a. Background on personal involvement
Machon Arava (otherwise known as the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies) is a peace-building environmental leadership program in the Southern Negev, accredited by Ben-Gurion University, which teaches by the motto “Nature knows no borders.” It is also the place I called home from mid-September 2008 until January 31st 2009, along with Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and other Americans. While there, I learned, and often saw firsthand, the environmental racisms that accompany the Israeli Occupation of Palestine. While there were many issues with land use and pollution, Israel’s mistreatment of Bedouin lands, and conflicts of interest within the Israeli political parties who purported to be the “environmentalists,” the conflict that struck me most was water sharing. While it is understandable that there will be obvious difficulties with water when so many people, already warring over land and identity, share a small desert country, the hegemonic control of water that Israel holds is inhumane. In the next chapter, the extent of the water conflict will be better explained, but at present, it is merely important to understand that the root of this thesis is my personal reaction to all I read about the water issue, to the stories my Palestinian friends told me about having no water in their faucets, and the anger at the Kibbutz on which Machon Arava is placed, which constantly had broken irrigation sprinklers that would run water unnecessarily all day.
a. Background on political situation (approx 5-10 pages)
i. Brief overview of politics and history of conflict from Independence to present
Before fully explaining Machon Arava, the fall 2008 students, and the extent of water politics, first a brief history of Israel is necessary. To understand the power dynamics within and surrounding the Palestinian Territories, it is important to note that there has never been a sovereign state of Palestine. Before the birth of the State of Israel, British governments controlled the Palestine, and before that, it was part of the Ottoman Empire. At the fall of the Ottoman Empire following WWI, the British took military control of Palestine and, three years later, set up official rule over the land and its people. In the twenty eight years of British control over the area, there were high tensions between the Palestinian Arabs, the British, and the Zionist immigrants that the British had promised certain rights over land to. After the atrocities against Jews during the Holocaust, the call for a Zionist homeland increased, and along with it, the tensions and British control in the region also increased. On May 15, 1948, the Palestine Mandate was officially dissolved and the state of Israel was born. The rest of that year is marked with a regional war against Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, and Iraq; a war over which Israel was victorious. Beside fending off invading forces, Israel gained new territory, and the UN proposal for a Palestinian Arab state collapsed. The War of Independence, or al-Naqba (how the Palestinians refer to the War of ’48; it means “The Disaster” in Arabic), and its subsequent regional conflicts (including the June War of 1967 during which Israel gained control of Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights) led to hundreds of thousands of refugees, vaguely defined borders, acquisition and occupation of new Arab Lands, and a complete lack of recognition for Israel from its neighbors and from Israel for the Palestinian Arabs who had fled their homes during this time.
I’m not yet completely sure how much depth this history needs; how to bring this “beginnings of the conflict” paragraph all the way to the present without adding in too much. I can’t tell at this point what is relevant, but I think the basis on which Israel was founded is important to understanding power dynamics (again, I am unsure at this point how to delve into that; I think it will appear in depth later in this chapter, but I will still want to touch on the issue here).
i. Machon Arava demographics
Many of the Israelis and Arabs I met at the Arava institute in the fall of 2008 still hold onto these pains. Israel still occupies Palestinian Territories; Palestinian refugees continue to live in slums in the West Bank as though they are still waiting to go home to a place they have not lived in for sixty years. Despite increasingly limited freedom of movement, Palestinian terrorism continues to penetrate Israeli society, bring forth for many Israeli Jews feelings of Holocaust-era anti-Semitism. Israel still awaits recognition of its right to exist from many of its neighbors, without recognizing its responsibility for its own provocation of the terrorism it faces. These continue to be arguments among my friends, the students of Machon Arava.
The demographics of the Fall 2008 students consisted of 13 Israelis, 15 Americans, seven Palestinians, and three Jordanians. Of the American students, one was raised Christian but was in the process of converting and becoming an Israeli citizen, one was born in Israel and had dual citizenship (though she spent the majority of her life in New York state), one had made aliyah that semester and would not be going back to the United States anytime soon (עליה, or aliyah, means “ascent,” and is the term for moving to Israel and becoming a citizen), and the rest were Jewish Americans, mostly of Ashkenazi descent and white-skinned. The staff of the Machon, too, reflected diversity, consisting of Americans, Canadians, British, Curacaos, Jordanians, Palestinians, Israel-born Israelis, and new Israeli citizens originally from all previously mentioned nationalities, as well as South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and Venezuela.
i. Overview of Machon Arava, Kibbutz Ketura, ethnographic methodology, personal stories from interviews/important moments from F08 semester
As I was also a student at the Machon Arava, growing and learning right alongside those whose stories appear in this chapter, I am a part of this ethnography as well. It is important to note this deviation from traditional anthropological study, in order to properly understand my own biases which may become clear in later pieces of this thesis. Most of the observations I make from the time that I was there; I make as a friend and colleague of the people I observed. The interviews I conducted one year after our semester together were each tailored individually to the student I was interviewing, based what I already knew of them and what they told me during the interview. Certain questions were specific and presented to everyone: “What is your family background/how were you raised to view this conflict,” “Can you name one moment from Machon Arava that sticks out to you or encapsulates your experience there,” and most importantly, “Do you really believe that this environmental approach to conflict resolution can really bring about peace for Israel and Palestine?” Any questions for specificity, questions regarding their studies or where life has led them in the last year, varied according to the interviewee. The interviews were mostly conducted via Skype, not in person, and were directed more through casual conversation than formal interrogation, though each interviewee knew that these questions were specifically for my academic purposes. As certain students requested specifically that their names be changed, I have decided that all names in this study be changed, to protect their privacy.
