Kibbutz Ketura, Israel Deep in a desert in southern
Israel, more than a hundred
miles from the nearest city,
a tiny academic flower is growing.
The Arava Institute for Environmental
Studies is a small place
with big ambitions: to help end the
conflict between Israelis and Arabs
by training a new generation of engineers
and activists who will find
solutions for problems like water
scarcity and the need for renewable
energy—issues that transcend the
political boundaries in the Middle

Founded in 1996, the institute
accepts 40 undergraduate and
master’s students each year, divided
equally among Israeli Jews; Arabs
from Israel, the Palestinian territories,
and Jordan; and international
applicants. In 2013 the number will
double to 80. The
Arava’s annual budget is just $1.5-million, and its modest offices
occupy a converted turkey
house with mud-brick walls. But
it punches above its featherweight
class with internationally recognized
work in desert agriculture,
water management, and alternative

David B. Brooks, a Canadian water-
management expert who has
studied environmental issues in
the Middle East, says the institute
helped pioneer the use of the global
positioning system in water research
and was the first in the Middle
East and North Africa to “jump across disciplines” in environmental

“They’ve broken what were formerly
barriers to good research in
this area by doing it with more integration
between physical science
and social science,” he says. “It’s
now widely recognized as important,
but it’s not applied as much as
it’s talked about. They really do apply

Arava’s student population is
unique for the region. Israeli Arabs
make up just 12 percent of Israeli
college students. Jewish Israelis
hardly ever study in the Palestinian
territories or Jordan, and Palestinians
are generally barred from
studying in Israel. Jordanians are
often discouraged from enrolling at
institutions in the Jewish state.
All studies at Arava are in English,
leveling the language barrier.
And its isolated location on a kibbutz
that is a two-hour drive from
the city of Beersheba means that
students have few outside distractions
and live and work in close

“We teach that nature knows
no limits,” says its director, David
Lehrer. “The peace-building stu!
is not our business. It’s the way we
do business, but the business we’re
in is the environment.”
The institute o!ers a minor in
environmental studies for undergraduates
and a master’s degree in
desert studies through Ben-Gurion
University of the Negev, in Beersheba.
The program combines scientific
and engineering studies—earth
sciences, environmental sciences,
renewable energy, sustainable agriculture—
with social sciences, including
environmental law, public
policy, and education, as well as
ethics, religion, and economics.
“The course is designed to give
the the students the tools they need to
become environmental professionals
and leaders when they leave the
program,” says Mr. Lehrer. “We often
say that the scarcest resource in
the Middle East is water, but that’s
not really true. The scarcest resource
in the Middle East is trust.”
Suleiman A. Halasah, a graduate
of Arava from Jordan, learned
about the program from Jordanian
alumni and ignored friends who
told him not to go to Israel. “The
warnings made me want to go. I
thought: Let’s try it and see this evil
that people are talking about.”
“There is an anticooperation, antinormalization
campaign in Jordan
targeting Israel, and that’s a
threat,” says Mr. Halasah. The engineers’
union in Jordan, he notes,
could cancel his membership if they
knew he had studied in Israel.
Mr. Halasah is founder and chief
executive of Integrated Green Solutions,
in Amman, where he continues
to connect Jordanians working
in water management, sustainable
agriculture, and alternative energy
with former professors and fellow

Arava alumni are now working in
environmental groups and government
ministries in Israel, Jordan,
the Palestinian territories, and the
United States, creating a network
of personal cooperation in a region
where such ties are rare.

The institute’s interdisciplinary
approach is also key, since water is
not just a crucial environmental issue,
but also a political one.
Bart Johnsen-Harris, an American
studying at Arava after receiving
a bachelor’s degree in environmental
studies from Brown University,
is looking at how pollution
a!ects the Besor River system, in
the Negev desert, and how political
realities complicate any potential
cleanup e!ort. The Besor originates
near Hebron, under Palestinian
control, and flows through
the Israeli city of Beersheba and
into the sea through Gaza. “If Israel
cleaned it up,” he says, “they
would have to give back the water,
because it’s the property of the

Arava’s faculty members seek to
generate graduates who can develop
practical, sometimes low-tech,
solutions for environmental and
energy problems.
Tareq Abu Hamed, who oversees
the institute’s Center for Renewable
Energy and Energy Conservation,
is one of the few Arab
heads of department in Israeli academe.
His center helped create biogas
units that convert agricultural
waste into clean fuel. They are being
used in the West Bank, Jordan,
and beyond.

“One of my students worked on the bio-gas project on the West
Bank, then installed the technology
in war-ravaged Bosnian villages,
then India, and will be taking it to
Haiti,” says Eric Pallant, a professor
of environmental science at Allegheny
College, in Meadville, Pa.,
which sends two to four students to
the institute each year.
Such broad thinking about environmental
issues is lacking in other
Israeli programs, say students at

Manar Saria, an Arab Israeli
from Haifa who recently graduated
from the Arava master’s program,
earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental
and water engineering
at the Technion-Israel Institute of
Technology a highly regarded engineering
school. But Ms. Saria,
who was the only Arab in her undergraduate
class, says at Arava she
learned not just to think in terms
of construction and materials, but
also to consider the social and environmental
“At the Technion I got only the
technical approach,” she says. “I
came here and realized, Wow, I’m
missing a lot.”
Since graduating from Arava,
Ms. Saria earned a Fulbright scholarship
to study for a Ph.D. in environmental
engineering and public
policy at Carnegie Mellon University.
“Now I’m going back to engineering
after adopting this holistic
approach,” she says.

To be sure, politics cannot be
confined to the classroom with
such a diverse student body. The
institute has a weekly peace-building
and environmental-leadership
seminar, where political issues are
discussed, often with passion.
Muhanad Majdikharraz, a Palestinian
who studied civil engineering
at An-Najah National University,
in the West Bank city of Nablus,
says that until he arrived at Kibbutz
Ketura, he had never met an Israeli
who wasn’t a soldier.

“It was really, really amazing to
have these discussions with Israelis,”
he says. Such small e!orts, he
adds, can be the “first step” on the
road to reconciliation between Arabs and Israelis.

the chronicle of higher education | february 1, 2013 A5