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Arava Institute: Water Knows No Borders

We arrived at the kibbutz in Israel at 2am last night, after 21 hours of travel from Cape Town. Africa is an enormous continent! Flying two hours from Cape Town to Johannesburg, followed by another nine hours direct to Tel Aviv really put things in perspective.

But our exhaustion had quickly transformed into excitement the moment we touched ground. Upon debarking the plane in Tel Aviv, we were met by Olga from VIP services, who whisked us in a private van across the tarmac to security, through immigration, and to our luggage in record time. “I feel like a rock star!” commented Duff. Unfortunately, Ben’s suitcase never showed up–turns out it got sent to the wrong location.

Our attempts to find a place to eat during the four-hour drive from the airport to the kibbutz were pitifully unsuccessful. Everything had closed by 10pm, including the McDonald’s rip-off, Yellow. No burgers or fries for us; just chips, cookies, and energy bars for dinner. We finally pulled into Ketura at the wee hours, and immediately collapsed into bed.

We awoke to a bright gold desert expanse encircled with barefaced sandy slopes. A date palm farm could be seen rising up just across the highway in the flat center of the landscape–nearly 3,000 trees, each 11 meters tall, like pieces set up for a giant chess game. The mountains of Jordan loomed purple on the far horizon. While the neighboring country is only a 30-minute walk away, driving to the border crossing and getting through takes hours for Israelis; for Jordanians, it takes weeks simply to have a visa issued. Shira, our organizer for this portion of the trip, explained that the barbed-wire fence three-layers thick that surrounds the kibbutz serves to protect against terrorist attacks. Welcome to the Middle East.

The reason we were at Kibbutz Ketura was to visit the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a remarkable non-profit organization which makes its home here. Arava brings Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians together with students from around the world to study environmental issues. However, their not-so-subtle agenda is not just a sustainable future for natural resources, but also cooperation between the peoples of this conflict-ridden region. As such, they compliment rigorous academic coursework with a special one-year mandatory class on peace and leadership skills, in which they confront issues such as religion, stereotypes, and the historical narratives of each group head-on. Their motto is: “Nature knows no borders.” We were curious to explore their model for how water scarcity can serve not as a necessary cause of conflict, but rather as a vehicle for peace.

In the morning, the team met with the Director of Arava, toured the kibbutz facilities, and then ate a hearty lunch of turkey schnitzel, hummus, and salad with the students in the dining hall. They invited us to an informal social gathering that afternoon. Sitting on plastic chairs set out on the lawn in between the low dormitory buildings, we snacked on cookies, sipped iced tea, and talked for hours about the students’ impressions of the Institute. This proved to be a deeply moving experience.

Arik, a young man from Tel Aviv with John Lennon-style glasses and a soft-spoken manner, shared how some people he knew were supportive of his decision to study here, while many others were critical. “Why would you want to get to know the enemy?” they asked.

Sarah, a round-faced American woman, told a story that she said summarizes the Arava experience. Mihal, an Israeli student, and Aisha, a Palestinian, were roommates. Though neither of them had ever known anyone from the other side of the fence, over the course of their studies at Arava, they had grown close. Then, towards the end of the semester in January of 2009, war broke out in Gaza.

“We all were grieving,” said Sarah, her voice shaking with emotion, “but the Palestinians most of all. Then Mihal found out that her brother had been drafted into the Israeli army, and was being sent to Gaza to fight. Aisha said in the past, she would’ve wished for the Israelis to die, she hated them so much. But that had changed. While she couldn’t stand the fact that they were going to Gaza to kill her people, now that she and Mihal were friends she could only pray for the safety of Mihal’s brother. That is how much people are affected by their time here.”

We talked, too, about the water issues that we explored in greater depth throughout the course of the following week. In a land where water is scarce and tensions run high, Israel wields almost exclusive control over this precious resource. They have access to over four times as much water on a per capita basis as the Palestinians—which, as we were just beginning to learn, is an immensely complicated issue.

As we wrapped-up our discussion and the students headed back to class for the afternoon, Gavriel, an Israeli man with long hair from the occupied territories of Golan Heights said, “How can there be peace when there is no justice? The only way to peace is for us to share. It shouldn’t matter what shoes you’re wearing or where you are wearing them. We all need water. That should be everyone’s right.”

And what better way to ensure a feeling of camaraderie than with a little karaoke? Thursday night is Pub Night at the kibbutz, since Friday is Shabbat, and no classes are held on the Jewish holy day. So after dinner, we made our way with our new Jordanian, Israeli, Palestinian, and American friends to the simple room decorated with a disco ball, grabbed a beer at the bar, and sang along to “Dancing Queen”…