By Noam Alon
In August 2017, nine Columbia University students traveled to Jordan and Israel to learn about how the two countries are cooperating on environmental issues and managing shared natural resources. This is one in a series of posts about the trip.
Nature has no boundaries and it doesn’t comply with political borders. During the trip to Israel and Jordan, we saw examples of cross-boundary activities that manipulate nature in ways that promote different agendas. As Stuart Schoenfeld describes in the book, Between Ruin and Restoration, environmental issues such as water, energy, pollution, and biodiversity “…are very often transnational, and environmentalism inherently draws people toward transboundary and global perspectives.” The Eastern Mediterranean is no different. Here too, rivers and deserts don’t stop at fences or separation barriers. The numerous species living in the region don’t care about religion or history. They are not participating in the conflict, but they are affected by it.
Nature has no borders, but, it also has no voice. Instead, human manipulations enable nature to be heard and direct the conflict in particular ways. These manipulations promote environmental protection, but also promote the agendas of different groups in the region. Different methods to use the environment serve different interests, sometimes related to environmental issues, but also related to other social and political issues. The visit in Jordan and Israel demonstrated how manipulation of natural features plays a role in the conflict.
Beyond the engagement in track-one diplomacy, there are unofficial interactions through track-two diplomacy of non-state actors. Civil society groups connecting Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians promote not only bilateral environmental cooperation but also a vision of a region whose peoples face shared problems. As Schoenfeld asserts in his article: “The institutional legitimacy given to environmental issues by Middle East peacemaking efforts in the 1990s… opened a space for civil society environmental organizations with a regional perspective.”
Throughout the site visits in Jordan and Israel, we saw examples of the ways in which nature and the environment are being manipulated to achieve different goals. These projects take a variety of forms, including building links between groups and creating new settings to bring Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians together. The manifestations of these manipulations are expressed through initiatives and organizations that are active in the region. In order to capture the overwhelming volume of activities that we encountered during the visit, I tried to roughly divide them into three categories; the first category includes activities that are focused on conserving and recovering nature without any additional agenda; the second category includes activities that use environmental issues to generate collaboration and increase cooperation toward a wider agreement, and the third category includes activities that use the environment to expand illegal sovereignty and unilateral control.
The first category consists mainly of relatively neutral activities, usually connected to official organizations and formal channels and focused on limited issues. The second category includes activities that use environmental issues to generate regional collaboration between different people, consist of various NGOs and civil initiatives. These projects not only address environmental issues but also create small civil society networks that promote regional research and people-to-people connections that can support diplomatic developments and stand strong against extremists’ actions. The most compelling examples we encountered were the lecture by Munqeth Mehyar, Chairman of and director of EcoPeace Middle East, an NGO that promotes cross-border environmental protection and peacebuilding. We also had the opportunity to stay in the Sharhabil bin Hassneh Eco Park, hosted by Abdel Rahman Sultan, the Regional Ecopark Director. Additional initiatives that use nature as a means to transform the conflict from the bottom up were evident in the lectures of Mansour Abu Rashid, the Chairman of the Amman Center for Peace & Development.
The third category of using nature to advance political agendas focuses on activities that use the environment to expand formal physical control and enhance illegal sovereignty through nature reserves and touristic sites. The most illustrative example was described by Aviv Tatarsky from the NGO Ir Amim, which focuses on creating a sustainable environment in Jerusalem. Tatarsky described the way in which some Israeli organizations act to declare areas within the municipality of Jerusalem as Nature Reserves in order to prevent the expansion of neighborhoods and construction projects. By doing so, they ensure the control of Israeli entities over areas that could otherwise be used by Palestinians. Additional examples were discussed, especially the growing phenomenon of sites in the West Bank that are declared as tourist sites by Israel, such as the Qumran caves, the Herodium and the Baptist Site that we have visited. Using these methods, nature is manipulated to expand control and unilateral actions, which foster the conflict.
Noam Alon is a student at Columbia University studying Political Science. She participated in the Regional Environmental Sustainability in the Middle East course in Jordan and Israel in August 2017. The course is a collaborative effort of Columbia’s School of Professional Studies and the Earth Institute, and the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University.