While Mideast peace may seem further away than ever, senior officials in the water and environment sector have recently been gushing with surprising optimism.
Just as Israel’s relations with the Palestinian Authority seem to be sinking lower and US President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” is deepening the rift, it looks like the greatest sewage hazard between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, neglected for many years due to the conflict, is nearing a historic solution.
It is an ongoing, odious fiasco: In the year 2019, the homes of at least 150,000 Jerusalem residents are not connected to a modern sewage system. The sewage of many East Jerusalem neighborhoods and several Jewish neighborhoods — including the area around the Old City and near Safra Square — flows, as is, without any kind of treatment, to the Kidron Stream.
The Kidron — which snakes its way eastward down the Jerusalem Hills in the West Bank, with many twists and turns, all the way to the Dead Sea — could have been a popular hiking site in a parallel universe. In the reality of the conflict, however, it features a cascade of feces spilling into the northern Dead Sea, near the West Bank settlement of Ovnat.
Residents of Ovnat have repeatedly complained about the black, foul-smelling stream. When I visited the area two years ago, the flow was so strong that a waterfall of sewage was formed. It is a spectacular sight until you understand what you are looking at.
The stream also flows next to the Mar Saba monastery, a popular Christian tourism site, which can create embarrassing situations. Its results — stench and mosquitoes — are also experienced in a series of Palestinian communities that the Kidron passes near.
Many attempts have been made over the years to solve Jerusalem’s sewage problem, but they have always been derailed by politics. The solution requires building a sewage treatment plant or at least a large pipeline in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and the Palestinians view such cooperation as de facto recognition of Israeli control over the West Bank.
“In the past, when proposals were made, it was completely blocked when it reached the political leadership,” said Shoni Goldberger, Jerusalem district manager at the Environmental Protection Ministry. “For [the PA], it was impossible to discuss the sewage as long as Israel wasn’t willing to hear their arguments about roadblocks and other matters relating to the occupation.”
However, just as the situation seemed hopeless, there has been a surprising turn of events. Israeli authorities — pressured by the High Court of Justice following a petition by the Zalul Environmental Association, among other factors — developed another comprehensive plan to solve the problem, and this time the Palestinians didn’t reject it outright.
In recent months, talks have been held on the matter with representatives of many Israeli government bodies, including the Environmental Protection Ministry, COGAT, the Water Authority, the National Security Council and the Civil Administration. On the Palestinian side as well, the plans have reached the most senior officials. According to an official who participated in the meetings, the atmosphere was “businesslike” rather than “petty.”
The change of heart by the Palestinians is likely linked to new developments in agriculture. Like in Israel, among the Palestinians growing dates has become a successful field and a central source of income for many farmers in the Jericho area and the Jordan Valley. To continue prospering they desperately need water, and if the sewage flowing in the Kidron Stream is purified it could water the date orchards.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials similarly seem to have been approaching the talks with a more positive attitude and more attentiveness to Palestinian needs. Israel agreed to earmark a generous amount of the stream’s purified water for irrigation.
Most of the understandings are unwritten. As an Israeli official said: “There are understandings, there are no signed agreements. Everything is very sensitive.”
The plan is complex and requires building many infrastructure facilities, including a giant pipeline — of which eight kilometers will pass through Palestinian-controlled areas. That part will be built by the Palestinian Authority, which has already hired engineers and kicked off the project.
The work is supposed to begin next month. Nobody is willing to risk mentioning a time frame, but under an optimistic assumption that politics won’t obstruct it, the work is meant to conclude within three years, perhaps even less. After all, it seems like both sides have understood that environmental hazards have no borders, and that cooperation will benefit everyone.
That may seem obvious, but in the reality of the conflict it is nothing short of a miracle.