To Prof. Saleem Ali, transforming a slab of greenery sandwiched between northern Israel and Jordan into a shared ecological park would be nothing less than a rational step toward generating peace dividends in a fundamentally tense neighborhood.
“The commitment from the people is there,” Ali, a professor of environmental planning and Asian studies at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
“If you would ask the average citizen if a peace park would be a good idea they would say yes,” he said. “But if you would ask them if it would practically happen, they would laugh it off.”
A preeminent expert on environmental peace parks, Ali is the editor of the 2007 book Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution, which considers whether environmental conservation can contribute to peace-building in conflict stricken regions.
Although maintaining tenure as a University of Vermont professor, Ali is currently serving as the director of the Center for Social Responsibility in Mining at the University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute in Brisbane, Australia. Advocating cooperation on an environmental level as an impetus for peace, Ali views a peace park between Jordan and Israel as ideal, assuming that the bureaucratic obstacles can be successfully tackled.
“The environment is politically appealing to peace agreements and has been underutilized,” Ali said. “It certainly is not the only way but is one that has been underutilized and under-appreciated.”
The park in question is a longstanding proposal of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), a regional environmental organization with directors in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Aiming to become accessible to visitors from both sides of the river without a need for visas, the 800-hectare Jordan River Peace Park would stretch from Gesher in the south and Road 90 in the west on the Israeli side, to Shounah and Bakoura in the east on the Jordanian side and to slightly past the Yarmuk River in the north.
At the park’s center-west would be an already existing “Peace Island,” an area at the junction of the Yarmuk and Jordan rivers where the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty was signed in 1994.
While the Peace Island falls within Jordanian territory, Jordan leases the land to Israeli farmers at Kibbutz Ashdot.
Within the island is a hydroelectric power station that supplied electricity to both sides of the Jordan River from 1932 to 1948. According to FoEME plans, this power plant would be adapted for reuse as a visitors’ center.
As part of its attractions, the park would also include a bird sanctuary at a partially reflooded former reservoir, as well as eco-lodges at the former homes of hydroelectric plant workers.
The historic train station of the former Ottoman Hejaz Railway would be rehabilitated for visitation, and the three bridges – Roman, Ottoman and British – spanning the Jordan River at the Gesher Compound would also peak the interests of tourists, the FoEME plans say.
In January 2007, the mayor of Muaz Ben Jabal on the Jordanian side and the mayors of the Beit She’an Valley Regional Council and the Jordan Valley Regional Council on the Israeli side, signed a memorandum of understanding in support of the peace park plans. The plans have yet to receive approvals on a national level, however.
“The reality is that the local government will always get trumped if you don’t deal with it on a higher government level,” said Ali, who last visited the area in question with FoEME in 2010. “Ultimately, in order to cross the border, the local government can’t do anything.”
By and large, Ali voiced wholehearted support for the FoEME Jordan River Peace Park plan and all of the ecological and historical elements to be included within its bounds. Convincing the respective national governments to support the plans might, said. For example, Americans and Brazilians were critical contributors to the success of a demilitarized peace park built in the Cordillera del Condor conservation region between armed rivals Ecuador and Peru, Ali explained.
“There’s lots of precedents for this kind of approach being used, even in cases of armed conflict,” he said, referring to the Ecuador-Peru example, among others, such as the Selous-Niassa Wildlife Corridor between Mozambique and Tanzanian and the Emerald Triangle, at the crossroads of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.
“The Golan Heights would have been the ideal comparison if there was to be a Syrian- Israeli peace park, but that one is now history because the whole state [of Syria] has collapsed,” Ali added.
The location of a peace park in the Jordan River area is ideal for a number of reasons, both on an environmental and a diplomatic level – as this is the exact spot where the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty occurred and where Kibbutz Ashdot members are still leasing agricultural land from Jordanians, he explained.
“It’s physically a very beautiful area,” he said. “The value of the area symbolically and ecologically is very important.”
The presence of the former Rotenberg power plant, which provided electricity to the region for years, also provides what Ali described as a very interesting “energy-water connection.” In addition, a polluted Jordan River that is now undergoing extensive rehabilitation runs through the planned area for the park.
“The restoration aspect also ties into that theme of healing – you’re healing the river and healing the wounds of the past,” Ali said.
Although the Jordan River Peace Park would be located on Israeli and Jordanian territory only, its presence in the upper Jordan Valley would be in close proximity to the West Bank portion of the valley, claimed by the Palestinians. The fate of the Jordan Valley has been particularly contentious as of late, following a Ministerial Legislative Committee vote at the end of December to annex the West Bank portion of the Jordan Valley to Israel.
