Rabbi Michael M. Cohen, blog in Times of Israel

For years Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel have been locked in a Kabuki dance of violence and quiet. At times they inch towards each other only to push the other away as they purposely or inadvertently step on each other’s toes. Recent weeks saw hopeful signs of an Egyptian brokered ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, approved by the Palestinian Authority, including a $90 million transfer to Hamas by Qatar blessed by the Americans. All quickly unraveled with a botched Israeli operation into Gaza followed by hundreds of missiles fired into Israel.

With this recurrence of violent posturing, another example of Track I failure, a different story emerged on Kibbutz Ketura. There the Arava Institute hosted its 3rd annual Track II Environmental Forum with Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians. Since its inception Forum members have held ongoing meetings to create a new and important paradigm building environmental projects. The Forum is based on a partnership of respect and equality. Underlying the Forum is the use of civil society, Track II diplomacy; a departure from traditional government led negotiations known as Track I. Track I diplomacy aims to establish over-arching peace agreements, often leaving citizens out of the process contributing to its inability to deliver. A weakness of Oslo was the disregard to include everyday citizens within its Accords. By contrast the Forum believes working with people, communities, and institutions promoting specific ground-up, in this case environmental, projects can catalyze positive change on the ground, and by extension in the political arena.

Dr. Deborah Sandler, the Chair of the Forum explains, “We are committed to a unique form of Track II interaction, which rather than talking, is based on full partnership between Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians, working quietly to establish concrete projects on the ground.” Dennis Ross, speaking at the Forum, talked about the importance of peacebuilding models of cooperation and its ripple effect. Yet the dogs of war get the attention not the lions of peace. Media outlets covering and or who wrote about the event could be counted on one hand. This is the story the others missed.

The tireless ongoing work of Forum participants has produced 14 projects, many shovel ready, to be implemented in Gaza and the West Bank. Track II is able to succeed beyond Track I because it operates outside government constraints. These projects are more than stand-alone ventures; holistic they include training, security, social, and other support structures to improve positive short and long term success. Projects include solar technology to produce electricity. Gaza needs 470 MW of electricity daily but only receives 140MW, while Gazans obtained twenty hours of electricity a day in 2008, today they receive only four. Solar powered wastewater treatment and desalination facilities and solar panels for homes that would be paid through cell phones are planned. The latter is a model that has worked in Africa. Another project extracts water from

humidity. Cross border waste water mapping of communities and related protocols have been established. Finally ways to reduce pollution in the charcoal and date palm economies have been created.

Combined with these projects are teams of social workers, engineers to help with the maintenance of projects, and technical training. Israeli security concerns will be addressed using high tech security technology to monitor materials entering Gaza. The Forum has also engaged the Israeli army with the oversight of materials. Daily living conditions continue to deteriorate in Gaza fueling despair, depression, and radicalism. These projects provide an opportunity to change and mitigate the situation. Israelis living along the border with Gaza also want to see conditions improve.

All of these scalable projects are the fruition of two years of week in and week out meetings that not only produced far reaching solutions, but also built trust and hope. The lack of these two critical elements as an impediment cannot be underestimated. Three areas of focus have been designing a regional Climate Change Blueprint (in conjunction with Oxford University), renewable energy applications, and addressing the numerous water challenges.

These pragmatic and humanitarian projects will change the economic, social, environmental, and most important political landscape between Israelis and Palestinians. The bill for all of these projects is $150 million, less than the cost of two F-35A jets. All that is needed is funding from the International and private communities. The U.S. Administration’s decision to cut off all aid to Palestinians only makes a bad situation worse.

Opening of the Forum, David Lehrer, the Executive Director of the Arava Institute, said, “Hope will not flourish in this region if we continue to sow seeds of despair. What we are trying to do here at the Arava Institute Track II Forum is the antithesis of what is now happening between Israel and Gaza.” Those events weighed heavy on Palestinians and Israelis attending; while missiles were exchanged participants exchanged ideas.

The Persian poet Hafiz wrote, “The words you speak become the house you live in.” War and violence need to be covered, but equally important so do forces actively and successfully working for peace and calm. The words we read also become that house we live in. The printed word creates the reality of perception and effects what we think possible. The activities of the Forum and other efforts of civil society are not soft news to be treated lightly. As Hubert Humphrey said, “Peace is not passive, it is active. Peace is not appeasement, it is strength. Peace does not ‘happen,’ it requires work.”