Less than two weeks before leaving office, President Shimon Peres on Sunday distributed scholarships totaling NIS 1.6 million to eight doctoral research students working in one of his favorite causes – the advancement of science and technology for the betterment of humanity.

Future historians looking back at the Peres presidency will reach the conclusion that more than anything else throughout his seven year tenure, Peres has pushed for Israel to maintain its qualitative edge in science and technology and has urged that everything possible be done to attract young people to science-and-technology-based studies and careers.

Moreover, five of the eight recipients of the scholarships awarded from a fund established two years ago by Peres and a group of philanthropists were women.

One of the hallmarks of the president’s advocacy is equal opportunities for women in all fields of human endeavor.

Peres has unfailingly voiced his delight at appointments and prize-giving ceremonies when the number of women of merit exceeds the number of men.

He did so again on Sunday.

All eight recipients of scholarships worth NIS 200,000 each, and covering three years of university studies and research, are in their early thirties, with the exception of Daria Feldman, 28.

Five of the recipients are graduates of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, one is a graduate of the Haifa Technion, one of Tel Aviv University, and one of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Prof. Shmuel Wolf, dean of the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food, and Environment at the Hebrew University, spoke on behalf of his jury colleagues from six of Israel’s institutes of higher learning. He was pleased that Peres had chosen to give scholarships this year to researchers in agriculture, quality of the environment, and water purification and management, particularly in view of the amazing agricultural breakthroughs that have been and are being made in the Negev.

Quoting Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who on retiring from politics made his home in the Negev, Wolf said: “If the state does not conquer the desert, the desert will conquer the state.” All the agricultural research at Sde Boker is geared toward the realization of Ben-Gurion’s dream to make the desert bloom, he said.

Wolf recalled that when he had first come to Kibbutz Yotvata in the Arava, it was considered impossible to have a dairy farm in the south of the country.

But Yotvata is flourishing from its milk products, which are its main source of income. Wolf credited technology with making that possible.

As for water, the Israeli development of drip irrigation enables the watering of all fruits and vegetables to exactly the required need without any waste of water. The drip irrigation method is now being used all over the world, he said.

The next stage he added is bio-technology, in which the medicinal value of plants will be harnessed to enable more people to be healed from illnesses for which current medications are too expensive for the non-affluent to afford.

Almost simultaneously, research is being conducted into increased and better yields of crop production to feed the world’s starving millions, said Wolf, citing a United Nations report that there are 842 million under-nourished people in the world today.

He forecast that the scholarship winners would bring about a revolution in their respective fields, because they have been judged to be the best of the brightest.

Before relating to the subject at hand, Peres spoke of the hostilities between Gaza and Israel, declaring the current conflict to be a battle against terrorism.

“We didn’t look for it, we didn’t want it, we don’t want to kill anyone” he said.

“We’re in this because we have no choice.”

Peres stated that the reality in which five million people, including women and children, are running to bomb shelters is intolerable.

The Gazan leadership’s declared reason for attacking Israel, said Peres, is because it wants to put an end to occupation. But he noted that Israel is not occupying Gaza, which it left nine years ago. Gaza could have been prosperous – “another Singapore” – said Peres, but instead it opted for terrorism.

“We don’t want to conquer Gaza again; we want Gaza to conquer itself and rid itself from terrorism so that women and children will not be killed,” he said.

Peres warned that if Gaza continues on the path it has chosen, “it will not gain anything. It only stands to lose.”

Turning to the benefits that Israeli scientists and technologists can share with the world at large, Peres said that there is one large country in the world in which there is no anti-Semitism – China, because the Chinese respect and admire Jewish wisdom and Israeli know-how.

Because of the technological advancements in Israeli agriculture that have been adopted by the Chinese, there is less starvation in China and people are living better.

One of the best ways to prevent terrorism, said Peres, is to provide food for the hungry by showing them how to grow it themselves. People turn to terrorism when they are desperate, he opined.

The eight scholarship recipients were biochemist and food scientist Feldman, desert researcher Gil Eshel, plant scientist Itay Ofner, chemist and biologist Shadma Filler, environmental engineer Noga Fridman-Bishop, plant scientist Adi Kliyot, ecologist David Shachmi, and molecular biologist and ecologist Lidor Shaar.

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