From Israel’s turbulent electoral politics and Palestinian political dysfunction to the cycle of intercommunal violence in the West Bank and the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, it’s rare for much good news to come out of the Israeli-Palestinian context these days. But this June, a hopeful story emerged from the impoverished Gaza Strip when its Mediterranean beaches were deemed safe for swimming for the first time in decades.

Palestinians use the showers at the beach at Kalia, in the West Bank, April 28, 2015. (Uriel Sinai/The New York Times)
Palestinians use the showers at the beach at Kalia, in the West Bank, April 28, 2015. (Uriel Sinai/The New York Times)

This was made possible by an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian environmental group called EcoPeace Middle East, with support from international donors. In 2017, untreated wastewater from Gaza was flowing directly into the Mediterranean Sea at a rate of 28 million gallons per day, contaminating Israeli beaches and even forcing the closure of an Israeli desalination plant near Gaza. In 2020, EcoPeace was able to overcome Israel’s reservations about “dual use” materiel for the construction of sewage treatment plants — which Israelis fear could be used by Hamas or other violent groups to produce weapons — by underscoring the interconnected nature of Israeli-Gazan water challenges.

“Military security is not the only security and that's what EcoPeace was really able to successfully communicate” to Israelis and their leaders, said Gidon Bromberg, the Israel director for EcoPeace, speaking at a USIP event. “There's broader human security and when we understand human security then we understand we're in the same boat. And that's really what led those policy changes.”

Ecopeace is not alone in combining fact-finding and trust-building, and leveraging both to unlock mutual benefit to lives, livelihoods and the environment. The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies had a breakthrough in August of this year when, along with its Palestinian partner Damour for Community Development, it facilitated an Israeli-Palestinian arrangement that would enable much-needed treated wastewater to reach farmers in the Jordan Valley.

While the diplomatic process between Israelis and Palestinians continues to stagnate, climate stressors stand to exacerbate the conflict and enmity between the parties. Yet climate challenges could also provide a pretext for greater cooperation and trust between the two peoples and the broader region. USIP partners like EcoPeace and the Arava Institute are working to realize the latter.

“Political borders will not recognize climate change and will not recognize pollution,” said Nada Majdalani, EcoPeace’s Palestine director. “We are working on [fostering] healthy interdependencies that would create stability and water and energy security for all in light of climate change.”

Emphasizing ‘Healthy Interdependencies’ Amid an Urgent Crisis

EcoPeace Middle East was founded in the mid-1990s, during the halcyon days of the peace process, as a trilateral environmental peacebuilding organization that brings together Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians “to advance both sustainable regional development and the creation of necessary conditions for lasting peace.”

They utilize a two-pronged approach, working with the region’s governments to influence policy and collaborating with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian communities. “We empower [local communities] with the necessary information that they need to put pressure on decision makers,” said Yana Abu Taleb, EcoPeace’s Jordan director. While the group focuses on environmental protection and renewable energy more broadly, water plays an outsized role in its work given its salience in the water-scarce region.

The Middle East and North Africa is one of the most water-scarce regions in the world. According to UNICEF, 11 of the 17 most water-stressed countries in the world are in the MENA region, with 66 million people lacking basic sanitation and nearly nine out of 10 children living in areas of high or extremely high water stress.

“While the rest of the world is seeking to avoid a 1.5 degrees centigrade increase in temperature, the Middle East is forecast to see a 4 degrees increase,” EcoPeace noted in its 2020 report “A Green Blue Deal for the Middle East.”

In 2015, the report notes, bodies of water shared between Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians were being overdrawn by over 300 million cubic meters a year. That overdrawing was just to meet drinking water needs and did not include other vital uses like agriculture and sanitation. In 2020, before EcoPeace was able to successfully lobby for expanded sewage treatment in Gaza, 96 percent of the strip’s water was undrinkable. At the same time, in Jordan, population growth and nearly 700,000 Syrians refugees residing in the country resulted in water supplies for the residents of the capital of Amman being cut by 50 percent.

When it comes to natural resources, it is increasingly clear that Israelis, Palestinians and others in the region are dependent on one another. “We look at ourselves as one people, who are in the same boat, sharing natural resources [and] sharing environmental concerns,” Majdalani said. “These natural resources, especially water, are very limited in our region.”

