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(photo credit: )
As the debate over the final route of the security fence remains under international scrutiny, the communities of Emek Hefer and Tulkarm are looking to adopt a South African concept to create a 'Peace Park' across the division and advance cooperation through conservation.
The communities have been working together for the past 12 years on the Alexander River Restoration Project to clean up the river which runs through the two towns. But recent political developments have put in doubt the facility to fund the project and the practicalities of future collaboration.
"Especially with Hamas in power, we know there are many issues that cannot be solved right now," said Amos Brandeis, chief executive officer and chief planner of the project. "But for years, the only successful cooperation in the area has been through ecological issues, and if we want to do something in the short term, we can show that we can work together."
Initiated some nine years ago by South African billionaire Anton Rupert, former South African president Nelson Mandela, Mozambique premier Joachim Chisano and the late Prince Bernard of the Netherlands, the first peace park was created in South Africa across its border with Mozambique, allowing for a 'lifting' of the border between the two countries within a confined space - in this case approximately 3 million hectares of land in the Kruger National Park and along the Limpopo river. The park enables the free passage of tourists and wildlife therein.
The idea has since spread to 14 places in South Africa and some 189 conservation areas around the world are currently looking to implement the idea.
"It's a process used to bring governments together," Prof. Willem Van Riet, CEO of the Peace Parks Foundation, told The Jerusalem Post during a recent visit to Israel. "First we bring in political leaders to get their backing and approval, and then we turn it into a project and create task teams to work to lift the border."
He added that in the South African case, once the park was established, the two sides have been working together on a range of conservation issues - such as anti poaching which are relevant to the park.
Van Riet arrived in Israel earlier this month at the invitation of German company DaimlerChrysler, a corporate sponsor of the Peace Park Foundation, to present the model for possible implementation around the Alexander River at a conference in Herzliya.
While Brandeis, and others pushing the project, recognize the political constraints preventing an exact replica of the park in Israel, he is confident the concept can be implemented in other ways.
"What we need is to clean the wadi on the Palestinian side, which means to take out all the trash from the river itself, to restore and stabilize the river bank, divert the sewerage from streaming downstream and to develop a park where the children of Tulkarm and Emek Hefer can play," Brandeis said. "Separately for now, because we need the fence at this time, but hopefully in the future we will not need it and they will be able to play together." While the Tulkarm delegation was denied army approval at the last minute to cross into Israel to attend the Herzliya conference, they nevertheless remain upbeat about the project.
"We definitely hope to see a similar park on our side and it's possible if we have proper funds and Israeli approval," said Rayeq Hamad, Project manager for the Wadi Zemer Project (the Palestinian name of the project.) "We see it as a promising and important thing but we hope the Israelis won't put obstacles they always put in our way."
However, Brandeis insisted that, unlike in the traditional model, it would have to be implemented without the involvement of governments for the project to be successful in Israel
A local version of the park, he explained, would focus on how to cooperate on conservation issues affecting the two communities, rather than creating a common conservation area.
Instead the conservationists will work with the municipalities of Emek Hefer and Tulkarm to get their backing and then to leverage that to approach NGO's (non-government organizations) and possible corporate sponsors for funding.
While the Israelis have received funding from the Environment Ministry, the Jewish National Fund and others - a total NIS 65m. so far, the Palestinians have received 1.5m. Euros from the KFW (the German Bank of Reconstruction and Development) to clean the river on their side.
Further funding is needed for the next stage of the project to build four trash traps along the river in Tulkarm to catch the pollution that flows there and into Emek Hefer, and to clean the river bank.
"We hope that through this project the problem of pollution in the Wadi will be solved," Tulkarm's Hamad said. "We have a common interest with the Israelis to solve this environmental issue."