Palestinian and Israeli Cooperation in Environmental Work during the "Peace Era"

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Palestinian and Israeli Cooperation in Environmental Work during the "Peace Era"

Julia Chaitin, Fida Obeidi, Sami Adwan, and Dan Bar-On

This report is a summary of a pilot study conducted by the Israeli-Palestinian research team of PRIME (Peace Research Institute in the Middle East). Sixteen Israeli and twelve Palestinian NGOs who were engaged in cooperative work were analyzed to measure the degree of their effectiveness in their societies, and obstacles encountered in their cooperative work. In addition, this report presents these NGOs interpretation of the causes of environmental damage and its connection to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. NGOs data was collected from field interviews, their publications, and websites. Results showed that while the Israeli and Palestinian NGOs agreed that joint work is needed to address ecological problems, they differed in their reasons for working together. This difference also appeared in and in their interpretation of the sources of environmental deterioration, relationship of the political conflict to the state of the environment, and the effect of the peace process on solving ecological problems. At the end, it was concluded that “environmental narratives” of both sides differ greatly, and that the establishment of a “culture of peace” is a very long-term process.

KEY WORDS: Israeli-Palestinian conflict, non-governmental (NGOs), environment, peace work, joint projects


Since the 1980s, there has been an increase in non-governmental organizations throughout the world. While these have no legal control over territories or people, many governments accept and recognize their work. Non-governmental organizations vary greatly in their appearance and definition. In this paper we define NGOs as non-profit entities, which abstain from participation in state power.

There are four main ideal types which can be identified within the context of the above definition: Campaign, whose primary orientation is to mobilize its members and public; Expert, which provide consultation services and publicly disseminate information; Humanitarian, which have ethical-practical orientation and support people in need; and Grassroots, in which self-organizing citizens undertake local, national, regional and international projects. While this is a useful categorization, in reality the four types often overlap. State actors direct the major part of NGOs' activities towards producing, altering or stopping collectively binding decisions. They do so on three levels. "Internationalizing politics" when NGOs pressure their governments to pressure other governments to change attitudes/practices on certain issues; "transnational politics," when NGOs form networks in order to achieve similar changes in other states and influence international debates (Keck & Sekkink, 1998); and finally, "supranational politics" when the organization takes on multinational form with its own head office.

Research has unanimously come to the conclusion that NGOs have been often able to exert political influence (Clark, 1995; Spiro, 1995) by introducing topics into international debate, setting agendas, fighting for new norms, proposing and facilitating negotiations, and pressuring reluctant governments to make changes. Through "second track" processes, NGOs also try to bring about changes by taking direct action themselves, such as providing aid for people in need through humanitarian and development.

NGO's have established themselves most impressively in environmental and development politics. In environmental politics, expert NGOs often provide information or apply pressure (campaign) (Lahusen, 1996; Rucht, 1996) to steer negotiation processes over environmental issues into certain directions, then translate their aims into action (Gehring, 1994; Haas, 1992). Some social justice NGOs have worked within their societies and have succeeded in fighting for the human rights of indigenous peoples (McCleary, 1996). Other research on human rights NGOs has shown that in states that systematically violate human rights, cooperative networks of international, national, and local organizations often contribute to a change of political and legal circumstances (Risse, Ropp & Sikkink, 1999).

Although local organizations work these issues on, their effectiveness is difficult to measure. Since these NGOs work on a smaller scale and are far less documented than the big and supra national, these NGOs are often out of the public eye, so more research is needed about them.

Peace NGOs involved in global networks have been known to develop “value communities” in order to pursue objectives in a culturally transcendent way (Muller, 1998). For example, while human rights differ in the importance they place on individual and collective and social rights, they all demand habeas corpus rights. In order for such a value community to emerge, the first element needed is the consensus of core rights and objectives that are jointly pursued. The second element is embedded in the NGO's practice. From across political and cultural boundaries, NGOs aver that ordinary citizens, and not only official power holders, have the right to act for public issues. The third element is the pursuit of intercultural dialogue necessary for successful networking. When such dialogues occur, a common reference system and a basis for discourse are created out of the different groups' value repertories. These elements show that people are able to adjust values, perceptions, and language from different environments and historical experiences, and to overcome cultural and ethno-specific images of the “enemy.” This is necessary if NGOs are to play a role in peace building (Lane, 1995) and in the development of a "culture of peace"—a value orientation and practice of dialogue directed toward bridging gaps (Ropers, 1995).

NGOs can help conflicting parties by serving in a mediating function. This is especially important when the actors are unable or unwilling to engage in dialogue, often the case in acute phases of a conflict (Weiss & Nazarenko, 1996). When NGOs develop in conflict-ridden societies, these often try to first cooperate with NGOs from the other side, and then bring back their experiences to their own societies (Lederach, 1994).

