Located on Kibbutz Ketura, on the Israeli border with Jordan, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies has, for 20 years, brought together undergraduate and graduate university students from both sides of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict to teach and talk about environmental issues.
Recognised as one of the top environmental think tanks in the world, it is now a key player in issues such as water scarcity, sustainable agriculture and cross-border nature conservation – problems that defy disputed borders. Even during some of the worst periods of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the Arava Institute has managed to maintain a diverse student body.
David Lehrer, director of the institute, tells Geographical that the institute’s main role in the region is ‘building a cohort of young environmental leaders who understand that our common interests are much more important – especially around water – instead of the things that divide us’.
Political escalation in the region has meant that the Israeli and Palestinian relations have gone from bad to worse. The Israel–Gaza conflict claimed more than 2,000 lives in 2014, and rockets continued to be launched from both sides of the borders throughout 2015. As well as the human loss, the lack of cooperation exacerbates water shortages and environmental degradation the region.
Rebecca Farnum, researcher at King’s College London, studies environmental think-tanks and the positive influence they can have in state-to-state relations. Academic centres such as the Arava Institute can be critical in forming diplomacy during conflict and ensuring that it lasts afterwards. Farnum says ‘eventually state negotiations stop and there’s some kind of treaty reached. Is that the end of diplomacy? No, it can’t be or you’re going to find yourself back in the same position. It is this kind of peer-to-peer and academic diplomacy will inform treaty making and official state negotiations.’
According to the Arava Institute , it is the graduates who will eventually prove of benefit to the region. ‘Things seem to be going from bad to worse,’ says Lehrer. ‘However, on the ground, we’re seeing more and more alumni achieving influential positions and becoming involved. They are part of environmental units on a governmental level across the region. It is an issue of critical mass, when there are enough of our graduates and others from similar programmes, we will see real impact.’
During the studies, the conflict is actively addressed. A peace-building and leadership seminar is part of the curriculum, which gives the students a chance to talk about environmentally-related subjects that are usually easier to avoid; history, politics, religion, war and occupation. ‘These discussions are not very quiet,’ says Lehrer. ‘The students can scream at each other and stomp out the door.’ However, it is the geographical isolation that, Lehrer says, helps to forge cooperation: ‘We are located in the middle of a desert in the middle of nowhere. So no matter how much they disagree, they all go back to the same dorm rooms, sharing coffee, sharing tea, sharing computers and sharing spaces.’
While it helps keep the students in, it is the desert that becomes the shared interest of the Arava Institute. Using the arid landscape of the region as a common denominator, cooperation is easier to come by. ‘Bridging conflict with environmental issues has a lot of potential, in that it is hard to escape,’ says Farnum. ‘For people in the Middle East, it is very easy to see when there isn’t enough water.’
For Lehrer, it’s culture and relationships that need to be addressed first. ‘The truth is that water is not the scarcest resource in the Middle East,’ he says. ‘It is trust. We don’t trust each other. Without trust there will never be peace in this region.’