The horrifying death of innocent civilians and massive destruction of homes of non-combatants is mind-numbing. I mourn the loss of life. Twelve Israelis were killed in this current round of violence, two were children. More than 230 Palestinians were killed, many were combatants but over 60 were children. Jewish tradition teaches us that every life is an entire world but the sheer number of non-combatants killed is forcing a voice to rise up inside of me and scream “enough!”. A fragile ceasefire has been declared, which by the time this message is posted or by the time you read this post, may have already been broken. I pray that the ceasefire will hold and that we will once again be able to start the arduous task of rebuilding Gaza and rebuilding trust. The sparks of this current round of violence were lit miles away from Gaza, in Jerusalem, however the fuel for this conflict has been building up for years. The strategy of “kicking the can down the road”, managing the conflict and not resolving it, ignoring the plight of the Palestinian people in Gaza and providing no solution to normalcy for the residents of the Gaza envelope, has proved a failing strategy again. The question is, will the government of Israel choose once again to kick the can down the road, or recognize that this conflict is not simply going to disappear because Israel now has relations with the Gulf States?
During a meeting I held last year with Ofir Libstein, Mayor of the Shaar Hanegev Regional Council which borders the northern Gaza Strip, said to me that in order for Shaar Hanegev to develop and prosper, the people of Gaza must develop and prosper. He had reached out to the Arava Institute in order to help build a bridge between the community he represents and the residents of Gaza on the other side of the border, based on a mutual interest to develop the region economically, environmentally and socially. Libstein said presciently that at the end of the day, we are not going anywhere, and neither are they. We will need to find a way to live in peace with each other. Unfortunately the COVID-19 crisis prevented the initiative from going forward. Only a few days ago, in the midst of rocket attacks on his regional council, I heard Libstein on Israeli TV, declaring that once the fighting stops, the government must initiate a new strategy which, while continuing to fight Hamas terrorism, establishes a new relationship between Israel and the residents of Gaza, and offers hope for freedom and economic development.
Over the past four years, together with our Palestinian partners, the Arava Institute’s Track II Environmental Forum has launched a number of initiatives in Gaza to offer hope, to prove that there are partners on both sides of the border and to improve people’s lives. The Institute introduced two WaterGen atmospheric water generators to provide clean drinking water to municipalities and medical facilities, and a mobile wastewater treatment and reuse plant for a community lacking centralized wastewater treatment. The Institute is now working on establishing a 5 MW solar field in Gaza, and working with the Israeli army and the Palestinian Authority to remove dangerous used batteries from rooftop solar panel installations from Gaza in order to transfer them to a hazardous waste disposal site in Israel. We will also be reaching out to the Shaar HaNegev Regional Council in order to discuss re-booting a Gaza-Shaar HaNegev initiative.
It remains to be seen if the Israeli government will listen to Libstein and offer a new strategy for Gaza, but the other lesson learned from this current round of violence is that Gaza, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the integration of the Palestinian citizens of Israel are not separate issues. They are all connected and must be addressed in a comprehensive strategy which deescalates violence, offers hope to the region, freedom to the Palestinians, and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike. While the new US Administration hoped to focus its efforts on domestic issues and other international issues, it is clear that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict cannot wait. The Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government need help from the US in order to reengage top-down. The Arava Institute, together with other partner NGO’s, is ready to begin to rebuild trust – bottom-up. This time, let’s not kick the can down the road, rather let’s pick it up and put it in the recycling bin where it belongs.
Dr. David Lehrer