'If the environment suffers, we all suffer'

If awareness and funds are limited in Arab communities, a major source of environmental expertise lies right next door in Israel. However, Palestinian environmentalists have ambivalent attitudes toward their Israeli counterparts. Buthina Hanunneh, an educator at the Environmental Education Center in Beit Jala, points despondently at a photograph of Jebl Abu-Ghneim, the Arabic name for the hill between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, on display at the EEC's exhibition of ecologically-inspired artwork. The previously forested hilltop once stood out like a green dome amid the surrounding desert landscape until it was cleared of its flora and fauna and replaced with the bricks and asphalt of the Har Homa neighborhood in 1997. "If they [the municipality] do this, they don't care about the environment," says Hanunneh. The hill was formerly designated a "green area" by the Jerusalem Municipality to restrict development for ecological reasons. "It was the only forest in the Bethlehem-Jerusalem district but now it is dry, you can see it," says Imad Atrash, executive director of the Beit Sahur-based Palestine Wildlife Society. Atrash points out that local wildlife suffers from the hands of both Jews and Arabs, for example gazelles from Jebl Abu-Ghneim who ran from the forest to escape Israeli bulldozers only to be shot when they arrived in Bethlehem. "Twenty years from now you won't see gazelles in the wild anymore." In Tekoa, a settlement south of Bethlehem, Israeli-Arab cooperation takes an alternative form. Settlers and Palestinian workers catch wild goldfinches and sell them at markets around Bethlehem. Pazit Shweid, manager of the Jerusalem branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, says that currently the SPNI does not have many links with projects in east Jerusalem although they worked with Arab groups several years ago, including one from Silwan. Shweid says that contact with Arab groups broke during the second intifada and have not been renewed since. Nevertheless, the PWS cooperates with Israeli ornithological groups in its role as regional partner of Birdlife International. Sami Backleh, a freelance environmental consultant, also takes a more pragmatic approach to Jewish-Arab cooperation, having trained at the Israeli-run Jerusalem Bird Observatory near the Knesset. "To be honest, nobody knows about birds or conservation in Palestine, so it's hard to get training," he says, adding that for most Palestinian environmentalists, the closest options lie in Israel or Jordan. "I have to admit that Israel has reached a [high] level of conservation and knowledge. They have been working on it for 50 years," he adds. "The environment has no borders. We work with cross-border communities on cross-border issues," says Nader Khateb, director of the Bethlehem office of Friends of the Earth Middle East, which also has branches in Tel Aviv and Amman. "We're better off working together. If the environment suffers, we all suffer."