A West Bank agricultural development team is hoping to form a partnership with Central and Northern Arava Research and Development by sending Palestinian agricultural students to learn desert farming techniques from Israeli experts.

Arava Research and Development, based at the arid Yair Research Station near Hatzeva, which The Jerusalem Post toured on Tuesday, is an agricultural hub for scientists and farming experts who experiment with techniques to grow crops in extreme desert conditions.

Funded jointly by the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and the government, the research unit explores methods to grow products in sandy and saline water conditions, and contains a variety of produce in its greenhouses, including sweet peppers, strawberries and ornamental fish.

The station also hosts several hundred Asian agricultural university students for 10 months each year, coming from Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, to partake in a work-study program called Arava International Center for Agricultural Training.

For the first time, a Palestinian group – which visited the facility on the same day as the Post – is requesting to give students this same type of learning experience, according to Hanni Arnon, the program’s director.

“We are trying to see how we can create a joint venture with these guys, in order to send Palestinian students – in university or just finishing high school – to get training here in the same way as Asian students,” said Ibrahim Barakat, member of the board of directors of the Ramallah and Gaza based firm Harvest Export, which provides Palestinian agricultural cooperatives and individual farmers with the opportunities to export their produce.

Harvest Export is working in conjunction with The Portland Trust, a British nonprofit for promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, to seek out investors for such a program and then attract and guide interested students, Barakat said.

“It’s introducing a new way of looking at agriculture – shying away from the normal stuff that we produce,” said Hani Dajani, managing director of the al-Birehbased Portland Trust.

By learning to employ some of the same techniques that the Arava farmers use, Palestinian agriculturists in the Jordan Valley can learn to expand their variety of produce and export their wares overseas, according to Dajani.

The program would aim to give skills to smaller, individual Palestinian farmers and then eventually open a facility parallel to that of Yair in the Jordan Valley so that when students return from their Arava training, they have a place to continue their research closer to home, Barakat added. “I want to invest in young people,” he said.

Arava Research and Development director Eilon Gadiel said he hoped that the partnership would succeed, noting that while the climates of the Arava and the Jordan Valley are not quite the same, many of the same farming skills apply to both places.

Not only would a joint program between Arava Research and Development and a Palestinian cohort bring new agricultural expertise to the West Bank, it could also foster a wave of better relations between two peoples, both Barakat and Dajani stressed. An exchange of knowledge and communication could only serve to benefit both populations, Gadiel agreed.

“Exchanging information between the two parties is healthy and can bring peace,” Barakat said.

Dajani added: “It’s trying to entice peace through economic development.”

Arava Research and Development will be hosting an “Open Day” agricultural exhibition for the general public at its Yair Station site next Wednesday and Thursday, February 1-2.

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