Tareq Abu Hamed, the Palestinian director of the Israeli Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, tells American supporters in D.C. that his group uses ‘science and the environment to bring people together’

Tareq Abu Hamed, executive director of the Arava Institute, speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on May 15, 2024.


Tareq Abu Hamed, executive director of the Arava Institute, speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on May 15, 2024.


Haley Cohen

May 21, 2024

A Middle East peace-focused environmental group is looking to bring together Israelis, Palestinians and others in the region to address the water and sanitation crisis in the Gaza Strip, which existed before the Hamas terror group launched a war against Israel and has exacerbated dramatically through the past seven months of conflict. 

Israel’s war against Hamas has left 2.2 million Palestinians in Gaza with destroyed water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure. As a result, “Gaza needs immediate relief with resilient, adaptable infrastructure networks,” Tareq Abu Hamed, the executive director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, an Israel-based research center, told some 20 attendees at a roundtable discussion last Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C, where he emphasized that initiatives to rebuild infrastructure by the international community cannot wait until the war ends. 

The event, called “Cultivating Hope: Fostering Environmental Solutions for Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank” — open to a select group including journalists, Israeli Embassy staff and environmental nonprofit employees — came on the heels of the institute’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month. Located in Kibbutz Ketura in the Negev desert, the Arava Institute aims to train future leaders of the region in environmental issues so that they can cooperate in solving regional environmental problems. For nearly 30 years, its focus has been on bringing together Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and others to develop solutions to the region’s environmental challenges. The institute was nominated for the Nobel for its “groundbreaking work in the fields of dialogue and diplomacy, climate engagement, education and research.”

But Abu Hamed, a Palestinian Israeli from east Jerusalem, emphasized in his presentation that since the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks, Arava’s work has been more urgent than ever before. For example, before Oct. 7, UNICEF declared that 96% of Gaza’s freshwater sources are unsuitable for drinking, according to Abu Hamed’s presentation. Since then, he said that the only source of drinking water has come from outside of Gaza with the assistance of international aid organizations. According to Arava, atmospheric drinking water generators and off-grid desalination plants can secure local sources of potable water. To help, the institute is leveraging its networks of Israeli and Palestinian civil society nongovernmental organizations to launch a response to the environmental and humanitarian crisis in Gaza that will bring off-grid water, energy and sanitation solutions to communities impacted by the war. To solve the water crisis, Arava has partnered with Watergen, an Israel-based global company that develops atmospheric water generator systems. Seven Watergen systems were installed in Gaza prior to the war, providing 10 million liters of drinking water. 

In addition to Arava and Watergen, the Jumpstarting Hope Coalition consists of Israeli, Palestinian and global organizations: Damour, Gigawatt Global, Comet-ME, Sun Box, Green Cake, De Novo Group, Energy Global, Laguna Innovation and Atheer. 

“The most important aspect of this project is that these people work in Gaza on the ground,” said Abu Hamed, who is the first Jerusalem Palestinian to head an Israeli academic institution. “I’m coming to you not from Switzerland or Sweden, but from the region… I live the conflict. I go to the West Bank, Hebron, Jenin and at the same time I go to Tel Aviv, Jaffa and Beersheva.” 

“The vast majority of people want peace, but they think the other side doesn’t want peace,” he said. “And that’s because of the lack of communication between the two sides. This is the role of Arava Institute. We use science and the environment to bring people together.” He noted that after Oct. 7, the institute received several inquiries about new Palestinian partnerships. “This shows how much trust plays an important role. Through the discussion of science, you give people the opportunity to see the human in one another.” 

The mission to jump-start humanitarian aid in Gaza came nearly instantaneously to Arava’s students on Oct. 7, according to Abu Hamed. On that tragic day, he recalled asking, “What do we do [about the students?] Do we send them home?”

“The students decided to stay,” Abu Hamed said. “I’m talking about Palestinian students. Not Palestinian Israelis but Palestinians from the West Bank. And the Israeli Jewish students. They said, ‘We live here together. We are one community. We want to continue the semester.’” 

Abu Hamed added that “Jumpstarting Hope” has humanitarian benefits inside of Israel’s borders, too. 

Four of the institute’s Israeli students were called up to army reserve duty in October. “Seeing Palestinians from the West Bank calling their classmates going into Gaza wishing them to come back safe, that was heartwarming,” he said. “To see Jewish Israeli students calling their friends in Gaza from previous semesters wishing them to be safe, that was heartwarming. And [it came from] dialogue.”