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Director’s Blog – Building bridges not fences

Last month, on a visit to the Jordanian border in the Arava valley, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his intention to “surround all of Israel with a fence” to protect the country from infiltration by ISIS and our other enemies. The threats Israel faces are real but confining the State of Israel and its citizens to a narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea surrounded by countries and peoples with whom we have cut off all ties, ignores the fact that we share our natural resources, air, water and land with our neighbors.

While there is little hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in the foreseeable future, transboundary environmental issues will continue to plague the region. Water scarcity in the West Bank and Jordan and sea water infiltration in Gaza and Israel’s coastal plain must be addressed through regional cooperation. The consequences of air and water pollution from urban centers are not confined to local health problems. No fence, border patrol or iron-dome can prevent untreated sewage and air pollution from flowing across borders in the region. As climate change raises average temperatures and reduces average rainfall, protecting the rich biodiversity of the biblical landscapes of Israel and the West Bank can only be accomplished through strong environmental cooperation between conservationists and policy makers on all sides of the borders.

Cutting off all attempts or hope of creating normal relations with our neighbors by building fences, and not bridges, will make the type of cooperation necessary to protect our scarce and fragile resources even more difficult than it is today. Seventy percent of the residents of the West Bank are not connected to a central sewage system. Most Palestinian homes are served by septic tanks whose contents seep into shared aquifers. Surface pollution from olive oil processing plants, tanneries, rock quarries, and untreated sewage flows freely into river beds that cross between the West Bank and Israel. In the meanwhile, air pollution flows freely from the industrialized urban centers in Haifa and Amman across the region where mortality from respiratory diseases outpaces mortality from traffic accidents. Those who think that the environment is a luxury we can only deal with once we have solved our security problems, should reread the headlines in the Israeli newspapers about the Haifa air pollution crises from the first two weeks of February this year. The environment knows no borders and “no man is an island”.

David Lehrer

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