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Raef Shmali, an Israeli Arab from the lower Galilee village of Arabeh, didn't associate environmental health with the oil slicks his garage was generating. The old oil filters he replaced for his customers were simply thrown into the garbage bin with everything else, and oil by-products from the garage would run off into public sewers.
Last month, Shmali was approached by two women - Mai Asadi, an Arab, and Smadar Stokelman, a Jew - from Link to the Environment, a non-profit group that bridges segregated Jewish and Arab Israeli communities in the Galilee by addressing a common environmental concern.
In most Arab Israeli residential areas, it is not uncommon to see light industry and commerce as part of the everyday living space. Specified industrial space is limited and the situation is getting worse, forcing Israeli Arabs to live among garages, carpentries, restaurants and illegal abattoirs. The businesses are woven into the tapestry of daily life, making residential living for many citizens an unhealthy enterprise due to noise, fumes, dumping of poisonous chemicals and build-up of solid waste.
Link members are always careful to approach Israeli citizens like Shmali in a friendly, respectful manner and say that they never reproach people or fight with the authorities.
His small business is typical of many in Israeli Arab towns: a large two- or three-story dwelling with a family-run business operating out of the ground floor.
"In the Arab sector, environmental awareness is low," admits Shmali, who had only kind words to bestow on Link and its mediator Asadi.
She persuaded him to make some changes in the way he handled and disposed of oil by-products from his garage, even though some of the changes would have to eventually come out of his pocket.
"Financial limitations make it difficult for us to fulfill environmental recycling standards," says Shmali, adding that installing the oil separator that he went on to buy was very expensive.
"I now transfer the used oil and oil filters to recycling contractors," says Shmali, who was impressed by the persuasive attitude of the Link team who assured him that the steps he took would benefit the environment.
Over the past four months, Asadi and her new partner Michael Ben-Yamini have visited 80 garages in Arab Israeli villages with a similar message for their owners.
Hundreds more garages and thousands of other small businesses fall through the cracks at the Ministry of the Environment, says Rachel Gottlieb, who develops programs and handles administrative affairs at Link. She is one of five paid staff who manage some 60 satellite volunteers from both Arab and Jewish backgrounds.
"For some reason, the ministry is simply not checking small businesses," she says.
The group focuses on local concerns, such as helping clean up riversides through educational projects with children and unblocking dams created by solid waste - no matter whose backyard they fall into. Link is also running several year-round formal educational programs aimed at shaping the environmental awareness of Arab and Jewish children.
Gottlieb reports that home butcheries are creating a sorry sight in some communities.
"People are slaughtering animals illegally in their homes in unhygienic conditions, and hiding the hard-to-dispose-of carcasses in each other's olive groves. When the dogs get hold of these carcasses and drag them through streets, it's really horrible," she says.
Regarding getting small Jewish businesses to clean up, Gottlieb says they are pretty much doing what they are supposed to. There are, however, many other shared concerns that Jewish and Arab Israelis need to take stock of.
"We breathe the same air and drink the same water. Both groups have the same interest in a clean environment," points out Link director Raed Fadila.
He lives in the Arab town of Tira, near Kfar Saba, but travels to Link's headquarters in Kaukab Abu el-Hija in the Segev area of Lower Galilee.
He says that Link holds a Jewish-Arab sulha ("reconciliation") all year long.
Fadila has a degree in chemistry from the Hebrew University and was an environmental educator before he started working with Link two years ago. He thinks that Israeli Arabs feel inferior to other Israelis because they recognize the difference in infrastructure between Jewish and Arab communities. "There's a big gap in town infrastructure such as sewage systems, school budgets and the numbers of halls for children to play sports," he says, adding that about 30% of Arab towns and villages in Israel do not have sewage infrastructure at all.
According to Israeli law, Arab Israelis have the right to live anywhere in the country.
"In reality," says Fadila, "the government doesn't really support mixed communities. We want to live in Israel - we don't want to be independent, and we don't want to return should there be a Palestinian state. I belong to Tira, the land where I was born, and to Israel."
Yet, Fadila admits, he cannot feel the same as an average Israeli citizen as long as the national flag doesn't represent him. "I respect the laws in Israel - I just want equal rights."
The basic environmental problems, he says, boil down to social issues and indiscriminate allocation of government resources.
"When we are talking to someone who is unemployed, we can't ask him to be 'green,'" says Fadila, noting that the first 20 communities listed on the country's unemployment list are Arab villages.
Through Link, he is looking to create positive change rather than dwell on a negative cycle of blame.
Gottlieb says that funding is not the only main issue, as other internal issues within Arab villages prevent proper enforcement of environmental conditions. She notes that the populations of many Arab villages and towns have blood ties. It is hard for an inspector from the town to give tickets to his family members, she explains.
Stephanie Krone Firestone, an American Jewish volunteer, started Link 10 years ago in the belief that local environmental problems in the Galilee could be solved only when Jews and Arabs work together.
"The continuing environmental mind set change in Israel is largely thanks to US immigrants who bring an environmental vision with them," says Fadila.
Gottlieb, a social worker and licensed tour guide who was raised in Maine, may have brought some sparks of environmental activism with her when she first moved to Israel with her family at the age of 10. She went on to found the first mixed Jewish-Arab Waldorf kindergarten in Itilf, near Tivon.
In the past five years, she has noticed a change in Israelis' concern for the environment beyond the clog-wearing, granola-crunching stereotype. "Environmentalists in Israel are no longer your liberal hippie groups. Everyone is concerned about the environment."
Neither the Ministry of the Environment nor the Ministry of the Interior responded to an invitation to comment on the issues raised.
Link is seeking volunteers. Call (04) 999-8876 or visit www.link.org.il
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