December 11, 2005

Give Israelis and Arabs a chance to cooperate on the environment and learn about each other.

Inspired by Martin Luther King’s 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, Curtis Mayfield wrote his highly acclaimed song “People Get Ready.” It is a song of hope in the face of despair. It is a song of redemption.

People get ready, there’s a train comin’

You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board

All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’

You don’t need no ticket you just thank the Lord.

I wake up every morning because I want to take that train. I want to take the train from Jerusalem, and then up the coast through the blocked up tunnel at Rosh Hanikra and carry on into Lebanon and then further north into Syria. At Aleppo there will be the choice, as it was before 1948 when one could make such a trip, to continue west to Europe or east to Asia.

I know that trip will not be possible for a while, but one day that train will run again. I wake up every morning and go to work to make that vision a reality through my efforts at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Kibbutz Ketura. Since 1996 the Arava Institute, an environmental teaching and research program, has been preparing future Arab and Jewish leaders to cooperatively solve the region’s environmental challenges.

We have learned over the years that the environment can play an important role in the process of successfully bringing Israeli Jewish, Israeli Arab, Palestinian and Jordanian students together, as both a basis for cooperation and a mechanism to learn about each other.

All of our participants bring their strong individual national, cultural and religious identities with them to the program. While never negating their identity, our interdisciplinary program creates a framework that allows the environment to act as the metaphor, the level playing field, and most importantly, the glue that allows us to deal with the more difficult political issues that can’t be avoided with such a constellation of young leaders. This can be a very difficult process for our students, but nonetheless, over the time that they are with us, strong friendships are forged that carry on after they leave the program. Many of our alumni are involved in numerous cross-border environmental projects between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.

Reduced one of its core components, this conflict is about land; more precisely – the borders that nations draw on the land. When thinking about what divides nations and in this conflict the land is often viewed as one of the major stumbling blocks to any reconciliation efforts between the various nations and peoples in the region. When the land is looked upon solely as a geo-political instrument that is true. However, when viewed from the perspective of the environment, a new framework opens up. The environment, which does not know from political borders, invites us to not be afraid of the other.

At the 10th anniversary of Rabin’s murder Shimon Peres said, “Now is the time to return with full strength to a true peace, not only to build a fence against terrorists, but also to build gates for cooperation with our neighbors and the world.”

Similar sentiments have been echoed by the American administration as well as by former president Bill Clinton when he was recently here.

Security is reached not just by building walls, but also by breaking down the walls of the misunderstanding each side has of the other. This can only happen when Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians are allowed to meet each other. We have found the ability to do so truncated by the Israeli permit and visa process for our students. Just last year a Jordanian student did not return home after his father suddenly died since the Israeli authorities had not given him a multi-entry visa. If he had gone back home for his father’s funeral he would not have been able to return to his studies with us and would have lost an entire semester of work and credit.

This semester we are faced with a total shutdown of the ability to get student permits for Palestinian students. We even delayed our semester by 10 days in the hope that conditions would change. They have not in that regard. With all due respect to the difficult work of the security apparatus we can’t believe that every Palestinian who wishes to study with us now is a security risk. One of them after his studies with us plans “to establish a non-violent environmental NGO to help foster Palestinian civic society.” Another wants to study with us so he can “learn to use the environment as an approach to peace-building between Palestinians and Israelis.”

A third looks to gain skills at the Arava Institute that will help him with “conserving bio-diversity in the Palestinian Authority and raise public awareness of the issue within the PA.”

The irony here is that we make it easier for these individuals to join Islamic Jihad, Hamas and the Aksa Martyrs Brigade than to join Israelis in building that future we all want; a future that will only happen if Palestinians who share our aspirations for peaceful cooperation are allowed to meet like-minded Israelis. If we treat every Palestinian as a terrorist we will eventually see that prophecy fulfilled. One of our best weapons against the Palestinian terrorists is to strengthen and support Palestinians who oppose their violence.

The train may not be pulling out of the station yet, but it is time to start laying the tracks so that train will be able to run once again.

(Reprinted with permission from The Jerusalem Post)

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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