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In Israel’s south, Palestinians, Israelis work on environment

A motto of Israel’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies: “Nature knows no political borders.”

Prof. Tareq Abu Hamed at the Arava Institute.

Over the past 26 years, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies has operated under the premise that cooperation on environmental issues that impact all the people in the Middle East is an effective path to building cooperation among communities that have been locked in conflict for generations.

The student body of the Arava Institute, located on Kibbutz Keturah, just north of Eilat in the southernmost part of Israel, is comprised of one-third Israeli Arabs, one-third Jewish Israelis and one-third internationals from neighboring Arab countries. 

Over the course of an academic semester, these students work together on solutions to issues such as climate change and water scarcity and cleanliness, while developing trust and working relationships.

The 176-year-old American Assn. for the Advancement of Science honored the Arava Institute’s executive director, Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed, with the David and Betty Hamburg Award for Science Diplomacy at its annual conference last week in Denver. 

“I am a strong believer in connections using science, using environment, using climate research as a tool to connect between people. This is science diplomacy,” Hamed told the IJN in an interview after the awards ceremony.

Born in East Jerusalem in 1972, Hamed is the first Palestinian to head up the Arava Institute. 

Educated in Turkey and at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, Hamed has been affiliated with the Arava Institute since 2008, with the exception of a three-year period during which he was the Israel Ministry of Science acting chief scientist. He was the highest-ranking Palestinian in the Israeli government. 

He returned to the Arava Institute and was named executive director in 2021.

Hamed’s abilities as a science diplomat were put to the test on Oct. 7, 2023, when Hamas brutally attacked Israel, igniting the war in Gaza. Unlike many other educational institutions in Israel, Arava Institute has remained open since the war began.

“The students decided to stay with each other,” Hamed explains. “Palestinians, Israelis and international students decided to stay as one community and continue the semester.

“We had four Israeli students who were called to miluim (army reserves) for duty, and it was heartwarming to see Palestinian students from the West Bank calling these Israeli Jewish students, wishing them to be safe and to return safe.”

This unlikely camaraderie, Hamed explains, comes from consistent, organized dialogue sessions required of all students at Arava Institute. The dialogue forum is run by three facilitators: Israeli Jewish, Palestinian, international.

“It’s six hours a week in which students talk about politics, religion, culture, family stories, personal stories. 

“When the students come to the Arava Institute, some of them — mainly the Arab students — say, ‘No, no, I came here for science. I don’t want to talk politics.

“And we say, ‘That’s fine, but you have to go to the dialogue to be a student here.’

“At the end of the semester, we ask them what was the highlight of the semester, and they say, ‘the dialogue.’”

Hamed says the dialogue sessions can become contentious. 

“We see them cry. They shout. It’s a very hot discussion, but the students manage to build understanding, trust and to see the human in the other.”

As Hamed puts it, the institute is located in the middle of nowhere. The students are in the same classroom, in the same dining room, and share rooms in the dormitory, living together 24/7 for an academic semester. 

That’s what makes them one community. That’s what builds solidarity.

Hamed acknowledges that tough emotions have emerged from the war. “The situation is horrible. There are feelings of sadness, anger and revenge. It’s hard . . . very heavy for our students, for our partners.

“You have friends in Gaza. You have friends who are in the army. You have partners in Gaza who have lost their families, lost their homes. We’re in a situation where you must have space in your heart for both peoples. It is really tough to keep that balance.”

That said, Arava Institute has managed to maintain its relationships with diverse partners.

‘I’m very proud to say that since Oct. 7 we have not lost any Arab partner, neither from the West Bank nor Gaza, nor Jordan, nor Morocco — none. And that’s because of the trust.”

The Arava Institute implements projects in Gaza for treating wastewater, recycling wastewater and creating systems that generate drinking water. “We do this work with our Palestinian partners in full coordinating with the Israeli army,” Hamed says.

“We are working right now with our Gazan partners on projects for the day after the war ends.”

That’s not say that the Arava Institute’s operations have not been impacted by the war. They have had to cancel international conferences and programs that were supposed to bring international researchers, including American groups, to the institute.

Enrollment is also smaller now. “Because of the war, we were not able to get permission for Palestinian students to come study at the institute,” says Hamed.

Hamed says the Arava Institute is working on a number of “fascinating projects” right now, including off-the-grid wastewater treatment and growing crops under photovoltaic panels.

The institute is also looking to expand physically. Currently, the facility on Kibbutz Ketura can serve 35 students each semester. Plans are to rebuild the institute in the same place to accommodate 150 students.

Most of Arava Institute’s funding comes from the Friends of the Arava Institute, based in Boston. Denverite Michael Marcus is immediate past chairman.

“We see this campus as a regional hub for climate change research for the Middle East and North Africa.”

Tareq Abu Hamed feels the award he received in Denver for science diplomacy could not have come at a more appropriate time.

“Science diplomacy gives people the opportunity to be exposed to the other through science. We use this science diplomacy to allow people to see the human in the other.

“I experienced that first time when, in high school, I worked and volunteered in a kibbutz. That was my first exposure to my Jewish neighbors. That first-hand interaction, first-hand with the neighbors, gave me the opportunity to see the human in my neighbors.

“That’s why I chose this path.”

Copyright © 2024 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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IJN Associate Editor | [email protected]

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