LETTER FROM AMERICA: Breakthrough in Canada

The impression is of a one way street where Israelis and Palestinians only receive and have nothing to offer.

An Israeli peace activist holds a sign in front of the Israel-Gaza border, as Palestinians protest on the Gaza side of the border near Kibbutz Nahal Oz, Israel April 5, 2018. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
An Israeli peace activist holds a sign in front of the Israel-Gaza border, as Palestinians protest on the Gaza side of the border near Kibbutz Nahal Oz, Israel April 5, 2018.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Last month the White House hosted an international meeting on Gaza; a situation that has gotten increasingly worse in the ensuing weeks. Besides addressing the acute humanitarian crisis in Gaza the meeting highlighted the perception that the situation between Palestinians and Israelis is one only of confrontation. The impression is of a one way street where Israelis and Palestinians only receive and have nothing to offer. That dynamic was challenged during the same week when a group from Afghanistan and Pakistan met to discuss the Kabul River Basin and learn from examples of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.
One of the distinguishing features of Wadi as-Samen/Al-Khalil/Hebron/Besor River is that because it traverses political boundaries, Palestinians and Israelis are both upstream and downstream stakeholders. The river begins in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, enters Israel north of Beersheva, returns to the Palestinian territory of Gaza and then out to the Mediterranean Sea. Similarly, one of the major tributaries of the Kabul River starts in Pakistan as the Chitral River, enters Afghanistan and changes its name to Kunar River, merges with the main tributary of Kabul River, re-enters Pakistan and merges with the Swat and Indus rivers, eventually exiting into the Arabian Sea.
There too, Pakistan and Afghanistan are both upstream and downstream stakeholders.
For almost two years the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies has organized a Track II Environmental Forum which brings together Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to create working models to a address shared environmental challenges, including Gaza. As opposed to Track I, Track II and by extension Track III is able to shift the conversation to a more inclusive and comprehensive approach because its members are not official government representatives.
That same spirit brought the mostly Track II representatives from Afghanistan and Pakistan together in Montreal. While the event was spearheaded by Bennington College’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action, along with the University of Vermont’s Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security, the event was held in Montreal because of the difficulty in obtaining visas to the United States.
Dawson College’s Peace Centre hosted the event. As the event drew closer it became clear that it was growing more difficult for people from Afghanistan to get visas to go anywhere in the world.
One of the most empowering sessions for the participants in Montreal was hearing from Suleiman Halasah, a Jordanian affiliated with the Arava Institute. He talked about the Israeli and Jordanian water agreements, and presented examples of joint Israeli-Palestinian river and water research and projects. These included water monitoring of the Wadi as-Samen/ Al-Khalil/Hebron/Besor River, along with establishing proper disposal of waste water, and an awareness campaign. For the participants Suleiman’s presentation provided tangible examples from another part of the world where political tensions can cloud environmental cooperation.
Participants were given a tour of the college by Diana Rice of the Dawson College Peace Centre. As she explained, “In the wake of the Dawson College shooting in 2006, the students, staff and administration refused to militarize the school with metal detectors, armed guards or any similar action. Rather, the community chose to “take back our school” through: a) the creation of 22,000 square foot peace garden; b) designing and hosting an educational conference on peace and nonviolence in postsecondary education; and c) launching of the Dawson College Peace Centre and the Peace Studies Certificate in Fall 2014.”
In an age where the response to such violence is often the opposite Dawson reminds us that other ways can also be effective. A few blocks from Dawson College is the Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth Hotel, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono held their famous Bed-In for Peace. It was Lennon who sang, “There are no problems, only solutions.” On one level the line seems trite, but on another it is quite revealing.
When the shift is made from I and me to us and we that pivot does not make problems go away but makes solutions easier to discover. This is what the Arava Institute has modeled for over 20 years and how the participants from Pakistan and Afghanistan came together.
The week-long convening led to the establishment of the Transboundary Water In-cooperation Network (TWIN), a network of networks that connects trans-boundary partners globally.
TWIN plans to design a citizen science-based water quality monitoring system for the Kabul River Basin; develop a comprehensive set of measures to promote community and scientific cooperation; develop strategies for community awareness and engagement; and organize science and civil society diplomacy events.
In 1957, only nine years after the establishment of the modern State of Israel, Golda Meir, then foreign minister, established MASHAV, the equivalent of USAID in the United States. For over 60 years MASHAV has been the platform for Israel to share its knowhow in the areas of social, economic and environmental sustainable development. In Montreal last month participants from Pakistan and Afghanistan were very interested to learn of the work done by Israelis along with Palestinians. As a follow-up MASHAV could consider inviting participants from Afghanistan and Pakistan to learn more about river and water monitoring and other related techniques. While there are no diplomatic relations between Israel and Pakistan and Afghanistan, environmental diplomacy might be a way to start. It was environmental diplomacy in the first place that brought together the participants successfully in Montreal.
The author, a rabbi, teaches conflict resolution at Bennington College.