Keeping the environment and peace off the endangered list

The Arava Institute program drives realistic projects despite Middle East conflict.

MK Amir Peretz (Zionist Union) with former US ambassador Dennis Ross (left) and David Lehrer, executive director of the Arava Institutewith former US ambassador Dennis Ross (left) and David Lehrer, executive director of the Arava Institute at the Arava Institute’s Track II forum in 2017 (photo credit: Courtesy)
MK Amir Peretz (Zionist Union) with former US ambassador Dennis Ross (left) and David Lehrer, executive director of the Arava Institutewith former US ambassador Dennis Ross (left) and David Lehrer, executive director of the Arava Institute at the Arava Institute’s Track II forum in 2017
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At a time when USAID funds are cut to West Bank and Gaza, and Jordan’s ties to Israel seem hazy, the Arava Institute’s Track II program is an opportunity to hold strong to regional cooperation.
The Arava Institute, located in the heart of the Arava desert at Kibbutz Ketura, was established in 1996 after the Oslo Accords as an academic and research center for environmental collaboration and leadership. The program, in conjunction with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, developed a master’s degree track to allow students who started research projects at the institute to continue with a full degree.
The program encourages cross-border partnerships, particularly between Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians. Since its inception, the institute has focused on lending a safe space for understanding each party’s cultural and environmental context. This year, the institute has 60 students, the largest student population the institute has ever seen.
Two years ago, the program’s leaders decided to “take a step back and look at the bigger picture,” says David Lehrer, the institute’s executive director. With all of the program’s resources as an academic community, a large and varied alumni base, as well as contacts with NGOs in the region, there was a call to do something larger than just bring students together.
THE TRACK II FORUM, which will hold its next annual meeting in November, was initiated in 2016 as a resource to tackle environmental projects on the ground, and bring together state and non-government parties to develop strategies. Since its inception two years ago, it has held an annual conference each year to move ideas and projects forward. 
While the program does not necessarily pretend to hold the key to peace and a permanent solution to the ongoing conflict, what it does provide are real solutions to on-the-ground problems that require coordination, agreement and a measure of trust to be implemented.
The recent cross-border Environmental Cooperation Conference held at the institute brought together Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian academics, NGOs and policy-makers focusing on wastewater treatment and reuse in the West Bank, renewable energy, charcoal production pollution in the northern West Bank, climate change and the looming humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
The first year was spent with working teams to identify key issues and solutions for areas that would need the most help. In the second year (last year), the Track II conference hosted 85 participants from varied sectors to focus on specific projects, such as renewable energy and pollution prevention solutions in the West Bank, Gaza and in Jordan.
Today, around 15 proposals in those areas are ready to move forward and are in differing stages of implementation. Each one of those proposals includes some kind of cross-border involvement between Palestinians and Israelis, as well as Jordanians.
The crisis in Gaza, for example, is addressed by projects attempting to solve electricity needs, as Palestinians receive only four to five hours of electricity per day. Water for drinking and agricultural purposes is also lacking. Lehrer says the Track II projects are attempts to resolve these needs, if only a little.
For the West Bank, treatment of wastewater still desperately requires improvement. Areas near Jericho are the testing ground for one project that tries to divert water from homes for agricultural purposes. This prevents aquifers from being backed up with wastewater and provides a new resource for agriculture needs.
Another project example from Track II is based in the Jenin area. Villages in the area had built an economy taking waste wood from Israeli farmers and burning it for charcoal production, then selling the charcoal back to Israelis. However, because of the high level of air pollution the burning produced, the underground industry was made illegal and a livelihood was lost for those villages. Track II initiatives are in the process of implementing a pilot project that would allow for the Jenin villages to resume wood burning, but using technology that would keep the environment safe and curb air pollution.
If the pilot works, Lehrer says, the institute is ready to turn to the government to implement the project and resume the charcoal production industry in the West Bank.
The process for how projects get started isn’t initiated by the academics and experts, says Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed, academic adviser for the program; the ideas most often come from the communities themselves.
“If you find the money, we have a lot of ideas and partners who have their own ideas, I can partly say – but it comes from the Gaza and West Bank communities. For us, it shows how far we [have come] with building trust with those communities,” Abu Hamed says.
While the projects won’t solve the situation in Gaza, says Lehrer, they can make practical changes.
“They can be done, they are quick and innovative, they can be replicated – and it means the different parties work together,” Lehrer says.
As one would expect, world events have consequences for Track II’s ambitions.
The recent USAID cuts, as part of larger cuts of US funding for the West Bank and Gaza, impact the shovel-ready projects that are now just waiting for funding, say Lehrer and Abu Hamed. Lehrer says the funding needed for the ready-to-implement projects is in the ballpark of $10 million, a small amount compared to the large international scale of funding. The projects impacted are agricultural ones, directly impacting smaller rural communities and minorities, like women. Without funding, the plans freeze.
“This money goes to the people. If you are planning to have a peace plan, this is the first thing that you need to strengthen, not to cut,” Abu Hamed says. “They did not punish the PA; they punished the people on both sides who want peace.”
No immediate, large-sweeping assistance has come to rescue the projects yet. Abu Hamed says finding new funding may take two to three years.
“It is a pretty big blow,” Lehrer says. “It’s a self-destructive type of policy.”
Lehrer says that part of the key to resolving this funding and policy crisis for them is to help bring in private partners, showing that self-reliance is attainable through these projects. This may be more appealing to the US in future efforts to fund projects, he adds.
As for the recent non-renewal of annexes in the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, this will also likely be felt in the future by the program, even if only in spirit.
“I’m very sad,” Abu Hamed says. “Because it’s one decision, without telling the other side that you’re doing this. That’s not a relationship. It’s like a punishment; it lacks the taste of the trust.”
Still, the Arava Institute’s 20-year-strong track record of relationships built with different sides remains solid, and is something Abu Hamed says he’s proud of. This ability and skill to create trust within different communities is precisely what makes the institute more necessary than ever.
 “We don’t fade,” Abu Hamed says. “You cannot just make things happen tomorrow, and you can’t give up. We’re used to the ups and downs, so we continue with our partners and our partners understand that.”
After all, stresses Lehrer, the environment is more of a problem than the international crises are. This is one of the major points the program addresses when breaking the ice between different communities. Water and energy aren’t the sources of conflict, so addressing them now is possible. Merging on the ground and creating trust among the different parties to resolve these environmental issues can help bring together groups who share the environment, he adds.
“The environment can’t wait – we need to deal with it now,” he says. “The problems of the planet are bigger than ours. The planet is under threat, and the time to act is now.”