In different phases of violent conflicts, NGOs engage in other kinds of activities (Weiss & Nazarenko, 1996). During acute phases of a conflict, NGOs usually pressure leaders to end the violence, enter into negotiations, and counter lack of connections on the political level by entering into a social dialogue. During peace-building phase, NGOs try to increase their societies' abilities for peace and strengthen dialogue with the conflict partner. This task usually encounters difficulties since co-operation entails coping with obstacles. These obstacles include cultural differences between partners and contradicted historical narratives of the conflict (Faure & Rubin, 1993; Wedge, 1986); asymmetric relations between partners with regard to power, competence, and resources; security problems facing both sides (Posen, 1993); and calculations of costs and benefits, which are unfavorable for co-operation (Holl, 1993.) The dialogue can be aimed directly at conflict management and joint social projects, e.g. in the economic and environmental areas. These programs can be designed in order to demonstrate the material benefits of peace to society and change its calculations of benefits (Weiss & Nazarenko, 1996).

When the conflict partner can be seen as a partner with common interests that are at least partially similar to the other party's interests, the conflict partner is no longer perceived as threat in a zero-sum game and peace becomes attractive. This strategy enlarges the "Peace Constituency" (Lederach, 1995), the circle of those who support peace and parallels knowledge gained from mediation research that has shown that in conflict, positions (often tied to identities) and interests must be distinguished from one another.

However, there are disagreements between scholars and practitioners concerning the idea that separation is possible when it involves issues of identity. This is because identity is seen as being deeply connected to the relationship that exists between the partners. As a result, there are researchers who affirm that in order to work toward peace, issues of identity must be addressed (Bar-On, 2000a). This is especially true in the Palestinian-Israeli case, since the identities of the two nations are interdependent on one another; neither side appears to define its own separate identity without relating to the “enemy” (Kelman, 1999). Our stance is that, in peace work, issues of identity must be addressed. When groups involved in a protracted and violent conflict enter into cooperation, they need to devote part of the time to a dialogue about their relationships. Repressing such a discussion can pose a latent danger and can destroy cooperation during critical points of the project (Francis & Ropers, 1997).

In the Palestinian Authority (PNA) and Israel, NGO peace work has involved the “peace movement,” the activities of which directly relate to peace seeking and to joint practice-oriented projects in different social realms that pursue peace through indirect means. Before the Oslo agreements, peace-based NGOs initiated cross-society contacts and exerted pressure on the governments to begin negotiations. During the peace process, while NGOs continued to act as pressure groups, they also focused on helping to prepare their societies for peaceful coexistence and mutual co-operation (Zartmann, 1998).

In 1999, a conference organized by The Peace Research Institute in the Middle East brought together over 40 Israeli and Palestinian NGOs that were interested in cooperation (Adwan & Bar-On, 2000; Maoz, 2000a). Some NGOs were engaged in cooperative projects in the educational and economic projects, human rights, health policy, social policy, and environmental policy. The experiences of these NGOs showed that the cardinal problem faced in co-operative work was the asymmetrical relations between the co-operating groups that reflect the asymmetric distribution of power in the conflict. This asymmetry is based on different levels of experience within the degree of professionalism and the fact that each organization is embedded in a more or less developed society, and the availability of resources (Maoz, 2000b, in press). Other difficulties in carrying out joint work included confrontation and bad relations that have often existed between the two nations, linguistic communications (the ability to express oneself in the partner's language), deep cultural differences, ignorance, and insensitivity of the other's culture, Palestinians' limited freedom of movement due to security measures imposed by the Israeli government and military, and the difficulties in disengaging political disturbances from the joint work.

Based on the above knowledge, PRIME undertook a pilot study of Palestinian and Israeli environmental NGOs. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has torn apart the Middle East for over one hundred years (Bickerton & Klausner, 2001). While most of the joint history has been one of bloodshed, after signing the Declaration of Principles in 1993, there appeared to be a real move toward peace. However, the lack of real progress and the perception of the Palestinians that Israel was not fully committed to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state contributed to further Palestinian frustration and triggered the Al Aqsa intifada that began at the end of September 2000. The cycle of violence has resulted in the death of over 2,546 Palestinians and 816 Israelis, and the injury of over 23,930 Palestinians and 5616 Israelis from the beginning of the intifada until now (, This study, however, focuses on a different kind of “casualty” of the peace process, Israeli and Palestinian environmental non-governmental organizations. During the peace era, these NGOs had worked together on projects aimed at enhancing not only the environment, but also peaceful relationships between the neighbors as well. After the outbreak of violence in September 2000, most of this work came to a standstill. The specific reason behind our focus on these organizations is connected to the ecology of the region: the land is densely populated, semiarid, suffers from water shortage, and has problematic waste management and sewage systems. In addition, different levels of development in Israel and Palestine differ leading to different environmental stresses. Intensive agriculture and industrial development have damaged the environment.

