The Environmental Paradox: Escalating Conflict and Bringing Peace in the Middle East

Throughout history, land has been a source of conflict between different stakeholders who want to control it. Increasingly, environmental issues surrounding land are playing a role in conflict discourse in the Middle East. Students in NECR K4160 Regional Environmental Sustainability in the Middle East are learning how reforestation has escalated the dispute between Israel and Palestine, while cooperative management of water and the rehabilitation of trans-boundary natural resources has brought Jordan and Israel together.

IMG_1539_revisedIt is common knowledge that trees help to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Reforestation – the planting of native trees in areas where they have been destroyed – is typically done for environmental purposes, to mitigate the effects of global warming. In the Middle East, however, students are seeing that reforestation has broader implications. This week students traveled to Area C of the West Bank to meet with a representative from Bimkom, an Israeli human rights NGO that seeks to strengthen democracy and human rights in the field of spatial planning and housing policies. There the group learned about how both Israel and Palestine have used reforestation as a tool to establish claims over contested land. In Israel, pine trees from Europe are planted by the Jewish National Fund; in Palestine it is the olive tree — which has ties to Palestinian agricultural history and culture — that is planted by a variety of NGOs and activists. Reforestation is thus seen by both sides as a strategic political move. To further complicate the situation, the Israeli government sometimes gives national forest status to reforested land — meaning it cannot be developed — which is perceived by Palestinians as having larger political motivations; these perceptions serve to reinforce the longstanding conflict.

red sea_revisedThe paradox lies in the ability for the environment to be used as a tool both to perpetuate conflict and to build peace in the region. An example of the latter can be seen in the Red Sea-Dead Sea water agreement that was signed by Israel and Jordan earlier this year; it is seen by many as the first peace project since the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1994. There is a dearth of water in the region and this project calls for a desalination plant to be built in Aqaba, in southern Jordan, from which both countries would obtain potable water; in return Israel would double the supply of water to Jordan from the Sea of Galilee, to help alleviate some of the water scarcity issues in the north. A pipeline from Aqaba would also provide brine water to replenish the shrinking Dead Sea, which is currently dwindling at a rate of 1 meter per year. Aspects of the project are contested by NGOs like EcoPeace, who feel that the water from the Sea of Galilee should be released to rehabilitate the Jordan River; they are also concerned about the unknown ecological consequences of removing water from the Red Sea, and changing the salinity composition of the Dead Sea. Despite these concerns, the agreement is an example of how regional cooperation on shared environmental problems can build trust and solidify peace between neighboring countries.

Students in the course have heard many conflicting and confusing perspectives during the two week trip through Israel and Jordan. They have been forced to question their own beliefs and to think critically about the perspectives and motivations of the stakeholders with whom they meet. It is clear that the environment is a powerful tool in the Middle East, and the hope is that in the future it will be used more often for peace building.

The course is a cooperative effort between Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University.


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