The shared water and climate challenges facing Israelis and Palestinians can foster “healthy interdependencies,” leading to great cooperation and even mutual dependency. An example of this that EcoPeace frequently cites is the European Coal and Steel Community, the post-World War II precursor to the European Union that connected France’s and Germany’s coal and steel industries to make war essentially impossible.

“It was about creating that healthy interdependency between coal and steel,” Bromberg said. “Well, that’s what we’re doing … creating that health interdependency by harnessing the sun and harnessing the sea.”

Getting Past an ‘All-or-Nothing’ Approach

The peace process has been effectively put on ice for years and Israeli-Palestinian cooperation and engagement remains limited, with tensions likely to rise with the formation of another right-wing Israeli government. While a resolution to the conflict will require a comprehensive solution, EcoPeace argues that the long-held notion that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” must be overcome in order to address the urgent climate and energy crises facing the region. “Thirty years [after the Oslo Accords] … this zero-sum game, this all-or-nothing approach, is in fact holding water issues hostage,” Bromberg said.

Water and other climate and energy issues offer the opportunity to focus on shared, interconnected challenges, not zero-sum issues. Indeed, the recently announced U.S.-brokered Israel-Lebanon maritime border deal provides an instructive example. Although the two countries remain in a state of war, it will allow both Israel and Lebanon to benefit from the Mediterranean’s natural gas resources and could help de-escalate tensions.

“[The maritime border] agreement proves that even when peace is not possible, significant steps can be taken with broader implications and potential,” wrote Ambassador Hesham Youssef, a career Egyptian diplomat and USIP senior fellow. 

As EcoPeace sees it, the international community, especially the United States, should encourage Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians — who have an important stake in the conflict — to eschew the all-or-nothing paradigm for their mutual gain. Such an approach has enabled the organization to make important, albeit incremental, successes. “With all these complications, we're still able to achieve and move forward. Why? Because …. we always highlight the self-interest of the different groups … we're able to achieve [progress] with highlighting the mutual gain,” Taleb said.

Israel’s growing normalization in the region, exemplified by initiatives like the Abraham Accords and the Negev Forum, can be built on to enhance cooperation. In November 2021, negotiations between the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Israel resulted in a groundbreaking water and energy exchange deal, whereby Israel will provide water-deprived Jordan with desalinated water and Jordan would sell solar-generated electricity to Israel. EcoPeace initially proposed the plan.

Building Trust and Momentum

Momentum continues to build between Israel and Jordan on water cooperation, which was an important component of their 1994 bilateral peace treaty. During last month’s COP27 climate conference, the two countries signed a declaration of intent to collaborate on water conservation in the polluted, overdrawn Jordan river.

As the region moves toward closer integration on climate challenges, Israelis and Palestinians should work toward more equitable water management and allocation, EcoPeace argues. Twenty-five years after the Oslo Accords, Palestinian withdrawals from the mountain aquifer remain beholden to the terms of that agreement despite population growth and development, leading to water scarcity in much of the West Bank.

Whether it’s the mountain aquifer, the Mediterranean Sea or the Jordan River, Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians share a common interest in ensuring the viability and sustainability of their water sources. Amid decades old hostilities, water cooperation should be a low-hanging fruit.

Beyond the inherent value to addressing urgent resource and climate adaptation needs, environmental cooperation can be a precursor and catalyst toward advancing meaningful negotiations and/or confidence-building measures on a variety of additional topics. While there has been no movement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s final status issues (i.e., Jerusalem, refugees, borders and security) since the Oslo Accords, EcoPeace says that “advancing on water as one of the core issues of the two-state peace process would show the public on both sides that there is a partner for peace and help rebuild the necessary trust … to advance the other final status issues.”

“At a time of heightened violence, the parties and publics cannot afford to sit still. When Israeli and Palestinian publics, and youth in particular, despair of the prospect of diplomatic progress and mirror each other’s beliefs that the ‘other side’ only understands force, there is an urgent need for proofs of concept that engagement and joint problem solving is possible,” said Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, who directs USIP’s program on Israel, the Palestinian territories and the region. These breakthroughs on technical matters, not only provide mutual benefit, but can build the trust necessary to address the broader set of dynamics fueling the conflict and the occupation. 

“Time is not on our side and our appeal to decision makers, our own but also internationally, is that we need to move forward,” Bromberg said. “And if there's one thing that can bring improvement on the ground that can build trust, and that can highlight that we have a partner on each side. It's moving forward on water.”

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