In the barren south, Israelis and Arabs work to green the Middle East

At Arava Valley environmental program, seeds of cooperation take root among Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

Arava Institute students on an alternative energy tour. (Courtesy)
Arava Institute students on an alternative energy tour. (Courtesy)

Neat rows of corn, spinach, carrots and nasturtium grow near the edge of Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel’s barren Arava Valley. Nearby, a satellite dish lined with mirrors distills 400 liters of potable water per day, and food waste is converted into cooking gas in a tank loaded with sandbags.

The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies’ “Off Grid Hub” tests and models technology for communities that are disconnected from public utilities like water, electricity and sewage. It is part of the institute’s goal of improving environmental and human interests in the region through environmental cooperation. The tanks producing cooking gas are designed for use by Negev Bedouin, while the crops and water purification systems were developed with Kenya’s Turkana region, which has a climate similar to the Arava Valley, in mind.

The aquifers supplying groundwater to the project are shared with neighboring Jordan, notes Rabbi Michael Cohen, who has been involved with the institute since 1996.

“The environment is a constant that allows us to keep moving forward,” Cohen said. “Lines, borders, walls, divisions — when seeing the environment all of those fall away.”

The Arava Valley is a dry, desolate desert area stretching from the Gulf of Aqaba and Eilat to the southern tip of the Dead Sea. To the west is Israel’s Negev Desert; to the East are the jagged, rocky mountains surrounding Jordan’s Wadi Rum valley.

The Arava Insitute for Environmental Studies, established in 1996, is located about 25 miles north of Eilat on Kibbutz Ketura, a small community overlooked by sandstone mountains on the Jordanian side of the border.

Rows of date trees and the mountainous Jordanian border seen from Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Rows of date trees and the mountainous Jordanian border seen from Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The institute is a research and academic center, hosting students from Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and elsewhere. The focus on the environment gives the students a platform to address and discuss the conflicts in the region.

“This is the only place that brings Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli students to study together. They share the same classroom, they share the same dining room, they share the same grass,” said Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed, the academic director of the institute and former Israeli Ministry of Science’s Deputy Chief Scientist and Acting Chief Scientist.

“We are not trying to convince any side,” Abu Hamed said. “We expose them to the reality of this region and we encourage them to talk about it.”

The program has produced 935 graduates since it was established in 1996. About 29 percent are Israeli Jewish, and about 24% are Arabs from Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories. Most of the rest are from the US and Canada. The program’s undergraduate and graduate courses are conducted in English and are accredited by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba. The faculty includes two Arab teachers and one from the US, while the rest are mostly Israeli.

Jordanian students are recruited via an ad in Arabic that reads, “Come study environment in the Arava Valley.” When prospective students call the phone number listed, they find out the program is located in Israel, Cohen said, and can decide whether or not to proceed from there. Palestinian students get to the program through word of mouth, Palestinian alumni and the institute’s contacts with Palestinian universities and NGOs.

Students work in the field at the Arava Institute. (Courtesy)
Students work in the field at the Arava Institute. (Courtesy)

The students are given a forum to discuss the political and social situation of the region, and present their side of the story, in a weekly seminar. For example, before Israel’s Independence Day, the Palestinian students give a presentation on the Nakba and the Israeli students present on Israel’s War of Independence. Unlike other mixed universities in Israel, the institute encourages the students to talk about the conflict, Abu Hamed said.

The idea to address the conflict now is to prepare them to collaborate on environmental projects in the future.

“We do the narrative activities and I learn from the other side as well as they learn from me. I think it can make my life better on a daily basis, especially where I live,” said Mohannad Nairoukh, from East Jerusalem. “I learned to hold myself. I want to hear first the other perspective, then speak my mind,” he said.

The Israeli students, most of whom are center-left politically, also start to shift. When they feel blamed for the conflict, or if someone legitimizes Hamas, for example, they can find themselves moving more to the right, said Ben Yelin, from Haifa. The isolated location helps to keep everything calm, while the use of English as a shared language levels the playing field, Yelin said, unlike in mainstream Israeli society. The focus on improving the environment, which benefits everyone in the region, helps them find common ground, Yelin said.