Israelis and Palestinian environmental NGOs are categorized into three main categorizations: Organizations already co-operating, Organizations not-yet co-operating but that are willing to cooperate and Organizations not willing to cooperate due to political reasons. This article presents an overview of Palestinian and Israeli environmental NGOs that have been engaged in co-operative environmental work, activities on which the NGOs concentrate, their understandings of their roles in their respective societies, their perception of the connection between the environment on one hand, and the conflict and peace process on the other, and overall obstacles encountered in co-operative work.


Thirty-seven Palestinian environmental NGOs were surveyed. Twenty of these were sorted out to be our study case. The selection was based on a number of criteria including the size of the NGO, main areas of interest, the role of the NGO in the environmental community, scope of activities, creativity in the main areas of specialization, and the motivation to cooperate with the Israeli side. Twelve of the twenty NGOs were found to be involved in joint environmental projects. The results are presented here.

In the overall Israeli sample, nineteen NGOs, two academic institutions, and one government organization gave face-to-face, tape-recorded interviews. The criteria for choosing them were as follow:

  1. The NGO had been engaged in cooperative work with Palestinians.

  1. Other NGOs considered them important in the Israeli environmental context.

  1. The organization had been in existence for many years or was well known in Israel for its work.

  1. The NGO focused on different issues, different populations, or both.

Two key Israeli environmentalists were also interviewed in order to get an overall picture of the Israeli environmental movement. While the Israeli team conducted short interviews with an additional ten NGOs by telephone or electronic means, these NGOs are not presented here. This paper presents results on the sixteen NGOs that have engaged in cooperative work.

Methods and Instruments

Palestinian and Israeli teams mapped environmental NGOs in their societies (finding there to be approximately a hundred.) by using Internet searches, talking to umbrella organizations and the ministries of environment, and by getting information from environmentalists. Based on this information, we decided to carry out in-depth personal interviews with approximately forty on both sides, to be shared equally. An interview guide (see Chaitin, Obeidi, Adwan & Bar-On, 2002) was formulated for these interviews. The questionnaire addressed basic data about main activities, target populations, perceptions of the conflict and the state of the environment, orientation of the organization regarding the relationship between environment and peace, reasons for cooperative work, funding sources, past experiences with joint work, and willingness to work with the other side. While we usually succeeded in covering the issues in the guide, such success was not always possible due to time limitations, requests of the participants to talk about topics they deemed more important and the refusal of some to talk in details about sensitive joint projects. Additional data were gathered from websites and printed material provided by the NGOs.

On the Palestinian side, the interviews were conducted in Arabic then translated to English. After the drafts of the organization were completed, the Palestinian team sent copies to interviewees for comments. These comments were taken into consideration in the final report. On the Israeli side, seventeen interviews were conducted in Hebrew, which were later translated to English, and five in English. The interviews lasted between forty-five minutes to four hours.

Our study began in April 2000 and ended in June 2001. The method of the project was dynamic, changing over the course of the project. The teams gathered information separately, meeting together every few weeks to exchange ideas and summaries of the interviews. This strategy continued through September 2000. The outbreak of the Al Aqsa intifada on September 29th, 2000 made further data collection and regular meetings nearly impossible. After a month into the violence, it was realized that the conflict clearly was not going to be resolved quickly and that work could no longer continue as we had planned. It was decided at that time that each team would analyze what it had managed to collect. As a result, the analysis processes were not identical for the two teams. Despite the differences in data analysis, each side wrote a summary of each NGO, and compiled tables with descriptive information. Each team also wrote a summary report of all the NGOs that it had interviewed. This report looked at the NGOs' views of their roles within their societies, their perceptions of the “other,” and issues related to the success or failure of their environmental joint work.

Results and Discussion

We will begin each sub-section with the Palestinian NGOs and then move on to the Israeli NGOs. Due to the very sensitive and volatile political situation in Israel and Palestine, our results contain no identifying specifics about the NGOs.

Overview of the Cooperating Palestinian Environmental NGOs

Twelve Palestinian environmental NGOs participated in joint work and agreed to be included in this study. Most of them were founded within the last fifteen years with the aim of preserving nature and environment in Palestine, and minimizing the environmental problems aggravated by the long years of Israeli occupation. All of the NGOs stated that the biggest environmental problem for the Palestinians is water, therefore, the Palestinian research and studies primarily focused on water. The Palestinians live under significant water stress. Water shortage is a serious problem facing most districts in the West Bank and Gaza strip, due to not only the arid and semi-arid climatic conditions and rainfall variability in the area, but also to the Israelis strict control over Palestinian water resources. Most research applied in the water sector is related to water and wastewater management, rehabilitation of wells and treatment of wastewater for the reuse in agriculture. Other activities center on energy conservation, agricultural services, development of educational and training programs and programs for environmental awareness, clean-up campaigns and tree planting, development of the rural and agricultural sector, scientific studies (on water, soil, and energy), conservation of wildlife, and consultation services and lobbying. Joint work on some of the above projects was done on the local and national level. Three NGOs have ties to international organizations.

The shared ecosystem between Israel and Palestine favored the joint action of the above-mentioned Palestinian NGOs with Israeli environmental NGOs. However, stipulations have been always imposed on such joint projects: Total belief in the Palestinians as equal partners; determination of the priorities to plan projects for the needs of both sides; the Israeli counterparts must be against Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories and Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem; compliance of the Israelis with providing the Palestinians with environmental facts which concern the project, the suitability of the project with the current situation, and the ability of the project to solve the present environmental problems.

In general, cooperation was summed up to be positive and both the Palestinian and Israeli NGOs benefited from this cooperation. Nevertheless, cooperation encountered a number of obstacles that disturbed the dynamics of the joint project. Many joint projects were stopped because of the lack of freedom of movement. Often, the Palestinians were restricted in traveling to the Israeli areas.

The Palestinian interviewees talked about the lack of real dialogue between the two sides. When discussing the dialogue problems, cooperating Palestinian NGOs noted that they often felt that each side had its own “agenda,” especially when working on applied studies. As a result, each side worked according to its own plans, usually only meeting at the end, in order to combine their data. This kind of working relationship often resulted in an imbalance not only in the work patterns, but also in the final project results.

Another difficulty encountered in joint work was termed cultural differences, which were found to be especially problematic in environmental summer camps held for Israeli and Palestinian youth, in which teenage boys and girls interacted with one another. The Palestinian society tends to be more conservative than Israeli society. For the Palestinians, the Israeli girl and boy adolescents appeared to be more open in their behavior with one another than is normative for the Palestinians, engaging, at times, in practices that are considered to be prohibited or unacceptable in Palestinian culture. Of the Palestinian interviewees who had this experience, all felt that the Israelis were insensitive to this cultural difference and that this insensitivity caused an undercurrent of problems during the joint activities.

Political disturbances, closure of Palestinian areas, and outbreaks of the conflict negatively affected the cooperative projects in two main ways: the Israeli authorities often limited the Palestinians' freedom of movement, and the Palestinian Authority often issued directives to the Palestinian NGOs to cease joint work with the Israelis until the tense period had passed. Another obstacle was lack of information. Two NGOs noted that the Israelis supplied no information about the environmental facts within the Israeli lands. The Israelis refused to supply their Palestinian partners about the Israeli activities in the Jordan River valley. This lack of information prevented the Palestinian participants from carrying out their work in a manner they believed would truly benefit the environment.

Different interest in the same project and different perspectives on the publicizing joint projects was another obstacle, which was mentioned by most of the cooperating Palestinian NGOs. Most of the interviewed NGOs mentioned that the Israelis were interested in publicizing joint projects in order to show the world that the two sides were cooperating, even during tense political times, trying to influence international opinion. Finally, Palestinian interviewees noted psychological problems contributed in complicating the dynamic of joint projects. Interviewees stated that years of occupation have made it extremely difficult for Palestinians to see Israelis as anything but occupiers and confiscators of Palestinian land.

All of the representatives who were interviewed identified the relationship between the conflict and the degradation of the environment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. All of the NGOs stated that confiscation of Palestinian land for Jewish settlements contributed greatly to the deterioration of the environment. Since the 1967 war, Israeli governments have either illegally confiscated or declared as closed areas over 55% of the West Bank and 22% of the Gaza Strip in an attempt to change their demographic character. In addition, the construction of Israeli settlements in Palestine have also led to the demolition of houses, the uprooting of thousands of trees, and the construction of numerous bypass roads for the sole use of Israeli settlers. These practices have fragmented the Palestinian lands and people, leading to overcrowding of urban areas and loss of open space. A second negative effect of the conflict, documented by the Palestinian NGOs, is the depletion of water resources, such as depletion of the Gaza coastal aquifer and the redirection of the Jordan River. The Gaza coastal aquifer had been over-pumped by the Israelis at a rate of 110 MCM, which has resulted in lowering the groundwater level below sea level and the intrusion of saline water in many areas as a result. Palestinian interviewees stated that while the Israelis are digging new wells, Palestinians are blocked from using existing ones and have access to only 15% percent of the water.

Pollution was the third problem cited by all of the NGOs. Wastewater from many Israeli settlements had been discharged to the nearby Palestinian communities without treatment. Wadi Qana, Salfeet, Qatanna, Nahhalin, Al-Khader, Al-Jania, Al-Walajeh, Dura, Wadi Zomar and Bani Na'im are some examples of the affected localities. Representatives from the Palestinian NGOs stated that the Israeli government had constructed at least seven industrial zones in the West Bank that occupy a total area of approximately 302 hectares, located mainly on hilltops, which often result in the flow of industrial wastewater into adjacent Palestinian lands. All Palestinian NGOs stated that Industrial solid, and often hazardous, waste is generated by these factories and is often collected and illegally dumped in Palestinian areas. According to one Palestinian NGO, in 1998, Israel illegally transferred two to three trucks filled with toxic and hazardous waste to two locations in the northern area of the West Bank. Representatives of the NGOs documented examples of Israeli settlements that dispose their solid waste at different locations in the West Bank including Ariel, Innab, Homesh Alon Morieh, Kame Shomron, Kadumim, Kiryat Arba, Ma'ali Adumim, Tal Byoot and Atnael.

Palestinian environmental NGOs also declared that deforestation and uprooting of trees is another consequence of the conflict. According to a study conducted by the Ministry of agriculture in 1999, the total forest area within the officially designated areas decreased from 300,736 dunum in 1971to 231,586 dunum in 1999. More than half of the decreased area was in the Gaza Strip, where 95% of the forests disappeared (from 42,000 dunum in 1977 to 2,000 dunum in 1999). Approximately 80% of destroyed areas of official forest are attributed to the establishment of Israeli military bases (2%), the construction of settlements (78%) and bypass roads (less than 1%).

Israel, in the name of security, has uprooted trees and destroyed fertile Palestinian agricultural lands. The Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture reported in December 2000 that the Israeli army and the settlers, under the protection of Israeli soldiers, uprooted 124,239 trees in the in the period between September 2000 and Jun 2001. Some interviewees spoke about military practices in agricultural areas inside the territories and the destruction of agricultural lands, especially during the crop and harvesting seasons.

Relocation of Israeli industries into the West Bank is another environmental problem that Palestinian environmental NGOs associated with the conflict. Israel has moved a number of its polluting industries from places inside Israel to areas near the 1967 borders or inside settlements in the Palestinian lands. Examples of these industries include, but are not limited to, Geshuri industries, a manufacturer of pesticides and fertilizers that was moved from Kfar Saba by an Israeli court order in 1982 because of its negative environmental effects on land, public health and agriculture to an area adjacent to Tulkarm inside the West Bank. Another example is the Dixon gas industrial factory that was relocated from Netanya to the same area of Tulkarm. The impact of the conflict is far reaching and beyond the human tragedy. The electrical fences around Gaza Strip, built around three sides, have restricted the movement of wild animals in and out that area. Palestinian NGOs stated that the lack of an environmental infrastructure in the Palestinian lands was one of the major consequences of the conflict. No sanitary systems, wastewater treatment systems, or sewage systems were built during the years of occupation.

The Palestinian environmental NGOs unanimously asserted that a comprehensive peace process would help in bringing about a change for the better in the environment. Furthermore, they all agreed that a comprehensive peace would create trust for joint projects but not the opposite.

Overview of the Israeli Environmental NGOs:

Of the sixteen Israeli NGOs that engaged in cooperative work with Palestinian partners, fifteen were founded in the 1990s, most after the onset of the Oslo peace process. The differed in size, scope, membership, and issues that they address; the also targeted many different populations, such as children of all ages, students, minorities (including Bedouin and Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians from the occupied territories), and business people. These most often undertook activities that centered on the protection of beaches, sustainable development, the management of water resources, the empowerment of Palestinian populations, protest activities against the construction of the Trans-Israel highway, environmental awareness and educational programs, training programs for environmental professionals, activism, activities for business people, and various studies (of wildlife, desertification, water, pollutants, and health issues). In this sub-sample, all of the NGOs engaged in networking on the international level. These noted the critical environmental problems as including water quality and shortage, sustainable development, and public transportation. The NGOs cited two main problems: widening the circle of environmental activists and influencing policymakers more successfully.

When the Israeli representatives talked about their willingness to cooperate with Palestinian partners, six of the stated that cooperative work was a major focus and saw was important for the achievement of peace and a cleaner environment. Eleven NGOs said that they saw environmental protection as even more important than cooperation with the Palestinians, even though they did also highly value cooperative work. Therefore, when problems arise during cooperation, if these problems interfere with the environmental work, taking care of the environment should take precedence over carrying on collaborative projects.

Several of the Israeli NGOs stressed cooperation as the main focus of their work, and all of these noted that they saw the Palestinian partners as their peers and that it was important for the project to meet the needs of both sides. These appeared to be attuned to the asymmetric power relations that exist between the Israelis and the Palestinians; these stated that they tried to create equal relations in their work. Palestinian problems were seen as being Israeli problems; for example, five of the NGOs stated that when the border police caused difficulties for the Palestinians to enter Israel, the Israeli partners would personally intervene to get that permission. Ten NGOs had engaged in cooperative projects, but did not view these activities as being a central reason for their existence; these NGOs did not appear, in general, to be as aware that asymmetry between the Israelis and the Palestinians could explain why their joint work was so difficult at times.

Representatives from six Israeli NGOs said that cooperative work was one of their major aims and also noted their sensitivity to the political situation, acting in ways that suited the political climate. This cooperative work was evaluated as being mostly positive by fifteen of the sixteen NGOs. They noted the importance of having and keeping up personal contacts. However, the interviewees stated that while there was an opening up of dialogue between the Israelis and Palestinians during the projects, the interviewees did not believe that there was enough real progress in solving environmental problems.

All of the cooperating NGOs agreed that there was a connection between the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the damage that has been caused to the environment. However, none of them saw the conflict as being the main reason for neglect. Eleven interviewees stated not only that Israelis tend to have such low regard and understanding for potential environmental dangers, but also that even if there had never been a conflict, Israel would not be more environmentally aware than it is today. Therefore, while the conflict was definitely seen as having a negative ecological impact, the conflict could not carry the primary blame for environmental problems faced by Israel and the Palestinians today.

For the conflict's negative environmental impact, a number of reasons were given. Six noted that Israeli governments have always been so concerned with problems of security that these governments often have not budgeted enough money for other pressing social issues, such as the state of the environment. Four NGOs stated that the military has also caused damage, both in Israel and in the PNA, for example, when the IDF uproots trees in the Occupied Territories in the name of security, or leaves potentially toxic waste in open areas. Four NGOs noted that expansion of settlements was detrimental to the shared environment; natural areas have been destroyed in order to build new houses as well as roads that bypass Palestinian villages. Water has also been poorly managed; often leaving Palestinians without enough good water while the Israeli government overextends the water supply in the settlements. Eleven NGOs noted that the environment disregarded and damaged because of unchecked development, which did not consider environmental needs.

The Israeli NGO representatives were asked how they thought a peace agreement would affect the environment. Six believed that a peace agreement would have both a positive and negative effect, six believed that that an agreement would positively help, and four stated that a peace agreement could lead to further deterioration. This was based on the belief that a peace agreement would bring about more unchecked development, such as an increase in private cars, which would travel between both countries and cause a rise in air pollution, and an expansion of environmentally-bad joint industries.

Obstacles Encountered by the Israelis: The Israeli NGOs mentioned several obstacles to joint work. These obstacles included political disturbances and problems with freedom of movement for the Palestinians, security measures that negatively affected the smooth running of activities, problems around “talking environment” or “talking conflict,” language barriers, instability in keeping up long-term partnerships, and different cultural norms that affected taking action.

Eleven of the cooperating Israeli NGOs noted that upsurges of violence between the Palestinians and the Israelis often disrupted their work. Such violent upsurges would lead to closures or curfews of PNA areas and to restriction in movement for the Palestinian partners, either because the Israeli military would not let them pass or because PNA officials issued orders to the NGOs to desist working with Israelis. When freedom of movement was obstructed, Israeli representatives said that they often had to personally intervene in order to get military permission for their partners to enter Israel. During very violent times, activities were postponed or cancelled because the Palestinian partners were unwilling or unable to participate. Three NGOs also noted that in order to solve this problem, conference venues were changed to neutral regions such as Turkey.

Tied to the first problem is the general issue of security. Eight of our Israeli informants told us that, at times, activities had to be re-planned in order to meet security demands set by Israeli authorities and requirements set by Palestinian and Israeli involved in the activities. This problem was especially acute when children were involved; given security measures, finding a mutually acceptable venue for group activities was often very difficult.

A more serious obstacle to undertaking joint activities was the issue of content of the meetings. Seven of the Israeli NGOs felt that the Palestinians were often more interested in talking about the conflict, stressing Israel's responsibility for infringement of their human and civil rights, than on the environment, which was the manifest reason for meeting. While the environmentalists understood this Palestinian need and saw the importance of dedicating part of some time together to political discussions, the environmentalists felt that such discussions limited the amount of real work on the environment that needed to be done and, at times, also put the Israelis on the defensive.

