By Celia Theller
With its origins near the city of Hebron, the Besor Stream winds its way 18 kilometers through the Negev Desert to the city of Beersheva and onward to the Gaza Strip, where it empties into the Mediterranean Sea.
It is one of 16 streams in Israel that are shared between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; roughly two-thirds of the streams originate in the West Bank, crossing Israel and emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. However, due to various factors, the waterways continue to suffer from excessive pollution and contamination.
Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed, the recently appointed executive director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, said the only way to solve this and other local environmental issues is through regional cooperation. “Nature knows no borders,” he said.
Since its founding 25 years ago at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava Valley, the Arava Institute has been cultivating regional cooperation with its neighbors through research and academic study programs.
Its many cooperative environmental projects—including the reclamation of the Besor Stream, and treatment of wastewater in Gaza and in off-the-grid Bedouin communities in Israel— the organization’s work has made it a pivotal contributor to the region’s battle against environmental challenges.
The Jewish National Fund-USA River Park in Beersheva is one of the results of the reclamation of the Besor Stream achieved through regional cooperation by the Arava Institute, notes Abu Hamed.
“If a river or stream or wadi originates in the West Bank and crosses borders into Israel, and Israel cleans up just that section, it is not enough (to reclaim the river) and vice versa,” said Abu Hamed. “But if we help Gaza to have a high-quality solar solution to treat wastewater, we will be preventing the pollution of the shared aquifer between Gaza and Israel, and it also gives Gaza water they can use for irrigation.”
This simple solution can also improve food security for Gaza by helping farmers increase their agricultural production, which will generate more income and employment for Gaza residents, helping to stabilize the entire region, he said.
“With these simple technologies, we actually increase the socio-economic level of people, and that helps increase regional security,” said Abu Hamed. When I have a stable neighborhood, I have a stable home.”
This mission has driven the Arava Institute’s research and studies programs for the past 25 years. Students and researchers from Israel, Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza, and many other countries come to live and study together on campus. There, students further their environmental studies while also getting to know each other on a personal level.
The institute has several departments, including the Center for Transboundary Management, the Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the Center for Arid Socio-Ecology, the Jordan-Israel Center for Community, Environment, and Research, and the Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation, which Abu Hamed founded.
“The beauty of the Arava Institute is not only in its research and studies trying to find solutions to environmental problems. It’s also the relationships which develop naturally between students who usually wouldn’t have the opportunity to meet each other,” said Talia Tzour Avner, chief of staff of Jewish National Fund-USA in Israel, which provides funding for almost half of the institute’s yearly budget. “They meet, become friends, and through these cross-border relationships are better able to deal with relevant environmental issues which affect the whole area.”
Abu Hamed said Jewish National Fund-USA has been an important strategic partner for the institute, providing crucial funding which enables the institute to develop programs, offer student scholarships, and conduct on-the-ground projects. More recently, philanthropic investments by the organization’s Mountain States region will support the two-stage expansion of the institute’s campus to include the construction of labs for the renewable energy workshop, additional classroom space, new student dormitories, and a large auditorium which will also serve the surrounding community as a convention center.
“The current dormitories that Jewish National Fund-USA’s Mountain States region is supporting incorporate a lot of environmental innovations. The facilities will have zero-carbon footprint thanks to the utilization of photovoltaic solar panels and the reclamation of gray water from the dorms,” said Colorado realtor Michael Marcus, a Jewish National Fund-USA Mountain States board member and board chairman of Friends of the Arava Institute.
“This was the kind of thing we hoped to develop to be more than just another border community eventually,” added Marcus, who was among the founders of Kibbutz Ketura in 1973. “We wanted a place that would be a ‘light unto the nations.’”
The number of student admission applications to the Arava Institute’s programs has increased, and the new dorms will allow the institute to grow its student body from 60 per semester to 95 in the coming years. Because of the high demand, they have been able to have a selective acceptance process bringing exceptional students to the institute, Marcus said.
“Our graduates work throughout the world,” said Marcus. “In the Middle East they work in the Ministry of Environment of Jordan, Israel, and with the Palestinian Authority. Our students are having a real impact from an environmental perspective.”
“The Arava Institute and its work also fit into Jewish National Fund-USA’s vision of strengthening Israel’s frontier regions such as the Negev by bringing additional opportunities for higher education and employment to existing residents while attracting new students, staff members and researchers to the area,” noted Tzour Avner.
Moving forward, Abu Hamed said he wants to further strengthen Arab-Israeli cooperation and recruit more residents from Israel’s northern and southern regions to the programs. With the signing of the Abraham Accords, the institute has already strengthened relations with the UAE and Morocco, signing MOUs to start publishing joint scientific papers.
“This is a great opportunity for them and for us,” said Abu Hamed, adding, “The south is facing a lot of environmental challenges, providing even more reasons for everyone in the region to cooperate together,” he said.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about coming together for a common goal,” said Abu Hamed. “Our role is to increase the awareness of the importance of regional cooperation. It is a must, not only from an environmental perspective but also because it helps people connect. The Arava Institute uses environmental research and science as a tool to create awareness of one another.”
For more information or to support Jewish National Fund-USA’s work, visit jnf.org/aravainstitute.