Outside of class, the students travel in Israel, Jordan and the West Bank. Israeli students visited the Palestinian village of Wadi Fukin to pick olives this year, while Palestinian students visited northern Israel.

The cultural exchange helps them with their environmental studies as well. Israeli students visited a West Bank village and saw the water management system the community had developed over hundreds of years, said Zohar Weiss, from Karmiel. Palestinian student Nairoukh was unfamiliar with composting before learning about it from his Israeli classmates.

Paths diverge

While the Israeli and Arab students are on equal footing during their studies, after graduating their paths diverge. Opportunities to work in the field are limited in the West Bank and Jordan, especially for Arab women. The fact that they studied in Israel can also be problematic.

“I had this conversation with a Jordanian student about how people perceive me studying in Israel, do I put this on my CV, will the companies accept me or not,” Nairoukh said.

Arava Institute student Mohannad Nairoukh, at left. (Courtesy)
Arava Institute student Mohannad Nairoukh, at left. (Courtesy)

Some received permits to study in Israel because of the institute and may be unable to work in Israel after graduating.

The program sees the mixed student population as an advantage for future projects. The institute’s research centers conduct transboundary research, meaning Israelis partner with Jordanians and Palestinians, Abu Hamed said. Jordanian students can conduct the research on their side of the border, helping both the institute and their own careers, Abu Hamed said.

The program’s alumni hold regional meetings which rotate between Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, and can receive funding for joint projects.

“We want them to collaborate with each other to solve the region’s environmental problems, so everything that we do here is structured according to this purpose,” Abu Hamed said.

The students can do hands on work related to these problems at the center’s “Off-Grid Hub,” which acts as a demonstration and testing site for students and start ups, said Tal Holzman, a guide for the institute. The hub acts as a bridge between the academics and people on the ground who need the technology, Holzman said.

‘Make my place green like here’

Around one-third to one-half of the world population is off-grid to some degree, Holzman said, meaning they lack access to facilities like electricity and running water. The hub focuses on communities in these areas, such as the Turkana area of northern Kenya. Developing technology for these areas benefits the people on the ground, helps nearby populations and expands the renewable energy market, Holzman said.

“Kenya has the same climate and weather as this Arava region,” said Martin Ekaale Echwa, a student from Kenya focusing on sustainable agriculture. “The way the drip system has transformed this desert, I will take this knowledge back home to make my place green like here.”

Corn grown with drip fed irrigation at the Arava Institute. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Corn grown with drip fed irrigation at the Arava Institute. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The satellite distillation system, designed by SunDwater, functions without electricity or infrastructure. It converts salt water or contaminated water into potable fresh water, which can be used for either drinking or irrigation. The mirror-lined dish directs sunlight onto a water boiler, evaporating the water and producing pure water vapor. The satellite tracks the sun’s movement throughout the day, and the system’s monitor and pump are powered by solar energy. The unit at the institute distills gray water from the dorms.

The biogas system was developed by students for use by Negev Bedouin. Biogas is mostly composed of methane and carbon dioxide and is produced by bacteria breaking down organic materials. Water and organic waste go into the tank and the biogas is distributed through a pump. The gas can be used for cooking, heating, lighting and generating electricity, and the water can be used as fertilizer.

The system was being used by Bedouin, but the pump kept breaking, so the students added sandbags to the top of the tank. The weight from the sandbags compresses the gas, which can now be distributed without using a pump.

The institute has projects on the ground in Africa and Middle East, but now plans to expand to gain influence in the region and better reach policy makers, Abu Hamed said.

“We think it’s time to build another Arava Institute in the West Bank or in Jordan to have another section, Palestinian or Jodanian organization that has the same vision as ours. This is how we can expand more in the Middle East,” Abu Hamed said.

read more: