Palestinians and Israelis are inextricably linked in many ways, but
especially so through their environment. The two communities share
a small area, containing common ecological systems. Within this
geographical unit, there are shared surface and subsurface water
basins, shared seas and bodies of water, and the same flora and
fauna and natural resources. The same aquifers feed our wells, the
same rains water our fields, the same limestone quarries supply our
builders, and the same soils sustain our crops.
Together, all the elements of our environment compose one
delicately balanced organic whole, each part existing only in
relation to the others. The consequences of sharing these natural
resources are clear. Any harm to the environment almost inevitably
affects the other side, both in terms of direct environmental
damage to the natural resources in the region and to the people
living in the area. No aquifer turns brackish without the ripple
effects reaching not only all living Palestinians and Israelis, but
all their generations yet to come. In short, there is no
Palestinian environmental problem without bearing on Israelis, and
no Israeli problem without consequences for Palestinians.
The close proximity of the two communities and the need to address
regional environmental issues necessitate cooperation. As difficult
as this may be, no alternative exists if the one environment both
peoples share is to be sustained and cherished now and in the
future. While this article will not discuss in detail the severe
environmental challenges facing the region, these issues are dealt
with in some of the other articles in this journal- the broad
picture is well known. The region faces chronic water shortages,
making responsible management of water resources essential. Water
supplies themselves are often dangerously contaminated.
Other serious problems include inadequate and environmentally
destructive solid waste disposal practices, unsustainable methods
of farming and livestock breeding, tree destruction, soil erosion,
and air pollution. It is becoming increasingly clear that the
development of sustainable systems of mass transport is essential
in order to minimize the environmental hazards that result as the
number of cars increases dramatically each year, and more roads are
built in an attempt to accommodate increased traffic. As the
available open space in the region decreases steadily, the physical
development of Israel and the Palestinian Authority becomes an
environmental issue of great concern. While national and political
considerations may guide the responsible authorities, it is
incumbent on environmentalists from both sides to ensure that the
impact of short-sighted planning is considered.
Materially Advantageous Cooperation
Although the two governments have started to create mechanisms for
formal cooperation, particularly with the creation of the
Environmental Experts Committee as specified in Oslo II, there
continues to be a need to facilitate cooperation between the two
non-governmental communities and other segments of society. This
informal sector containing youth, students, teachers, academics,
specialists and environmental non-governmental organizations
(NGOs), can contribute much to protecting our shared environment.
These bodies are often, by definition, less constrained than
governmental groups and are able to nimbly accommodate themselves
to changing realities in the execution of projects. It was against
this background that the Palestinian-Israeli Environmental
Secretariat (PIES) was created, in order to forge a joint
commitment to protecting the environment by encouraging different
sectors to become active and involved.
With regard to many of the topics mentioned above and other
environmental hazards discussed in this journal,
Palestinian-Israeli cooperation is a prerequisite for a successful
and comprehensive treatment of these problems. In some other
fields, such cooperation is clearly mutually advantageous. A case
in point is the area of eco-tourism. Additionally, as a result of
its strategic location at the junction of three continents, our
region has an exceptional avian population, with extensive
migration in the summer months. This region has been blessed with
abundant natural beauty and an ancient and rich social and
historical heritage. Attracting nature lovers to the region, using
bird-watching, hiking trails and village tourism as a focus, will
result in clear economic benefit and development.
For this benefit to be maximized, there is a need to open the whole
area to eco-tourists, so that overseas and local tourists can tour
the region in its entirety. Aside from its clear economic benefits,
eco-tourism has a positive environmental impact, as natural sites
are maintained and developed.
Due to the historical and political reality in the area, there
exists a need to strengthen the Palestinian environmental community
and infrastructure in order to create a balance between project
partners. Environmental cooperation can playa role in this regard.
Cooperation in the field of eco¬tourism is a good example of a
project which can involve Palestinian and Israeli groups in
generating new ideas. Projects such as this can be catalysts both
for joint activities and for the development of an environmental
infrastructure in the Palestinian Authority.