The Machon is located on Kibbutz Ketura, in the Southern Arava Valley of the Southern Negev. The Southern Arava Valley is just over 30 miles north of Eilat, Israel’s southernmost port city. Kibbutz Ketura was about six miles from the Egyptian border, and three miles from Jordan. It is possible to walk to Jordan from the Kibbutz, though it is a dangerous endeavor. There is no fence or any sort of border mark on the other side of Kibbutz Ketura’s date fields, but if one walks too far out, even accidently (as some Machon Arava students and Kibbutz Ketura volunteers have done), the military will track the border-jumper down, and they will not be happy.
i. Kibbutz K’tura demographics
The demographics of Kibbutz Ketura at large are not nearly as interesting as those of the corner the Machon is placed on. The Kibbutz consists of handful of Israeli-born kibbutz chaverim (חברים meaning “comrade,” a term carried over from when all kibbutzim were actually communist), and some immigrants from South America, South Africa, and a single Arab family (the family of a professor at the Machon), though the vast majority of the 140 adult members of the kibbutz are Americans who have made aliyah, mostly in the 1970’s. The founders of Kibbutz Ketura were a part of the Young Judea youth movement, a non-denominational Jewish-American organization for education on Zionism. As such, Kibbutz Ketura is a “pluralistic religious” kibbutz, unlike others in the area, which are mostly secular. Religious pluralism, in this case, means that prayer services are lay-lead by a different Kibbutz member every Friday night/Saturday morning/holiday in the traditional Conservative fashion, which falls in the middle of the orthodox-liberal spectrum of Judaism, and is egalitarian, but includes all the traditional prayers and prohibition of instruments. The Kibbutz store, pub, coffee shop and library are shut down for the Sabbath, and everyone gets the Sabbath off from work. So it is for all intents and purposes a religious community, because of the influence of the Young Judea founding sentiment. Though Young Judea is not officially affiliated with a movement, most of its participants are from Conservative or Modern Orthodox movements, thus creating a more traditionally religious environment. However, being religious is in no way a part of the Kibbutz Ketura rules, and there is always a Kibbutz car going to one of the neighboring kibbutzim for Friday night pub for those less traditional.
Relations between Machon Arava students and the majority of the Ketura chaverim are lukewarm, at best. The founders of the Machon Arava happened to be members of the kibbutz, and felt that environmentalism was an under-taught discipline in Israel, and saw that it could be a path toward peace for Israel with its neighbors that share so many of the same resources. As a result, they were able to create this institute on Kibbutz Ketura land. Perhaps at first the chaverim were more open to the idea of foreign students. Considering everything on the Kibbutz must be voted on by various committees, it seems likely that they must have been friendlier in the beginning, to have let the institute open on Kibbutz Ketura. By the time I studied there, twelve years after the founding of Machon Arava, most chaverim were less than pleased by the presence of strangers who were not cooking their food or doing their laundry (as the kibbutz volunteers, also strangers, do).
Students do, however, have their allies among the chaverim. There are still several Arava professors, office staff, and sympathizers of our cause living on the kibbutz. However, even among some of these sympathizers, they cannot always leave aside their personal prejudices to perpetuate the message of peace and equality the Machon is trying to spread. When the war in Gaza broke out, Machon Arava staged a peace vigil. Our signs were benign (messages like “We refuse to be enemies,” “Violence is not the answer,” “Jews and Arabs stand together”); we were not trying to scold Israel for its military actions, but to speak for peace for all. But because the signs were in Arabic, as well as Hebrew and English, the vigil raised a raucous. The timing may have also been an issue, as the Hamas rockets had been going on for years, and only when Israel reacted was there a response from the “yafeh nefesh,” as one angry Israeli stranger called us (נפש הפי , meaning “beautiful soul,” is like calling someone a “bleeding heart”). Kibbutz Ketura felt as though Machon Arava had betrayed and insulted them as hosts, and tensions were high for the remaining month and a half of the semester.
Though Kibbutz Ketura is made up of mostly American-born Jews who would probably consider themselves liberal (many of them voted for Obama by absentee ballot) and some of them even work for this idealistic cohabitation environmentalist network, it is important to remember that these American-born Jews uprooted their lives with their families to move to Israel. They were raised to be Zionists, though still living in Diaspora, to believe that Israel belonged to the Jews, that it is the birthright of the Jews that has finally been restored after 2,500 years of Diaspora, as though in apology for the Holocaust, the latest and most brutal attempt – of many – to annihilate Jews. They believed in Zionism enough to end Diaspora for themselves and become Israeli. To them, each war Israel fights is a holy nationalist war for the very survival of the Jewish people. This is the atmosphere in which Machon Arava is placed.