Another obstacle, mentioned by five of the NGOs was a language barrier. In order to make communication possible, most of the activities had to be conducted in English. This proved to be very difficult when the activities involved children or people who came from rural areas or had limited formal education. Often the participants would speak through a translator, which slowed down the process and made cross communication extremely difficult. On a given project, this often led to participants working side-by-side, rather than together. Three of the Israeli interviewees also noted that an additional obstacle to joint work was the lack of continuity in Palestinian partners. For example, the Israelis would hold one seminar, and when they reconvened, a new group of Palestinian participants would come to the meeting. This phenomenon was cited as limiting environmental progress.

The last obstacle, noted by five Israeli interviewees, was the difference in norms accepted by the Israelis and those accepted by Palestinians concerning the role of NGOs in civil society. While the Israelis tended to see themselves as willing to partake in civil disobedience and to protest government actions and policies detrimental to the environment, the Israelis mentioned that the Palestinians tended to toe the PNA government line, behavior that the Israelis found to be at odds with the essence of NGO work. Although some of the Israeli participants understood that the Israelis' political and social situation in the early days of Israeli statehood did not permit them to be as outspoken as they could have been, and although the same Israeli participants understood that the Palestinians' current political and social situation did not permit them to be as outspoken as they could be, these Israelis felt that Palestinians' lack of outspokenness kept the parties from undertaking the environmental work they had set out to do.


This study of environmental NGOs in Israel and Palestine aimed to learn what issues interest regional environmentalists, how the parties deal with those issues, and how their work relates to the conflict and peace building efforts. The renewal of violence between the sides prevented us from completing our data collection and analysis as we had planned, leaving many questions unanswered. Despite this, we see a number of points to make and tentative conclusions to draw.

To begin with, one can claim that the environment has become an important issue for civil actors in both societies. This has led to the establishment of many NGOs on each side, many since the mid 1990s, when the Oslo peace process opened the door for new ventures. We found that the sides agree that significant damage has been done to the environment and that immediate steps must be taken to address it. Furthermore, there is also consensus among these NGOs that the issues that affect one country also affect the other. Therefore, the sharing of knowledge and resources is needed if the major problems are to be solved. This assumption, reminiscent of the claims made by Holl (1993) and the UNESCO reports (1998) concerning the benefit of pursuing joint goals as opposed to unilateral interests, enabled Israeli and Palestinian NGOs to work together on projects that reached a variety of populations.

Despite the agreement that the environment needs serious attention, the Israeli and Palestinian NGOs presented here did not wholly agree on the sources of the ecological deterioration, or on the ways that this deterioration could be stopped, including their part in these efforts. While the Palestinian NGOs did not believe the conflict and the state of the environment could be disengaged, the Israeli environmentalists did not always hold this view. These differences in perception have led to different explanations concerning the roots of environmental deterioration, the willingness to work with the other side on joint environmental projects, the obstacles to be overcome in joint work, and the connection between resolution of the conflict and improvement of the environment. We also experienced the consequences of these differences firsthand as we pursued our study. For example, when the Palestinian team told nearly a dozen NGOs that the research was part of a joint venture, the NGOs saw participation as legitimizing the asymmetric relationships between the two peoples, something that those NGOs were not yet prepared to do. Those Palestinian NGOs, therefore, refused to participate in the research. Furthermore, although several Palestinian NGOs had participated in our study, after the onset of the Al Aqsa intifada, none of them provided any more information. While the Israeli team did not succeed in securing interviews with all of the NGOs that it approached, these were never the reasons given for non-participation, neither before nor during the Al Aqsa intifada.

Perceptions of environmental issues are reminiscent of other issues connected to the conflict. Working from a variety of disciplines on the conflict (Adwan & Firer, 2000; Bar-On, 2000b; Bickerton & Klausner, 2002; Kelman, 1999; Said, 1990), scholars have noted that the Palestinian and Israeli narratives—concerning the history of the region, the legitimacy of claims to the land, the roots of the conflict, and the reasons for its insolvability—are diametrically opposed. Because of these opposite perceptions, Palestinian environmentalists see the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and disregard for the Palestinian people as causing much of the environmental damage, whereas Israeli environmentalists see environmental deterioration as resulting from general ignorance, disregard, and low priorities on the part of state institutions.

This difference in understanding does not remain solely on the theoretical level, but affects the practical level as well. Cooperating Palestinian NGOs do not see the point of “talking environment” without “talking occupation.” However, the Israelis tend to see “talking conflict” as a detour from “talking environment.” In our opinion, these differences reflect not only the communication problems, but also the asymmetric power relationships that exist between the Palestinians and the Israelis (Gidron & Katz, 1998; Rouhana & Kelman, 1994; Suleiman, 1997).

