Palestinians place sandbags as they try to prevent rain water from flooding their house following heavy rain in Gaza City November 27.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Every year around olive harvest season a certain ritual is repeated: Palestinian olive growers release immense quantities of refuse into the Nablus River, which connects to Nahal Alexander. The Nahal is polluted and there is much hand-wringing. This year the damage caused by the pollution was particularly severe and thousands of fish died, the rankness of their decomposing bodies filling the air. The cost of cleaning up Nahal Alexander is estimated at millions of shekels.
Compounding the frustration is that all of this could have been avoided.
According to Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of Eco- Peace Middle East – a joint Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian organization that has been dealing with regional water and environment issues for the past two decades – it would have cost the government a few hundred-thousand shekels to prevent the olive refuse from being dumped in the river. The Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Civil Administration could have simply collected the refuse from the Palestinians, and trucked it across the Green Line to have it disposed in a safe way.
The root of the problem, however, is the mindset of both Palestinians and Israelis who stubbornly refuse to cooperate freely on everyday issues such as sewage treatment, until all final-status matters have been solved between the sides. In the meantime, both Israelis and Palestinians suffer from this “all or nothing” approach.
Ostensibly, Israelis and Palestinians interact within frameworks set up under the aegis of the Oslo Accords, such as the Joint Water Committee. But these frameworks, which were designed to last at most five years until the sides solved their differences, are marred with bureaucracy.
Palestinians resist cooperating with Israelis because they see this as a means of perpetuating and even legitimizing the Jewish state. Israel, meanwhile, has security concerns, albeit legitimate, which often harms the possibility for cooperation.
Israelis blame the Palestinians for disposing of their sewage in an irresponsible way, while at the same time imposing constraints on the construction of sewage treatment plants.
Palestinians blame Israelis for denying them the autonomy to treat their sewage, while creating a political atmosphere in which real dialogue and coexistence is impossible.
The time has come for a paradigm switch. Israelis and Palestinians must begin to realize that they are both responsible for one another as neighbors.
When a Palestinian factory in Hebron dumps its pollution in an irresponsible way, it has ramifications for both Palestinians and Israelis. The crisis in Gaza, which includes inadequate sewage treatment due to a lack of electricity, not only affects Gazans, it also has a negative impact on the beaches of Ashkelon.
Similarly, what olive growers have been doing with their olive waste in recent weeks has a direct impact on the beaches near Netanya.
There are no signs Israelis and Palestinians are getting closer to a peace settlement. If anything, the opposite is true. Hamas remains strong on the Palestinian street; the Palestinian leadership is split between the West Bank and Gaza; there have been no Palestinian elections on a national level in a decade; Palestinian incitement continues unabated.
But the failure to reach a final-status peace arrangement with the Palestinians should not prevent both sides from cooperating on matters of mutual interest, such as the environment.
The longer the sides postpone such cooperation, the greater the danger to the environment – on both sides of the Green Line. If Palestinians and Israelis can work together on issues such as sewage treatment, perhaps this will lead to cooperation in other fields as well such as trade, labor and infrastructure.
Over time, a “bottom up” approach might even lead to dialogue on the diplomatic level. Even if it does not, both sides will benefit from a cleaner, less polluted environment.