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Environmental Sustainability in the Middle East

In an Environmental and Political Conflict Zone, Hope for Peace

by |June 14, 2016

By Omer Ben-Nun

As typical of the Middle East, many people were curious when they heard that I would travel to Jordan, our neighboring country and friend. After a few hours driving in a car from Tel Aviv you can cross the border, making you think that you are in another place entirely for a moment—or another and new Middle East, at least. Upon our arrival, however, we saw the same landscape, festivals and celebrations for Jordan’s independence, heard people speaking almost the same language (although we don’t speak Arabic, the language of our neighbor), found the same food, and generally a landscape in Jordan that looks like Israel.

A view of Amman, Jordan. Photo: Josh Fisher

A view of Amman, Jordan. Photo: Josh Fisher

During our tour, we learned that Jordan faces many of the same conflicts that we face, (e.g. refugees) and that we share much of our ancient history. Of course, there are many environmental and political challenges that Jordan faces, and seeing them was difficult. But these same challenges exist also in Israel, in blue and white (our nation’s colors). This led me to a conclusion that I shared in one of our discussions between Columbia University students and my colleagues from The Porter School: The Middle East is the only place on earth where the neighbors are so close and so far at the same time.

Lot’s Wife in Jordan. According to biblical accounts, Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt for watching the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Photo: Josh Fisher

Lot’s Wife in Jordan. According to biblical accounts, Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt for watching the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Photo: Josh Fisher

Later in the tour, it was an incredible experience to hear and to see cooperation on environmental issues between Israel and Jordan, and even between Israel and Egypt and Israel and the Palestinians. But this cooperation is not guaranteed, and sometimes there is competition. For instance, Israel, Jordan and Palestine each have their own baptism sites—presumably because the Jews (Israelis) and Muslims (Jordanians) want the economic benefits of Christian tourism to the site where Jesus was baptized. Also, while at the Dead Sea, we discovered that there is a statue of salt of Lot’s Wife in Jordan (and it looks better than the Israeli one that I have always known on the Israeli shores of the Dead Sea). Maybe, Lot had two wives…

Among the planned programs and sites we visited, I very much liked the idea of a “Peace-Park” program as a way to bring peace through environmental cooperation. Naharaim (Al Baqoura) could be a fantastic peace park: geographically a meeting-point of the Jordan river and the Yarmouk river, historically Zionist as the site of the first power station for Israel, a memorial for the murder of the seven girls, and also a symbol for peace between the two states. I hope that the peace parks will be a success, and until the peace arrives—we will have a peace park at least. (Maybe this peace park will be a step toward peace!)

Students from Columbia University and Tel Aviv University touring the grounds of the Al Baqoura Peace Park with representatives of Eco Peace. Photo: Josh Fisher

Students from Columbia University and Tel Aviv University touring the grounds of the Al Baqoura Peace Park with representatives of Eco Peace. Photo: Josh Fisher

The Separation Barrier at Baqa Al Gharbiyye. Photo: Josh Fisher

The Separation Barrier at Baqa Al Gharbiyye. Photo: Josh Fisher

As typical of the Middle East, it is practically impossible to ignore politics during visits, and the reality of urban planning in East Jerusalem and the starkness of the separation barrier at Baqa Al Gharbiyye shocked us. For those who didn’t know, and those who didn’t believe in Baqa al Gharbiyye, I understood that the wall did more damage than good (and probably did not stop the violence between Palestinians and non-Arab Israelis). The wall created a barrier between Israel and the world.

OmerOmer Ben-Nun is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental studies at the Porter School for Environmental Studies. He is among a group of students who visited sites in Israel and Jordan to study some of the region’s environmental issues. You can also follow their experiences at #CUJordanIsrael2016.

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