Ashkelon, Gaza mayors fight for a common good

Heads of Israeli and Palestinian cities cooperate on waste water. (The Media Line)

ashkelon marina 248 88 (photo credit: Orit Arfa)
ashkelon marina 248 88
(photo credit: Orit Arfa)
Although it's not an opinion often heard within the context of public debate, there are some who argue that resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be characterized by cooperation rather than separation. While the latter approach fits neatly within the conventional wisdom of the day, Prof. Ilan Juran, an Israeli scientist, makes a compelling case for a peaceful future based on the connection, not severance, of the two peoples who share land and resources. Prof. Juran's most recent case-in-point is a dramatic one. Governments have done nothing to stem the daily flow of untreated waste water draining into the Mediterranean Sea off the Palestinian Gaza Strip and re-entering the water system farther north at the Israeli town of Ashkelon. The resulting damage extends far beyond the coast line; it affects the local fishing industry and even the inland aquifers that provide both nations with their respective supplies of potable water. Juran's approach, then, is predicated not only upon human emotion, but also on a pragmatic need driven by the forces of nature. "The ecosystem doesn't stop for checkpoints," he argues, "and such natural forces do not recognize international borders." Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin, decries "60,000 untreated cubic meters of water entering] the Mediterranean waters every day." "The goal had been to create an institutional infrastructure for waste water treatment recycling and reuse in agricultural applications and infiltration," adds Gaza Mayor Maged Abu Ramadan. The second part of the goal will be for the two governments to create joint maintenance and standards. The two mayors met at a Moscow conference sponsored by the United Nations in 2005, where Juran challenged them to stop waiting for their governments to take action and accept upon themselves the responsibility to act on behalf of their constituents. With a boost from the UN Department of Information under the direction of Under-Secretary General Kiyo Akasaka, the Israeli and Palestinian Civil Society Initiative was born. Juran was given the chairmanship. The immediate priority was to complete a project proposed several years earlier: to address the issue of water contamination caused by Gaza sewage. With the Israeli water company Mekorot, the Palestinian Water Authority, the mayors, the UN, and the local municipalities all on board under the umbrella of the Civil Society Initiative, it appeared that positive action was finally destined to happen. The urgency was vital: they believed, and still do, that if preventative action is not implemented today, "it will be hard to get clean water for the next generation." But as is the case so often in the Middle East, the conflict flared and the latest round of violence caused the effort to be halted in its tracks. If it were not for the resolute personal involvement and remarkable perseverance of the principal players, the project would have died in its germination stage. But Juran, Vaknin and Abu Ramadan stayed in touch. Dysane Durani, who heads the Palestine and Human Rights desk for the UN Department of Information, continued to make the international body aware of the critical importance of the endeavor. The sheer determination to make it happen appears to have paid off. Nevertheless, the project will be still-born unless Israel allows the necessary building supplies, including piping and cement, to enter the Gaza Strip for the project, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud 'Abbas and the Palestinian Water Authority both sign-off on the effort. Gaza is presently under an Israeli-imposed boycott of all but a short list of humanitarian goods - metal and concrete specifically excluded. Assuming the parties feel the necessary preconditions are adequately dealt with, the enabling agreements will be signed at a conference on Middle East peacemaking, sponsored by Durani's department, in Rio de Janeiro in July. The fact that a project anchored simultaneously in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and in an Israeli city has proceeded to this point is nothing short of amazing by Middle Eastern standards. Israel has had Gaza under a virtual "lock-down" since Hamas took control in June 2007, and whether pasta qualifies as a humanitarian product worthy of being allowed into Gaza ranks among the most contentious issues of the day. Israelis are banned from entering there, and with few exceptions, Palestinians are prevented from entering Israel. Yet Mayor Vaknin and Mayor Abu Ramadan have looked beyond those grim realities. Rather than allowing the political environment to pollute their chances of success, the two mayors are focusing instead on facilitating a solution to a critical and ongoing problem. Speaking separately with the mayors, both Mayor Vaknin and Mayor Abu Ramadan point to a long history of similar attempts at cooperation between Gaza and Ashelon. Prof. Juran's efforts date back to 1997, when Vaknin agreed talk to Shawwa, the then-Mayor of Gaza who has since died of cancer, to find joint solutions to problems common to the two communities. Dr. Allen Marcus, Ashqkelon's Director of Strategic Planning, has worked with Vaknin throughout the attempts at cooperation with Gaza. Marcus recalls agreeing with his colleagues that, "The idea was to benefit both sides...When both sides work together, conflict on the higher level becomes less important. As long as those not interested in peace stand aside, we can continue with these projects for people on both sides of the line." The first cooperation project was a six-month computer information learning program known as "CLIC", launched in 2000, in which 15 Israeli and 15 Palestinian students studied together in both Gaza and Ashkelon, alternating locations each time. The mayors were surprised to see how easily funding for the proposal was raised: Vaknin remembers that more than $1 million was collected on a quick trip to Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. But as always in the Middle East, the ultimate obstacle to every aspiring plan is not monetary but the violence in the region, and in this case, it proved insurmountable. As the Second Intifada gained in intensity, the CLIC participants were moved to Hamburg to complete the course. Oren Dayan, one of the CLIC participants, told The Media Line that once the venue changed, the atmosphere did as well, and the program never recovered. At roughly the same time, the mayors tried launching a second program: a recycling effort called "SCRUB" that had its origin in Canada. But before the proposed plant at the Erez Industrial Zone could be built, the Intifada quashed any hope of cooperation in the program. The waste water program, set to be launched in July, will be the first concrete effort to get a program off the ground since those early attempts at collaboration. Gaza Mayor Abu Ramadan was unable to attend the previous two UN conferences, one in Moscow and one in Japan, because of the violence. But this year, he hopes to be in Rio to sign the agreement that he believes will result in a water treatment plant and an improved eco-system that will be shared by two nations unused to sharing anything at all. But the plant doesn't come cheap: an estimated $5 million is needed just to create the framework and set up quality control testing. The building of the actual waste treatment facility will cost upward of $50 million. Nevertheless, the participants who have persevered for so long are less concerned about finding financial backing than they are about politics and war once again destroying all their hard work. Mayor Vaknin told The Media Line that he had arranged for a sewage plant that was built in Ashkelon 8 years ago to be used as the prototype for a Palestinian sister-plant. "I want to give our knowledge, experience and expertise as a gift to our neighbors in order to build our peace," he said. It seems control of the natural forces may at last be within reach, but the ability to harness and sustain good will between men remains as elusive as ever.