Air Date: Week of July 9, 1999
Youth in the Middle East are joining together to take on environmental problems their elders have overlooked. Patricia Golan reports that Arab-Israeli cooperation is forging a new understanding of the region's ecology.
CURWOOD: In the Middle East, cooperation among the jumble of small, intermingled nations has long been elusive. So it's no surprise that there's been little progress in creating an environmental protection agency for the region. Even so, when talk turns to Israelis and Arabs working together, environmentalists appear to be besting the politicians. Patricia Golan has our report.
(Children laugh; a bell rings)
GOLAN: Children play in the school yard in the remote West Bank village of Arab Ka’abneh. The community is rundown and desolate. Like many Palestinian villages in the region, Arab Ka’abneh has no running water, no telephone lines, and no electricity.
NORTH: Yes, that's the printer warming up.
(Another man speaks in Arabic)
GOLAN: But this spring the American foundation Green Star set up a solar-powered energy plant here. A dozen men gather in one of the school rooms, gazing raptly as a brand new computer is plugged into the outlet connected to solar panels. Michael North, who supervised the installations and set up the computer, watches the men's faces as the screen lights up.
NORTH: Press this button here, and this tray comes out. It's unbelievable, it's magic. Lightning in a bottle.
(Footfalls and children's laughter)
GOLAN: Arab Ka’abneh is 1 of 4 villages, Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian, and Egyptian, which are part of a unique project called the Solar Bridge for Peace-building. The project is sponsored by Friends of the Earth Middle East. Gideon Bromberg is Israeli director of the organization.
BROMBERG: One of the resources that we're really the most blessed with in this region is the sun, and therefore the idea of identifying 4 villages and trying to turn those villages into sustainable communities, relying on the energy of the sun to power their needs. And we thought that such a project would be a wonderful demonstration of both sustainable living and peace-building for the Middle East.
(Many voices mingling)
GOLAN: Palestinian and Israeli teenagers meet for a field trip in the Judean desert in the West Bank. Many of the kids already know each other from spending last summer together at an environmental studies camp organized by the Palestinian-Israeli Environmental Secretariat. The site of this encounter is a fourth-century Greek Orthodox monastery perched on a desert mountaintop overlooking the ancient city of Jericho.
ABU-DIEH: Now, the first group, which is Group A, is going to be with Arela and me. We're going to be heading the way...
GOLAN: Palestinian co-director of the group, Taher Abu-dieh, explains that today the kids will be studying the underground water sources that feed the Jericho oasis.
ABU-DIEH: They will be going out, testing the soil, testing water, testing air. And what you want to show them is they will find similar pollutants in both environments, because it's the same environment. It's one ecosystem.
(Many children speaking at once)
GOLAN: Whatever their age, Israelis and Palestinians are both highly politicized. Often, their previous contacts were in a hostile environment. Bringing them together is a challenge, says the secretariat's co-director Paul Amit.
AMIT: In this environmental framework there's this social and personal contact, which we believe is crucial in helping the people overcome fear and suspicion that they may have of each other.
GOLAN: Beyond overcoming the psychological and cultural barriers, there are also very real physical barriers, of roadblocks, and closures. Palestinians must have permits from the Israeli authorities to enter Israel. These are impossible to get when Israel imposes closures.
GOLAN: Bethlehem University in the West Bank. A team from the university carried out a major joint research project with Israeli scientists. Environmental chemist Alfred Abed Rabbo headed the Palestinian team.
ABED RABBO: We cannot go there and they cannot come here, you know? We needed permits. It wasn't available at the time. It was so difficult to get them.
GOLAN: The 4-year project investigated pollution of a vital shared water resource, the mountain aquifer, which runs the length of the West Bank. But Abed Rabbo's team faced constant obstacles, not only difficulties traveling into Israel but problems with the Palestinian authority as well. It forbids Palestinian academicians to work with Israeli academic institutions. So all cooperative projects must be channeled through private organizations.
ABED RABBO: The project went finally, and we did our part and they did their part and 2 reports were submitted. But I wanted more of a forum, more of a dialogue. The political situation really did not help us.
GOLAN: The teams discovered that while virtually all of the wells in the West Bank are polluted, the aquifer itself is still pure.
(Music and milling voices)
GOLAN: A holiday boat cruises in the Red Sea waters the Israelis call the Gulf of Elat and the Jordanians call the Gulf of Aqaba. The party-goers dancing on deck are an unlikely combination of Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, and American students. This is a reunion of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which is affiliated with Tel-Aviv University. It offers a one-year course in regional conservation and environmental protection. Palestinian Mo’ayid Sallah is from Nablus in the West Bank. He says the course has turned him into a green activist, despite issues of daily survival.
SALLAH: I think people, they are ready to think about other things instead of occupation, peace process. They start to have the chance to go beyond these issues. I feel they are ready to help out the environment, because it means their life.
GOLAN: But while these and other programs and projects are valuable as interpersonal experiments, and do sometimes raise public awareness on specific issues, most serious environmental activists here admit there is still a long way to go in developing a regional environmental policy. Phillip Warburg is an American environmental lawyer who's worked on several Middle East projects. He says he's yet to see any serious bilateral or multi-lateral cooperation in environmental protection, a fact he blames on the stalled peace process.
WARBURG: One can't take environmental protection out of the broader context of the peace process. And if there isn't confidence that major issues that are still outstanding pertaining to the peace process are going to be addressed fairly and satisfactorily, I don't think we're going to see significant, real, consequential in terms of their impact, environmental protection initiatives undertaken on a joint basis.
(Milling children's voices)
GOLAN: Still, quietly, around the region, environmental groups seem to be doing better than politicians in bringing people together. Perhaps this generation, the kids at this camp, the university students, will provide the key. For Living on Earth, I'm Patricia Golan in the West Bank.
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