strewn with litter and pollution are the bits they’ve built over.
      Jehudah, on topic as ever: keep it up.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Yochanan

      Though environmental action must trump all other concerns given the planet’s dire circumstances, and action of this sort may require temporary and limited mutual cooperation even under the intolerable conditions of Occupation, I don’t see why one would describe as ‘courageous’ those Palestinians who stand against the anti-normalisation movement.

      Firstly, ‘courageous’ like Abu Mazen and Fayyad, or the Palestinian elite who continue to do good business with Israel? It seems to me that the courage lies on the side of the anti-normalisation movement, who refuse to line their pockets as beneficiaries of a Vichy-like system, and instead agitate to highlight this unacceptable situation and its unsustainability. People must be free in order to commence negotiations, anti-normalisation is the natural and morally obvious path.

      In fact, though immediate action is needed on certain issues, environmental preservation is also unsustainable under occupation – as Israel continues to foist upon the Palestinians the negative externalities of its hyper-overuse of resources in the West Bank and elsewhere. It has no reason to stop doing this, as Israelis themselves suffer little from the consequences of overuse of water, or other natural resource depletion, and so the situation will continue to deteriorate as long as there is occupation.

      Reply to Comment
    7. richard

      This has been a big duh for ages. The first time I went to Israel I was absolutely disgusted by the fact that Israelis and Palestinians are murdering each other over a land that they treat like one massive rubbish bin.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Carl

      Yeah, spot on Richard. I found I had to wash up to my shins when I’d get back in.
      Apologies to the religiously minded amongst you, but if god ever promises you a land again, ask for one where nature isn’t fighting a losing battle with the sun and the earth. Oh, and the love affair with the breeze/cinder block has to stop.
      Mind kudos to Tartus beach in Syria for the greatest litter to sand ratio; it was like sunning yourself in a neo-archeological dig site.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Prometheus

      “Why are Palestinians that would be willing to sit with Israelis in a more ‘neutral’ location considered ‘courageous’?”
      Don’t you know? They’ll be executed as collaborationist.
      No normalization of any kind is on agenda.
      Israel must be destroyed – as simple as that.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Yochanan

      @Prometheus, do you think the situation should be treated as ‘normal’? Even for someone as rabidly pro-Israeli as yourself, the massive power imbalance must be obvious, in fact you are presumably proud of it. Can negotiations be undertaken with one side holding every ace, and the other losing cards from their dwindling deck each minute the game is played? Were the Algerians able to ‘negotiate’ with the French, or the Indians with the British, without first taking some sort of direct action to address the power imbalance, and force the coloniser to listen?

      Reply to Comment
    11. Kolumn9

      What does power imbalance have to do with environmental questions? Either the water is polluted or it isn’t. Either the trash is recycled or it isn’t. Either the air is breathable or it isn’t. Is there some kind of disagreement about how to define breathable air that requires the acceptance of Israel as a Jewish State or of the Palestinian claim to the 1967 lines?

      This kind of extremely blunt and simple clarity is what demonstrates the article above to be a total joke. In other words, the use of supposedly unbiased environmental criticism to make blatantly biased political points is despicable, illogical and counterproductive. Of this the authors of this article are guilty of.

      Reply to Comment