Reprinted from The Gazette, December 6, 2000
By Maxwell Brem
The daily headlines are filled with news of bombing attacks, army reprisals and other violent incidents that continue to plague relations between Israelis and Palestinians. But in a small corner of the Negev desert, specialists and students from around the region are coming together to address environmental problems under the auspices of a regional environmental centre with growing ties to York.
The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies brings together Israeli, Jordanian, Palestinian, Egyptian and some international students, including Canadians, to do applied research on ecosystem issues affecting the Middle East region. The students fuse an ecological identity that brings Middle East ecosystems into consideration, not just the particular conditions in their home areas.
Housed in a kibbutz known for its religious and political pluralism, the Arava Institute looks out on a wilderness area that contains some of the last vestiges of plant habitation in the desert. Affiliated academically with Tel Aviv University, the institute offers a one-year program in environmental studies.
In 1999, York's Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) signed an academic partnership agreement with the Arava Institute. In any given year, up to three York BES students will receive credit for studying at Arava and up to three graduates from the Israeli institution will be assisted to enter York's MES program. Beyond the exchange of students, the agreement envisages possible collaboration in research, teaching, faculty development and other areas.
"We're very delighted to have this partnership with York University, and honoured in fact that a school of that calibre in the environmental field would be willing to work with us," said Prof. Alon Tal, Arava's founding director, when interviewed recently for the TV program 'Israel Today'. "We see York as one of our crucial partners. We think the MES program at York is one of the best in the world."
Prof. Tal was interviewed in Israel by the program's senior host, York philosophy professor Howard Adelman. The one-hour TV program, which also featured an interview with Prof. Peter Victor, Dean of York's Faculty of Environmental Studies, aired on Channel 9 in Southern Ontario on November 19.
Two Arava graduates are currently enrolled in York's MES program. Hayat Abu-Saleh is nearing completion of her research on gender issues associated with development and donor aid following the Oslo Peace Agreement, and Asaf Levitan has been studying environmental planning. Canadian Shira Taylor, a York BES student, is spending this year studying in Arava's program. She was preceded by four other FES students, several of whom attended the Israeli institution before the agreement with York was formalized.
According to Prof. Tal, Israelis are only now beginning to grasp the extent of environmental damage caused by rapid settlement of the state and unblinkered development. The message hit home in 1997 when three Australian athletes died, and dozens more suffered illnesses, when their vehicles plunged into the Yarkon river due to a bridge collapse. The river was severely polluted, and the athletes died from exposure to the contaminants. "It was a real warning signal to Israel society," Prof. Tal said, adding that one-third of Israel's scarce water resources are contaminated by sewage and other effluents. In addition, about half the wells pumping water from the coastal acquifers don't meet international standards, he said.
Air pollution, particularly from car emissions, is another serious issue and is linked to the deaths of 300 people a year in Tel Aviv alone. An indicator of deteriorating air quality in Israel is that the proportion of children suffering asthma has grown to 18 per cent from 5 per cent in 1980. "Public policy doesn't seem to want to respond to that," said Prof. Tal.
In Prof. Tal's view, the authorities have also encouraged over-development that has destroyed open spaces and precious habitat. He is especially critical of the Cross-Israel Highway, a proposed electronic toll road partly inspired by Ontario's Highway 407. The controversial route will extend urban sprawl west from Tel Aviv towards the border of the new Palestinian territory. Shai Spetang, a BES student who graduated this past June, examined the highway plan as a case study for his honours thesis on Judiasm and environmentalism. Prof. Tal said the road construction, which is financed by a Canadian consortium, is "the most destructive project from an environmental point of view" in Israel's history.
"Even some of the development projects envisaged under the peace process could be done in a more environmentally friendly way if the authorities were to invest the money a little differently," he said.
Prof. Tal hopes that the rise of an environmental movement in Israel will help to rectify abuses of existing laws and foster greater respect for conservation. There are now over 100 environmental organizations in Israel, many of them started in the 1990s, and environmental concerns will have to be fully integrated into the development of the region. York's budding relationship with Arava is seen as essential to that broader purpose.
Maxwell Brem is Manager of External Relations in the Faculty of Environmental Studies.