Regardless of in who’s hands the Jordan Valley remains, Ali stressed that such decisions should not have an effect on the future of the shared ecological park.
“If it is truly a peace park, then you would think that the sovereignty issue is put aside,” he said.
Ali compared the situation to that of Antarctica, where so many different countries have laid claims to various portions, but “for the greater good of science” have forgone differences there.
“The same kind of legal framework could be used in this context,” he said. “We can use this opportunity for ecological conservation and cooperation and for people to meet.”
Such cooperation is already occurring between Israeli and Jordanian students who study and perform research together much farther south, at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, Ali mentioned.
Also encouraging of late is a trilateral water agreement signed among the three parties in early December, which facilitates the swapping and increased sales of the resource among them, he added.
“Here you are trying to share and there you are trying to trade, but at least it’s another example of communication and cooperation on environmental matters,” Ali said.
Yet in order for such an agreement to pay off in the long run, the parties must ensure that the cooperation opportunities are “leveraged creatively,” he stressed.
Recalling the Indus Water Treaty signed in 1960 by India and Pakistan, Ali warned that while that agreement allowed for more dams and the generation of more water for Pakistanis, in the end “it had very little of a peace dividend.”
“I would have thought an agreement like that would pay a peace dividend,” said Ali, who is the son of Pakistani-born immigrants to America.
In an effort to see Pakistani and Indian relations improve, Ali is currently involved in planning the “Punjab-2-Punjab Good Water Neighbors Project,” an ecological peace project between the two countries shaped by FoEME’s model for rehabilitating the Jordan River. One of the major focal points of this project will be a transboundary cleanup of the Ravi River, one of the five rivers in the Indus River basin.
While Ali admitted that he has remained “a bit disillusioned” about the progress of the Israeli-Jordanian peace park after he witnessed what he described as “inertia within the political system,” he said he has hope for both the park and regional peace in general. Ali also serves on the advisory board for the Israeli-Palestinian Confederation, a grassroots, non-governmental organization that has established a virtual confederation between the two parties as an unconventional means of solving conflict.
“Things can change – it depends on leadership,” Ali said.
According to Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of FoEME, things are in fact changing and moving forward.
“There is progress taking place in an approach that is moving forward in a bilateral fashion,” he told the Post, also on Wednesday.
FoEME has signed a memorandum for cooperation with the Jordan Valley Regional Council, wherein lies the site of Naharayim – the Israeli land segment adjacent to the hydropower plant, which lies in Jordanian territory. The Tourism Ministry has already committed funds to this area, and FoEME is matching those funds through private donations, Bromberg explained.
Construction on facilities in Naharayim should start later this year, and the site will be known as the future northern entrance to the Jordan River Peace Park.
“What we now see is actual implementation,” Bromberg said.
FoEME is also raising private funds for the rehabilitation of the Gesher and Bekoura sites, and the Jordan Valley Authority has created a committee for the purpose of advancing the area as a Jordanian national park – within the framework of linking it to the larger Jordan River Peace Park, he explained.
As far as a third party goes, Bromberg said that FoEME has presented the peace park idea to the US State Department, suggesting that “it would be a good signal to the broader peace effort if Israel and Jordan would take the opportunity to publicly declare support for a peace park.”
“We know that [US] Secretary of State [John] Kerry is looking beyond the Israeli Palestinian leg, broader signals of support in the Arab world,” Bromberg said. “We have identified this and are speaking to all the authorities on both sides.”
With its enormous tourism potential, both sides could only gain financially through the establishment of such a park, he continued, likening the site to “a sort of shared Petra for the North.”
Although municipalities and regional authorities have given the green light toward moving forward with the peace park, Bromberg agreed with Ali that support on a national level is also critical.
“We definitely still require the political will of the national level on both sides, to agree on the type of political relationship that would allow for the development of a bubble of free movement for mutual gain,” he said.
Establishing ecological peace parks can be effective bridges for peace in large part due to people’s inability to control nature and the environment, Ali explained. Despite incessant human efforts to tame nature, it is “ultimately the natural system that determines human behavior” – natural disasters, transboundary rivers or climate change alike, he continued.
“All these factors defy political borders; we have limited control over them,” Ali said. “The environment creates a super-ordinate goal, beyond people’s particular tribal instincts, and allows people to see a more panoramic vision of the future."