Environmental trio hopes Middle East peace is in the air (and water)

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For the Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian directors of EcoPeace Middle East, which promotes peace through environmental collaboration, a guiding truth is that nature and the environment care not at all about human-made boundaries.

The group’s successes include rehabilitating the Jordan River, establishing educational “ecoparks” in the Jordan Valley and along the Dead Sea, and developing wastewater systems in Jordan and the West Bank.

Why We Wrote This

For peacemakers whose ultimate goal is to resolve disputes, finding common cause is a helpful intermediate goal. This Mideast group focuses on neighbors’ shared environmental concerns.

A lot of the staff’s time is taken up explaining why EcoPeace’s approach can be a win-win for sides used to viewing one another as adversaries. “We are a civil society organization who cares about the people on the ground,” says Nada Majdalani, the Palestinian director. “And, for us, it is important also to show that there’s a grassroots [movement] of people on the other side who care.”

Undergirding EcoPeace Middle East is the understanding that climate change can and should play a role promoting unity in the region. A climate-centered approach, says Gidon Bromberg, EcoPeace’s founder and Israeli director, “creates … a common opportunity that links not only Israelis and Palestinians but gives further credence to why we need greater regional cooperation with Jordan and also the Gulf states.”

Tel Aviv, Israel

When Israeli environmentalist Gidon Bromberg looks out at the shimmering blue of the Mediterranean, he sees more than its beauty.

Among the complicated mix of images that emerges for him are the thousands of years of culture and exploration that traversed its waves and shoreline, and the damage inflicted by pollution, overdevelopment, and now the climate crisis.

He also sees a resource, one whose scarcity in this parched region has been fueling tensions and conflict since biblical times.

Why We Wrote This

For peacemakers whose ultimate goal is to resolve disputes, finding common cause is a helpful intermediate goal. This Mideast group focuses on neighbors’ shared environmental concerns.

For Mr. Bromberg – Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East, which promotes peace through environmental collaboration – and for his Palestinian and Jordanian colleagues, the need to protect all the bodies of water these neighbors share is a prime motivator.

And a guiding truth for them is that nature and the environment care not at all about human-made boundaries.

When, for example, raw sewage overflows from the Gaza Strip (where there is a shortage of sewage treatment plants) into the Mediterranean, it travels northeast with the currents toward Israel. Much of it reaches the coastal town of Ashkelon, home to a major desalination plant that has had to shut down several times as a result.

Common threat

Undergirding EcoPeace Middle East is the understanding that climate change can and should play a role promoting unity in the region. Instead of seeing regional stability “through the traditional lens of the peace process, it’s through the lens of the climate crisis that we all face,” Mr. Bromberg says.

A climate-centered approach, he says, “creates a different conversation, a conversation of a common threat, but also a common opportunity that links not only Israelis and Palestinians but gives further credence to why we need greater regional cooperation with Jordan and also the Gulf states.”

At a recent conference, EcoPeace launched an ambitious regional master plan called a Green Blue Deal for the Middle East. It outlines how an all-hands-on-deck approach to climate change could not only ensure enough water for everyone in the region, but also serve as a catalyst for building trust after years of diplomatic deadlock on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We live in one integrated ecosystem, and if we don’t start to understand that, we will all pay a heavy price due to climate change,” Mr. Bromberg told the conference.

Gidon Bromberg and Nada Majdalani, Israeli and Palestinian directors of EcoPeace Middle East, address the U.N. Security Council in New York in 2019.

EcoPeace Middle East is run by a team of about 50 Palestinians, Israelis, and Jordanians. Mr. Bromberg heads the office in Tel Aviv; Palestinian Nada Majdalani heads the office in Ramallah, West Bank; and Jordanian Yana Abu Taleb, the office in Amman, Jordan. It’s a single organization with equal board representation for each nationality. 