Another aspect of environmental cooperation is the contact
established between participants in the joint programs and the
overcoming of long¬standing barriers resulting from this.
While the Oslo peace negotiations held during the early 1990s, and
subsequent accords, represent the commitment of political leaders
to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the achievement of
peace cannot be the work of political decision-makers alone. In
order to cement the political process initiated, civilian and
grass¬roots interaction must be strengthened among all
elements of the society by developing a "people-to-people"
dialogue. This would create a network of interpersonal contacts,
particularly among those sharing a common interest, in order to
initiate substantive attitudinal reorientation and, in turn, to
strengthen the peace process. Therefore, this shared interest in
the environment and this passion for the land they live on can pave
the path for dialogue and joint activities, both of which are
effective instruments for the prevention of crises and for the
resolution of conflicts.
This dialogue, or, in this case, joint environmental activity,
needs to be conducted on an open, mutually beneficial basis in
order for it to succeed. Projects need to be built by both sides,
and to meet both sides' interests if they are to be successful.
These interests are not always identical, and different processes
may be used within the same project to achieve acceptable outputs
for the parties. Due to the existing reality in the region, this
may involve developing Palestinian infrastructure in some projects
before joint activity is commenced. It is our experience that
cooperation must be built on a basis of equality and parity in the
real, substantive sense, as opposed to a sometimes empty numerical
equality of form only.
In order to illustrate some of the principles outlined above, and
to provide examples of joint environmental work currently being
undertaken, it is necessary to present some projects being
implemented in the area. It has been our experience that NGOs can
be especially successful in the field of environmental education
and public awareness. The fact that extensive infrastructures are
not needed, involving the authorization of numerous agencies,
allows NGOs to directly interact with youth or communities.
Naturally, these activities are of crucial importance in educating
a new generation imbibed with a shared sense of urgency to protect
our most precious resources.
An interesting example of a project that managed to educate
Palestinians and Israelis towards a shared commitment to protecting
their environment is the Environmental Summer School held over the
summer of 1997 in the Galilee and near Jericho, followed by
subsequent seminars. Israeli and Palestinian teenagers gathered
together to spend ten days learning about their common environment.
Bonding between the youth was created, heightening the level of
trust and friendship, which managed to transcend political and
cultural differences, and changed the way the students and
counselors perceived each other.
A further project that will address an important joint need, that
of controlling environmental hazards emanating from industry, is
the Sustainable Environmental Management Program for Palestinian
and Israeli Business Leadership. Business and industry, while
obviously leading economic development in the region, also have a
major environmental impact on their surroundings, stemming from the
improper treatment of solid and liquid waste produced, and on air
pollution. With the rapid growth in industry and physical
development in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, there exists a
real need for both sides to meet, share their expertise and define
joint procedures for environmental management.
A Fair Approach to Real Concerns
An additional need the project meets is to encourage regional
economic development, thus creating the prosperity and stability
necessary to build a sustainable and lasting peace. Sound
environmental management has proved to be a significantly
profitable business strategy for major European and North American
companies. It is largely recognized today that there exists a
business rationale for ''being green," that pollution prevention
and cleaner production pays, both in terms of the specific company
involved and in terms of national budgetary considerations. This
program, by encouraging the adoption of such principles by Israeli
and Palestinian industries, will encourage sustainable regional
During the program, a group of Palestinian and Israeli business
leaders will undergo a joint, specialized learning experience
concerning the use of eco-efficient/ friendly principles in their
industries. The use of Israeli expertise and advanced technologies
will be discussed, and leading industrial complexes visited, for
the benefit of all sides. This program will allow for direct
contact to be made between a Palestinian and Israeli business
leadership, with the aim of contributing to environmental
protection and sustainable economic development in the area.
It is important to understand the above-mentioned projects in the
light of our initial comments. Clearly, there is a need for
Palestinians and Israelis to work together in joint activities for
the protection of our environment. This cooperation can take place
between many different sectors and concerning a variety of
projects. Nonetheless, it should always be remembered that, in
order for these activities to be successful, they need to address
real concerns in both communities in a fair and equitable manner.