Once a week at Machon Arava, there is a mandatory three-hour peace seminar, Peace-Building and Environmental Leadership Seminar (PELS). In my experience, most often these PELS sessions would dissolve into shouting or crying, or both. I would call this the “competing victimhood.” The PELS session would start out as Israelis and Palestinians trying to relate to one another the personal pain the conflict has caused them, while the Jordanians and especially the Americans tried to understand what it means to live in a state of constant war, or at least the threat of it. It would seem promising for a while. How else do we start to create peace than to put faces to the targets that bullets and rockets hit, faces to those on the buses that get bombed, faces to those starving in Gaza? Once each side realizes young enough that to continue the fight would be to potentially hurt someone they love, they will not have the desire to continue the fight. That is the hope of Machon Arava, anyway. Sadly, though, the PELS would often end up in people feeling as though they had to impress upon the “other” that their pain was worse. Conversation among ten people who shared a deep friendship would become a rivalry starting all the way back with grandparents, the Holocaust and the Naqba and continue chronologically to competing the pain in their personal lives of suicide bombers, checkpoints, Hamas rockets, bombs.
Throughout the semester, in PELS, everyone participated in the counter-productive blaming and competing victimhood, including Jordanians and Americans on occasions (often “siding” with those who share their ethnic background). However, it was noticeable how much the Israeli students took the stories of the Palestinians to heart. Although they would fall into the same trap of blaming “the other side” eventually, it became clear that of the students in our PELS, the Israelis were more inclined to see the Palestinian pain than the Palestinians were to see the Israeli pain. I noted this in my field notes toward the end of the semester, January 21st, that “it hurts me to say this, as I was never raised a Zionist, and have always been more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause,” but it was not possible to reconcile that observation. The complete lack of balance of power makes the violence from the Palestinian side more understandable. But violence is still violence, and being understandable is not the same as justifiable.
In one of the more emotional PELS, the discussion was about the balance of violence, power, and the comparison of life on one side of the conflict versus the other. It was December, the week following the first air raids on Gaza, and the discussion started because the count of Israelis killed by Hamas rockets had reached maybe seven by that point, and the Israeli military had already killed hundreds of Palestinians. Gaza is a small and crowded territory. It is not possible to shoot large weapons from planes and hit only Hamas targets. In the process of defending nationality and the “competing victimhoods” once again, someone mentioned Gilad Shalit, a young Israeli soldier who was kidnapped during the violence of 2006. In exchange from his release, Hamas demanded 450 Palestinian captives. The same story flipped: one life for hundreds. Israel refused to release any of their Palestinian prisoners, and Gilad Shalit remains a hostage. Again, in defense of nationality, the student sitting next to me pointed out that an Israeli prison is more humane than whatever hole Hamas keeps Shalit in, where the Israeli public is not even sure if he is alive or dead. The tensions rose, and we were dismissed for a break. My Palestinian friend approached the Israeli friend beside me, in tears, and said, “The prisons are only humane for the names the public pays attention to. There are other prisons where Palestinians ‘disappear’ to. Women and children, Neta. Why would children need to disappear?” The power imbalance makes the situation so complex. I do not know of the reality of such prisons, but the energy that is created by believing them to exist is moving enough. The Palestinian fight becomes a civilian’s fight because there is no strong military or government to fight for the people’s freedoms, and as a result children who ought to be free to play are taught to hate and be a part of the war.
ii. Exploration of power dynamics within Israeli politics and society, as well as with Arab populations and governments
1. Who are the parties involved?
2. How does power affect responsibility for change, for peace?
3. How Israel’s relationship with Palestinians affects its relationships with Arab sovereign neighbors, or Arab Israeli citizens (Bedouin, Druze, etc).
Here will be a discussion of the power dynamics of the Occupation, drawing from theoretical reading I have not yet fully finished reading/analyzing.
As working through such an on-going conflict through personal contact is a slow and painful process, Machon Arava also approaches our environmentalist attempt at peace through the academics. Classes are all centered on environmental studies, most specifically to the Israeli/Palestinian environment. As such, many issues are also central to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The best example of the academics at Machon Arava is “Environmental Mediation and Conflict Resolution,” a class entirely about solving conflicts, particularly over environmental issues. The majority of this study of water politics and environmental approaches to conflict resolution in the Middle East draws from that particular class.
Most likely dispersed through this chapter, but also possibly condensed right here, stories from the students of the Machon Arava will be added later when I have completed interviews and can better judge which ones I want to use.
a. Background on Environmental situation
ii. Environmental movements in Israel
iii. “Greatest” environmental threats to Israel
1. Alon Tal, leader of the Megama Yarooka (Envrionmentalist Political Party)
iv. Acknowledgement of shared resources, shared dangers of misused resources
I have not even begun to figure out how to write this part, although I do have some materials coming to me that will greatly aid the development at least of parts ii and iii.