Successes include rehabilitating the Jordan River by increasing its flow; training Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian students as grassroots leaders on shared environmental issues; establishing educational “ecoparks” in the Jordan Valley and along the Dead Sea; and developing wastewater systems in Jordan and the West Bank.

EcoPeace will be among the Israeli-Palestinian “People to People” initiatives to benefit from a $250 million allocation for Israeli-Palestinian peace-building efforts passed by Congress in late December.

Together, facing hostility

After years struggling together to make a dent in mindsets and outcomes for their respective societies, while facing a public that can often be hostile, the bond between EcoPeace’s three directors is especially close. 

“Gidon and Nada are always there to give advice, to think things through together; they make me feel like I’m not alone,” says Ms. Abu Taleb. “We are there all the time to comfort one another.”

Ms. Majdalani, the newest team member, says of Mr. Bromberg, “Gidon gives me this ability to be always energetic – the momentum, the stamina, the excitement [are] all the time bringing new concepts, new ideas. He’s pushing forward our agenda to the max.”

She credits Ms. Abu Taleb for keeping the team focused. She’s always asking, she says, “How do we move forward? How do we make an impact?”

The backlash the two women face at home for working with Mr. Bromberg can be fierce. They are often called traitors by an anti-normalization movement that maintains that any Israeli-Palestinian contact that does not advocate resistance to Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank gives the false impression that Israelis and Palestinians are operating as equals.

“It’s easier for people to see each other as enemies – to put these sensitive issues that we do share to the side,” says Ms. Abu Taleb. 

A lot of the staff’s time is taken up explaining why EcoPeace’s approach can be a win-win for sides used to viewing one another as adversaries. “We are here to basically do what we can to prevent [environmental] catastrophes from happening,” says Ms. Majdalani. “We are a civil society organization who cares about the people on the ground. And, for us, it is important also to show that there’s a grassroots [movement] of people on the other side who care.” 

When Mr. Bromberg founded the organization in 1994 in the wake of the Oslo Accord, he assumed cross-border organizations like this would become the norm. More than 26 years later, it remains the only organization of its kind.

Courtesy of EcoPeace Middle East

Participants in EcoPeace’s flagship Good Water Neighbors program, which helps Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians embrace a shared water reality.

Trading sunshine for seawater

In Jordan, Ms. Abu Taleb is trying to win support for one of the group’s most ambitious projects to date. It envisions converting the 365 days of sunlight beating down on Jordan’s desert into renewable energy that would be transferred to Israel and Gaza in exchange for desalinated seawater.

“Jordan will need more water to meet its needs for water security, and this is the most logical and economical way to do it,” says Ms. Abu Taleb. “We really want to see renewable energy cross borders, but we need the political will.” 

But getting the authorities in Jordan to approve, she says, is not easy, given popular resistance to the idea of working with Israel.

Israel, a world leader in desalination technology, supplies most of its water needs for its homes and cities through its desalination plants. Gaza has one small desalination plant and plans to build a large-scale one. 

Currently, water and energy dependence is a one-way street, with Jordan buying both water and natural gas from Israel. 

“This is creating a backlash,” says Ms. Abu Taleb. “But our vision is that of healthy interdependencies which will definitely change things on the ground. It’s not easy … but it’s the right way forward.” 

Visit to the U.N.

In April 2019, the three EcoPeace directors traveled to New York to appear before the United Nations Security Council. They explained how new technologies provided a way to share water rather than fighting over it. They told stories of the human costs of not facing the common threat of water scarcity, including the death of a 5-year-old boy in Gaza after he came in contact with raw sewage that flowed into the sea. 

When the directors finished giving their testimony, the Israeli and Palestinian ambassadors to the U.N., known for rarely agreeing on anything, praised their work and the example they were setting. 

While he and his colleagues may still be dismissed as dreamers, Mr. Bromberg says, moments like this, and the headway they have made, make it feel like “we are seeing an adoption of that narrative we were told was impossible.” 

To learn more about EcoPeace Middle East, visit www.ecopeaceme.org.



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