By Karin Kloosterman
June 06, 2011
Named a Hero of the Environment by TIME magazine, Israeli lawyer Gidon Bromberg and his colleagues in Friends of the Earth Middle East are also heroes of peacemaking.

In the early 1990s, a young Israeli lawyer doing a master’s thesis on environmental international law concluded that the environment could and should be used as a tool for peace. Today, the organization he co-directs with a Palestinian and Jordanian director,Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME), is working toward improving the environment and peace prospects in the Middle East.

The man is Gidon Bromberg, and with his colleagues he’s recently been named a TIME magazine Hero of the Environment for 2011.

In April, ISRAEL21c traveled to Area A in the Palestinian Authority, about 10 minutes from the city of Jericho in the Jordan Valley. There we visited the new EcoCenter of Auja, one of three educational facilities that FOEME has built to educate the population and improve the water situation in the very parched Middle East.

Taps run dry

Israelis may have enough water for showers despite an alarming drop in the Sea of Galilee every year, but there are days in the Palestinian Authority when the taps literally run dry. In the village of Auja, the inhabitants – about 5,000, of mixed Arab and Bedouin stock — rely on the Auja Spring a couple miles away. But over the last years, the spring has dried up, making it impossible for villagers to bank on agriculture for making a living.

The people of Auja blame the Israelis for digging a nearby well that robs their spring of the groundwater it needs. The Israelis blame a persistent seven-year drought. Bromberg’s organization and co-directors aren’t waiting for the truth to bubble to the surface. And they aren’t pointing fingers. Their focus is working at the grassroots level to teach people in need how to meet their own needs.

With the help of the Auja EcoCenter, the villagers are learning how to make the most out of a tight water situation. The effects of the project are expected to spread throughout the West Bank as other homes and villages replicate its low-tech water reclamation system.

The EcoCenter is a sparkling clean guest facility that sleeps about 30 people. “Gray” water from the guesthouse runs into the garden, where it is treated naturally in a series of open tanks. The treated water then irrigates the garden. Organic, luscious vegetables almost ripe for the picking have been growing for a month, while a massive Middle East herb garden is sprouting from the dust.

In addition to educational activities that focus on water and its preservation locally and regionally, the Auja staff also offers courses on traditional Arabic and Bedouin cooking and the traditional Bedouin Debka dance.

Trilateral network of education centers

The Auja center, the first of its kind in the Palestinian territories, is intended as an educational facility modeled on the Israeli field schools built in the 1970s by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Constructing it has been an act of peacemaking in itself, Bromberg tells ISRAEL21c.

In April, the US Consul General to the Palestinian Authority, Daniel Rubenstein, came to congratulate the work done at Auja. Through its agency USAID, the American government helped construct safe, working water pipes in Auja, along with new roads – an effort orchestrated by FOEME and a joint team of seven Palestinians and three Israelis.

Auja joins a network of two others – one at Kibbutz Ein Gedi in Israel, and another in Jordan at Sheikh Hussein, where the Jordanian government provided FOEME with hundreds of acres of land and 25,000 trees. The staffs from all three centers meet regularly.

Peaceful water

It has not been easy for any side to cooperate with the perceived enemy. “In all the communities we work in – in Palestine, Jordan and Israel — there are always residents and individuals who object to cooperation,” Bromberg says.

“Our staff face criticisms and are often condemned. One of the Israeli Knesset speakers said to me, ‘You are a traitor, Gidon, because you want to share water [with the Palestinians].’ We all face it,” says Bromberg, referring to his co-directors and staff who are in the same boat.

But in their boat, hope floats.

“The bottom line is our experience on how to overcome condemnation,” he explains. “Time and again, we’ve designed the [FOEME] program to empower people to defend themselves. By standing up [to criticism], they broaden the network of peacemakers.”

Not ashamed of his Israeli nationality, Bromberg does acknowledge credit where it’s due. “We are bringing school kids to stay overnight and then go on hikes. This is education modeled on the experience of [the Israeli] environment field schools, sleeping close to nature and then going out in it.”

Even without hiking gear, Bromberg took visitors on an impromptu half-mile hike up a stony desert path to the dormant fountainhead of the Auja Spring. The journey was quiet and contemplative: There was an Israeli, a Canadian, an American and a Palestinian. There were no guards, suspicion or walls between them — just a deep desire to make friendship, and some peace with water.