Friday, August 3 2012

Cross-border environmental cooperation cannot wait until a final peace agreement is signed. But it also cannot completely disregard political realities: The recent Cross-Border Environmental Conference held by Israel in the settlement of Ariel meant that no Palestinian could dare attend, leaving Israelis to discuss cooperation among themselves.

By David Lehrer and Dr. Clive Lipchin

In the Middle East, as in most parts of the world, environmental issues cross borders. Israelis share groundwater and watersheds with Palestinians, Jordanians, Syrians and Lebanese, air pollution travels without regard to political boundaries and animals do not halt or present a passport when they arrive at an international border. In order to meet the environmental needs of growing populations in the region, there is no choice but to work in close concert with our neighbors.

Cross-border environmental cooperation cannot wait until a final peace agreement is signed. The end of the occupation and a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is far from sight, but cross-border environmental degradation is ongoing. More people continue to die from air pollution-related diseases in Israel and Palestine than from car accidents. Most of the rivers that originate in Palestine and cross into Israel are polluted, resulting in cross border pollution that has an impact on both sides. Aquifers, which are also shared, continue to be degraded from excessive pumping and seepage from domestic, agricultural and industrial sewage, causing massive damage to the drinking water consumed by both peoples.

If unsustainable development continues at its current rate without significant and meaningful cross-border coordination, we will quickly destroy the very land and natural resources that are in dispute. While sustainable solutions cannot wait for a final political agreement, environmental cooperation cannot completely disregard the political realities. Real environmental cooperation includes meetings, conferences and information exchange, and that can only occur if the atmosphere between both parties is open, honest and transparent; such interaction must be based on equality, symmetry of power and recognition of rights.

This does not mean that all political disagreements need to be resolved, but that discussions must take place on a level playing field – at present, that field is far from even. Take Item 40 of the Oslo agreements on water and sewage, for example. Item 40 called for an exchange of all relevant data on water resources. Such an exchange never took place, leaving both sides unable to develop a regional plan for water management. In addition, Item 40 established a Joint Water Committee, which oversees the digging of new wells and water-related infrastructure. According to the Oslo Agreements, all decisions must be made by mutual agreement between Israel and Palestine, which gives Israel a virtual veto power over any new water infrastructure project in the West Bank.

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the closure on Gaza make environmental cooperation extremely difficult; but not impossible. Cross border cooperation on the environment and on other issues of human welfare such as health, education and natural resource management can and do take place when both sides acknowledge that there must be an equitable and just solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict – a solution that guarantees an end to military occupation and conflict and provides freedom and security to both parties.

If the actions of one side, however, signal a disregard for the rights of the other side or a lack of commitment to a just solution, no cooperation can take place and the environment will continue to suffer. Any joint work on the environment will not be effective, or will not even take place, if Israel excludes Palestinians from participating in the forums designed to promote environmental cooperation among both parties.

The recent “Cross Border Environmental Conference” held in Ariel in the West Bank, was one such example. The conference was organized by Israel; but holding the event in a settlement – a symbol of the occupation – the organizers excluded any serious participation on the part of Palestinians. That led to a situation of Israelis talking about cross-border cooperation among themselves. Those courageous Palestinians who choose to stand against the current anti-normalization movement might have joined the conference if it had been held in a more neutral place. But to attend a conference in a settlement would have meant a tacit consent to the Israeli government’s settlement policy, and that would place them in even further jeopardy, which must not be allowed.

A conference initiated by Israelis that by its nature excludes Palestinian participants is at the very least a cynical use of the concept “cross border cooperation.” It perpetuates the delusion that environment can be separated from politics.

Given how badly this cooperation is needed, Israel should hold such conferences, workshops, information exchanges and coordination meetings of conservation efforts in areas where Palestinians feel comfortable, such as East Jerusalem and inside Israel proper. And we must continue to forge an atmosphere of trust, mutual recognition and respect.

David Lehrer is the Executive Director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Dr. Clive Lipchin is the Director of the Arava Institute’s Center for Trans-boundary Water Management. This article represents the views of the authors and does not represent the views of the Arava Institute