THE LONG DROUGHT HAS MADE HEADLINES ABOUT RISING FOOD COSTS in this country, but water is always an issue in other parts of the world, with stakes far greater than more costly hamburgers. On a recent trip to Israel, I saw how agreement on water can lead to at least a trickle of hope in a region long parched for it. I also saw how easily such opportunity can evaporate.
An American Jew born the same year as Israel, I was on my first trip there. Like many visitors, I found the country beautiful and its issues complex. I talked with anyone, from falafel vendors to Israeli soldiers, but few felt peace was likely or, worse yet, even possible.
Eager to look beyond the usual tourist stops, I had a wonderful cabbie — “I’m Palestinian, with an Israeli ID and a Jordanian passport” — drive me from Jerusalem into the West Bank. The cabbie didn’t need to point out the long and towering barrier Israel says it has built to keep out terrorists. He let me off at a cabstand just beyond the wall, where I’d arranged to meet Mohammed Obidallah, Palestinian project manager for the Friends of the Earth Middle East’s (FoEME) Good Water Neighbors project.
As we drove to the nearby village of Battir, where he grew up, Obidallah explained the simple premise of his project. “Water and the environment recognize no borders,” he said. “Water can be a tool for peace here, but only when all sides — Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian — agree to work together.” Not long ago, FoEME — made up of environmentalists from all three parties — helped these oft-hostile players jointly obtain $3.65 million in World Bank funding for a new reservoir and water system for Battir and four surrounding Palestinian villages. The effort was supported by the Israeli government, which wants to protect the West Bank ground water from which it draws heavily.
Obidallah pointed out Battir’s main spring. It was tapped by the Romans, part of an irrigation system that has been used, by various peoples, ever since and still brings water to the village’s terraced gardens. Battir, with its fine views and valley full of tombs and other cultural landmarks, would be a B&B magnet in places like Galilee. Obidallah wants such a future for Battir — but then he points to the valley floor, through the middle of which Israel plans to extend its wall.
Later, I spoke via Skype with Gidon Bromberg, FoEME’s Israeli director. “Israel has legitimate security needs, but we need to find a way to meet them in a way that does not destroy the heritage of all the peoples who have lived in this region for thousands of years,” Bromberg said. “From a physical perspective, the whole integrity of the site is lost if that wall is built. From the people-to-people perspective, an opportunity to build trust will be lost and replaced with heightened animosity and further loss of faith.”
The Palestinians have asked Israel’s Supreme Court to change the wall’s route. Meanwhile, this summer, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Committee urged all parties “to prevent and avoid any damage to the Palestinian cultural and natural heritage” in the area.
Obidallah sees big stakes in small places like Battir. “They say there is no way of having peace here,” he said as we drank rich coffee in his parents’ home. “But does that mean we should stop what we are doing? Fighting will not bring anything to anybody.”
I know: Water agreements alone won’t bring peace, but they’re a start. “There are no nice guys here in Israel and Palestine,” said Bromberg. “If you speak of good will, you have a conversation with only a tiny percentage. So we focus on turning an issue of conflict into one of self-interest and mutual benefit.”
I did not leave Battir with a picture postcard. But I did leave with an image of possibility.