Environmental peacebuilding is both the theory and practice of identifying environmental initiatives that promote a sustainable peace between those who have previously been adversaries, and implementing those initiatives. Environmental peacebuilding combines two elements. First, it draws from the insights of conflict resolution that sustainable peace involves, as well as the cessation of violence, processes of conflict management and mutual cooperation. Second, it draws on the growing awareness of worldwide environmental stress and the growing awareness that effectively responding to environmental stress requires international cooperation — globally and within regions. Responding to shared environmental challenges can be a foundation for sustained mutual cooperation.
Almost 20 years ago, multilateral and bilateral negotiations put environmental peacebuilding on the Middle Eastern agenda. In the Eastern Mediterranean, environmental peacebuilding involving Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians is now primarily sustained by civil society organizations. Recent studies show its importance and potential.
Putting Environmental Peacebuilding on the Agenda
In the early 1990s, international negotiations brought together peace, development, and environmental agendas. Regional peace was promoted as a strategy for diverting resources from destruction to development. Within that perspective, environmentally sustainable development was identified as a shared regional concern and opportunity.
After the collapse of the USSR and the first Gulf War, the US worked with its allies to convene the 1991 Madrid conference involving Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The Madrid framework included multilateral negotiations in five tracks. Working groups in each track produced proposals that framed issues as regional ones, with solutions to be similarly regional. The refugee and regional security tracks dealt with the high-profile contentious issues — refugees, borders, Jerusalem, recognition by Israel of the legitimacy of Palestinian statehood, and recognition of Israel by surrounding states. The less contentious water, environment, and economic development tracks were opportunities to develop peacebuilding strategies.
Back-channel Palestinian-Israeli negotiations led to the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles. The Declaration of Principles envisaged Palestinian-Israeli cooperation in water, energy, and environmental protection and listed possible projects: joint exploitation of the Dead Sea, a canal connecting Gaza to the Dead Sea, desalination and other water development projects, regional agricultural planning (including coordinated efforts around desertification), and regional cooperation on gas, oil, and other energy resources. The subsequent Palestinian-Israeli Interim Agreement developed the details of cooperation in economic development and agriculture and established joint committees on water, electricity, nature reserves, and environment.
The 1994 Jordanian-Israel peace treaty included the goal of “a comprehensive and lasting settlement of all the water problems” between the two states and noted the “great importance” of “matters relating to the environment,” with detailed Annexes on these topics.
The initiatives for regional intergovernmental cooperation and for bilateral Palestinian-Israeli cooperation on environmental issues have languished, as regional politics continue to flounder on unresolved core issues. The Palestinian-Israeli Interim Agreement did not lead to peace, and there have been more Middle East wars and civil strife.
Nevertheless, the introduction of environmental peacebuilding into the region has had positive consequences. The Jordanian-Israeli negotiations came to a successful conclusion. On the Palestinian-Israeli track, officially sanctioned teams of Palestinian and Israeli water experts produced four shared volumes from 1994 to 1996. Expert cooperation went as far as proposing a specific water management structure based not on the political calculations that produced the Interim Agreement but on expert knowledge about how cooperative water management could actually work. The Palestinian-Israeli Joint Water Committee has continued to meet, with an important but restricted agenda. Many regional experts who established personal relations during the period of formal negotiations on water and environment have maintained contact. Regional civil society organizations have played an important role in sustaining these contacts and the vision of environmental peacebuilding.
Civil Society Perseveres
Civil society groups brought regional environmentalism into their peacebuilding work, at first in the mid-1990s while the formal negotiations were taking place, and after that sustaining them on their own. With support from the European Union, the United States, and private foundations, some of these groups have persevered for over a decade using a multi-dimensional strategy of environmental peacebuilding.
The Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), which opened under joint Israeli and Palestinian directors during the First Intifada, created a Water and Environment Division in 1994. IPCRI published a book on Palestinian and Israeli perspectives on water, followed by three volumes based on environmental workshops. IPCRI’s Water and Environment division took the lead in organizing the 2004 International “Water for Life” Conference held in Turkey. In this ambitious endeavor to foster a regional water community, Palestinian and Israeli co-chairs and a balanced steering committee brought together about 130 participants from the region and 50 international water experts over five days, with two volumes of papers subsequently published. IPCRI currently participates in the Israeli, German, Jordanian, and Palestinian GLOWA study on the impact of climate change on the Jordan River basin, and has a West Bank demonstration project on ecological, low-cost, low-maintenance sewage treatment.
Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), founded in 1994 as EcoPeace, a meeting place for environmental NGOs, became an affiliate of Friends of the Earth in 1998. Its three co-directors operate out of offices in Amman, Bethlehem, and Tel-Aviv. FoEME works on a wide range of projects. The Good Water Neighbors project, which began in 2001, works on water education, awareness, and development with Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian communities that are mutually dependent on shared water resources. The project uses dependence on shared water sources as a basis for dialogue and cooperation and has been written about as a model of environmental peacebuilding. FoEME has received several honors and awards for this work.
Other projects deal with particular geographic features (the Jordan River Valley, the Dead Sea, the Gulf of Aqaba / Eilat), water (the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conduit, the mountain aquifer, water privatization), and environmental policy (sustainable development, climate change, trade and environment, solar power, and healthy food). Most projects combine research, policy development, and advocacy. The FoEME website itself is a valuable resource, containing publications, background data on regional accords and initiatives, and links to regional organizations active in environmental work.
In contrast to FoEME’s explicit transnational structure, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which opened in 1996, is an Israeli institution with a regional mandate. The Institute’s initial program was university-level undergraduate environmental studies, with a focus on the environmental challenges of the Middle East. For one or two semesters students live and study together on Kibbutz Ketura in a remote part of the Negev desert south of the West Bank and just across the valley from Jordan. In addition to its mix of Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian students, about a third have been North Americans studying abroad. Enrollment is capped at 45, and students live in shared quarters for four or eight months. Under these conditions, students are challenged to develop the intellectual skills of understanding others and the emotional skills of empathy. The daily intercultural experience is supported by a weekly peacebuilding seminar. Since it opened, about 600 students have studied at the Institute.
The Institute, in cooperation with Ben Gurion University, has added graduate level studies. It has organized regional conferences on Integrated Water Management and on Water Resources and Infrastructure in Areas of Conflict and Extreme Conditions. The Institute has developed an active research division, with notable projects on dry lands agriculture and solar power, and has ties to a major Jordanian university. The Institute has a vision of fostering “a new generation of sophisticated professionals that will meet the region’s environmental challenges with richer and more innovative, peace-building solutions” and consequently takes a strong interest in its alumni. It has supported the formation of the Arava Alumni Peace and Environment Network not only to assist individual alumni but also especially to assist those from different cohorts to develop projects together.
People connected to IPCRI, FoEME, and the Arava Institute are also involved in the environmental networks of their respective societies, where they act as advocates of a regional perspective. Professional contacts also continue outside of these organizational settings. A recent book with joint Israeli-Palestinian editors reflects current thinking on how to move to cooperative and sustainable water management.
Recent policy institute studies argue for the importance of environmental cooperation in the Middle East, and in the Eastern Mediterranean in particular. These studies document how the environmental costs of regional conflicts become human and social costs. They underscore the projected severe impact of climate change and give examples of benefits that could be achieved through regional cooperation. These studies indirectly but powerfully support the work of the civil society groups that persevere in environmental peacebuilding, and they show its importance and potential for regional diplomacy, negotiations, and intergovernmental relations.
I would like to thank Itay Greenspan for comments on an earlier draft.
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