When they were engaged in their joint work, the Israeli NGOs enjoyed a sociopolitical context very different from that of their Palestinian counterparts. The Israelis were embedded in a developed civil society that had a stable economy and an established infrastructure. Furthermore, Israel still retained a great degree of military and civil control over Palestinian people and lands. The social environment was different for the Palestinian NGOs, however: the PNA was in the throes of nation building. The PNA had just begun to build its infrastructure and much of its land, although its people and institutions were still under Israeli occupation. Of the two sides, the Israeli NGOs were clearly the dominant side and, at times, some of them appeared to be oblivious to the life conditions of their Palestinian partners. Therefore, during cooperative projects, the sides often held different conceptions of reality, especially concerning whether or not the conflict was nearing its end, and how the sides should go about their joint work. This is not surprising and can help account for the tendency of the Israeli NGOs to perceive the conflict as near its end, as almost part of the past, and for their desire to address other issues, such as the environment, that had been overlooked for years, without dwelling on the occupation. On the Palestinian side, however, they still saw their societies as being embroiled in the conflict, with its end still out of reach. Therefore, the Palestinians tended not only to object to Israeli NGO behavior that appeared to trivialize or ignore problems of oppression and inequality that still affected Palestinians' everyday lives, but also not to see any point in discussing environmental improvement without discussing the continuing occupation.

This asymmetry in beliefs, practices, and realities can help to explain why the Israelis were at times unable to understand the importance of making time for the Palestinians to talk openly about their negative feelings and the experiences that they encountered over the years of occupation. In addition, we believe that the differences mirrored great unease, on the part of the Israeli environmentalists, when Palestinian partners accused Israelis of having purposely harmed the Palestinian environment. Therefore, while we believe that the Israeli NGOs gave reasons for the poor state of the environment that definitely capture many truisms, those NGOs may have comparatively minimized the conflict's environmental effects as a defense mechanism in response to Palestinian allegations.

As Gidron and Katz found in their 1998 study, the Palestinian environmental NGOs interviewed for our study constituted the minority group in their relationships with the Israelis. The Palestinian NGOs possessed fewer resources, less influence, and less experience than the Israelis, and were working in a society that is in a very different developmental stage. Therefore, these differences in power relations and life circumstances led the Palestinians to see the Israeli occupation of their lands as being inextricably tied to the poor state of their environment, while the same differences led the Israelis to attribute environmental damage and neglect to other factors. This may also explain the differences in foci of environmental work; whereas the Palestinian NGOs tended to focus on issues directly connected to the occupation, such as land confiscation, the Israeli NGOs focused on more neutral and post-conflict issues, such as public transportation.

Our results also showed that when the two sides joined forces, they tended to do so for different reasons. The Palestinian NGOs emphasized that they engaged in cooperative projects with Israelis not mainly because this work was important for the furthering of peace efforts, but because the work was necessary for combating environmental damage and preventing further deterioration. However, the Israeli NGOs tended to link environmental work to peace work, seeing environmental work as a boundary-transcending process that could help to solidify the peace process (Lane, 1995; Muller, 1998). From this, we tentatively conclude that, despite the hard work that went into the joint projects, the two sides did not really succeed in building “value communities” to help them pursue environmental objectives in culturally transcendent ways. Furthermore, the two sides did not really achieve a “culture of peace” (Lederach, 1995), a condition that may be important for peace NGOs working in societies in conflict. This becomes even clearer when we note that since the renewal of violence, there have been very few instances of joint environmental or peace work.


As we attempted to complete this study during the Al Aqsa Intifada, the task was professionally and emotionally difficult for us. The Palestinian researchers often found themselves in life-threatening situations, and the Israeli team could offer little more than small words of comfort. We were all exposed to the violence that surrounded us and to the intransigence of political leaders on both sides. As a result, the importance of our project paled in comparison to the significance of the daily killings, maiming, and destruction for our region. When we contacted NGOs to see whether or not they were carrying on with joint work, we learned that almost all projects had stopped. Now, nearly three years into this undeclared war, much damage has been done and continues to be done to Palestinians, Israelis, and to our joint environment to an extent that is saddening beyond words, with only a few instances of joint work carrying on. In these past three years, there has also been more documentation of further environmental violations, due to increased Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and the construction of the Separation Wall ( . We hope to continue our joint work and analyze the effects of these projects in the future.

What we can learn from this is that the continuation of violence and the absence of a peace process have had differing effects on the ability and readiness of Israeli and Palestinian NGOs to work together (see Maoz, this issue). We hope that as regional and international decision makers renew their attempts to enter into peace negotiations, their efforts will make it possible for NGOs working in environmental and other realms to resume their important work.


Thanks to the German Science and Development Ministry, the Deutsche Bank, and the Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt for their support of the study described in the article. We would especially like to thank to Professor Harold Mueller for his important support during work on this study. We also extend our thanks to our research assistants, Nashida Jubran, Orit Maman, and Inbar Telman, for their help with the interviewing and transcription processes.


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