Open up today’s newspaper and you will likely find two stories: a story about the long, difficult road to a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a story about some environmental issue, such as climate change or species extinction.

Undoubtedly they will be two separate stories, in two separate sections. The fact that a political conflict often has environmental components is an idea that we don’t often think about. Conflicts are often seen as being about political, religious and cultural issues tribal wars or a clash of civilizations.

As energy, food and water insecurities draw the attention of the world’s decision makers, and as the world’s population strains global resources, these ideas will come to the forefront more often.

It was the desire to understand the nature of the mutual shaping of conflict, peace building and the environment that led me to study at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES). I lived in a kibbutz, a type of agricultural and socialist living community. The institute wedged in between the red magmatic and sandstone mountains of Jordan and the tan limestone cliffs of Israel is in the Arava Rift Valley in Southern Israel, one of the driest places in the world.

The valley that I lived in contained a desert with sand dunes, savanna-like areas with acacia trees and salt flats. Kibbutz Ketura is a beautiful manmade oasis with trees, shrubs, grass and flowers. In fact, AIES (www.arava.org) marches under a banner proclaiming that ‘Nature knows no political borders.”

At AIES, I had a multifaceted experience. This program is about the environment and peace. It is about the Middle East, living in the desert, and living on a kibbutz a type of socialist community. My classmates and dorm mates were Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims.

The best part of this experience was living with such a diverse group of people in a corner of the world that is in the news so often and that we need to understand better. There was also a lot of informal sharing that we did. We hung out a lot, shared our cultures and religions, ate great food, partied together, etc.

In taking classes like ecology, environmental science, archaeology, environmental ethics and alternative energy policy, we came together as students to explore the environmental issues facing our societies and how to solve them. The coursework was challenging, but well worth the effort. Sounds like a good environmental studies program, no? There’s more. Through organized student life activities and field trips, we learned about each other and the role we each have to play in solving the political and environmental problems of the region.

The crux of the program was a mandatory class called the Peace Building and Environmental Leadership Seminar (PELS). We came together to deal with what we called ‘the camel in the tent,” the Arab-Israeli conflict. We listened to one another and confronted the conflict head on.

The sessions were not always easy and sometimes were tense. Every day the discussion was different. We asked questions such as: Where do we all come from? What have our experiences been in dealing with the conflict? How can we resolve the conflict? How do our political problems relate to the environment?

It is this final question that was really a brain stretcher, and I found it to be the most relevant.

The major sources of fresh water for the immediate region are the Sea of Galilee and three major aquifers, the largest of which lies mainly in the West Bank. In all cases, water is being drawn faster than it can be replenished. This is leading to a continual decline in quality as seawater seeps in, taking the place of the fresh water. Depletion of the Galilee leads to the drying up of the Dead Sea.

Whatever the solutions to these problems are, they cannot be accomplished unilaterally. These environmental issues, both here and around the world, must bring us together or else they will tear us apart.

During my time at Kibbutz Ketura I was challenged in many ways, including areas I never thought about beforehand. I also made friends from many different lands whom I imagine I will stay in touch with forever. The environment will play a crucial role in the solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and this program opened my eyes to it.

Shuksta is a member of
the class of 2011



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