Reflections on Across Borders 2011

I have taken quite a while to post this, mostly because I have been waiting for enough time to let the experience really sink in. Also, I had planned to write a post about why the Beit Zera Reservoir and Pipeline in fact represents ‘cooperation’ in the region. To those of you who would have enjoyed the back and forth debate (particularly Lauren and Caitlin), I apologize. Instead, I’ve meandered onto a topic that was not actively discussed on the trip – the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Perhaps this is because of the recent application of the Palestinian Authority to the UN for recognition as a sovereign state. Perhaps its because I wanted to have this conversation during the trip. Either way, here goes.

 

Surprised

First things first: I entered the Across Borders (AB) experience with a perspective that was pro-Palestinian. This is due to the overwhelming evidence of injustice that I had read, watched, and discussed with people who had experienced the demolition of homes, settler expansions, retaliations by Palestinians, lack of adequate & reliable water supply, and constant checkpoints from those that had actually been to the West Bank and beyond. I was not anti-Israel, but I was certainly pro-Palestinian; and I desired Israel to treat Palestinians the same as its own people. Of particular interest to me was the issue of the transboundary mountain aquifer underlying the West Bank, and the issues associated with Palestinian and Israeli drilling of the aquifer. From my own studies, I had learned that Palestinians (in general) were granted infrequent and inadequate permission to drill wells, compared to Israeli settlers. I was aware of this bias going into the trip, so I tried to prepare for the trip by reading broadly, particularly about the last 100 years of history to gain a more balanced viewpoint on the current situation. I wanted to appreciate the complexity of the situation, rather than simply labeling Palestinians the good guys and the settlers as the bad guys. I hoped that these attitudes would be deepened by my experiences on the ground, during the AB program.

 

Now, the aim of the AB program was not to solve the political crisis in the region, so I do not fault the program for not doing so. However, since our discussions were almost entirely about environmental issues divorced from their political context, my attitudes on issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were not actively challenged or explored.

 

I didn’t realize until some weeks ago that my ideas had been fermenting, and that the AB experience had in fact affected my attitudes and viewpoints on the issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This realization came about gradually during the multiple retellings of my trip, and the inevitable discussions of injustice – particularly inequitable access to water resources. Now… the circles I run in tend to be sympathetic to the Palestinians, rather than the Israelis; this is a function of my friend group, family, and not least because I live in Seattle. During these conversations I found myself conflicted and surprisingly defending a portion of the Israeli population. I attribute this defense to our staying at Kibbutz Ketura and our time at the Arava Institute. Witnessing everyday Israeli families and children made me appreciate the fact that Israelis are different from Israel, and that the actions of the government (albeit elected) cannot be blamed on those that have not voted for that government – specifically the young, non-voting members of society.

 

The simple realization I had was this: Nobody chose to be born in Israel, and nobody chose to be born in Palestine. As children, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians chose to have the dogma of their parent country and culture forced on them. If we ignore the past for the moment, and simply look at the present generation of youth, we see that there is a population of people on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that are generally taught to fear one another and to actively not understand one another. The lessons are not necessarily in the classroom, but they are a part of the culture. Israeli kids grow up knowing that there is a small but motivated group of people who hate Israel, and as a result occasionally blow up buses. Palestinian kids witness their parents (or themselves) being abused (verbally and perhaps physically) at checkpoints throughout their home country. How could we expect these kids to not grow up into adults who continue the cycle of prejudice against one another? With this understanding I pushed back on the continuous diatribe against Israel and continuous support for Palestine. I tried to point out that it was not actually that simple.

 

If you were hoping that I am now going to give you an answer to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I am sorry to disappoint. I don’t have a big “A-ha!” answer.  But I regard the fact that I am conflicted, and am no longer able to have a knee jerk reaction, as a step in the right direction. Hopefully, as I continue to learn about the region’s environmental issues, this ‘mental conflict’ will provide a clearer lens through which to identify avenues for reconciliation between the Palestinians and Israelis.

 

Baby steps

Like I said before, I don’t have a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis… but a few observation suggest some pathways that might lead towards improvement.

 

First, I think the region needs more Arava Institutes. The willingness to engage all nationalities and perspectives at the Arava Institute (AI) is extraordinary. When I use the word “extraordinary ” I mean it as it is defined in my Apple dictionary: “very unusual or remarkable.” In particular, the method by which the AI ties environmental stewardship to peace-building is very important – and I think potentially very useful for cultivating environmental cooperation across the borders in Palestine, Jordan and Egypt.

 

Second, based on my conversations with Israelis, very few Israelis are encouraged (or desire) to learn Arabic. Likewise, Palestinians learn Hebrew only to the extent that they are able to interact with soldiers at checkpoints, and possibly an Israeli employer. There are of course exceptions to this rule, but the borders between these groups are not only concrete and barbed wire, but also linguistic. My outsider prescription for working towards peace, is to first work towards understanding (yes, I know; this prescription is not unique to me). The only hope for understanding is to be able to talk to one another. Only through interactions with “the other” can there be any hope for an actual, mutually agreed and understood peace. Otherwise the peace is merely top-down and foisted on an unsupportive population.

 

My role moving forward

I was fascinated with many aspects of the ongoing transboundary environmental issues in the region, and I am actively pursuing projects to explore several of these. In particular, I am developing a project looking at the sustainability of the proposed Red-Dead Canal (RDC) using an integrated energy and water simulation. Although there is a growing concern about the sustainability of the RDC project, there is very little being done in the way of new research; I hope to begin to remedy this with a model-based exploration of the project’s sustainability. Additionally, I am very interested in the emergence of Palestine as a sovereign state, and what this might mean for its own water management. As a sovereign entity, it would have new responsibilities that would require a different type of coordination with Israel, particularly Israel’s National Water Company, Mekerot, which provides – albeit unreliable – piped water service to parts of the West Bank. I hope to work with partners (including other AB participants) on scoping the new challenges that a sovereign Palestinian state will confront, and how its neighbors fit into the broader water management scheme.

 

Thanks

I’d like to close with a note of thanks. The Across Borders Program provided an incredible opportunity to visit many places that I would likely never have visited. Particularly: the Beit Zera Reservoir & Pipeline in Israel (the pipeline that connects Israel and Jordan), the King Abdullah Canal control center (in Jordan), and a Bedouin farm, pictured above (near St. Katherine’s, in Sinai). These places stand out in my mind as key places where my preconceived notions about the level of sophistication in the region were happily proved wrong.

So, thank you Arava Institute, thank you Dickinson College, and thank you US State Department.

I am most grateful, however, for the people that I met on the trip (Israeli, Jordanian, Egyptian, and American) and the strong impressions they have made on me. I look forward to staying connected to many of the participants for years to come, and hope that we can combine our growing expertise to continue engaging issues in the region.

 

Sincerely,

Pat

a.k.a. ‘Sheikh Patrick’