Rabat – It was only after the Zionists “made the desert bloom” that “[the Palestinians] became interested in taking it from us.” Former Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol coined Israel’s “blooming desert” narrative in a 1969 speech.
In the 60 years that have passed, Israel has put significant efforts into greening a land that faces water insecurity and encompasses a vast desert. Green spaces like East Jerusalem’s Peace Forest now abound within an agenda to promote environmental integrity.
The Arava Valley, which borders the Dead Sea, is one of the driest areas in the world. Now, about 60% of Israel’s vegetable exports come from the valley’s naturally infertile soil, even as salinity increases.
The valley’s agricultural projects can attribute success to a blend of ancient practices and modern innovation. The Arava International Center for Agriculture Training (AICAT) works with its students, who are mostly from Africa and Asia, on fresh research and development to green inhospitable lands.
AICAT resource development director Noa Zer explained, “If you don’t doubt, you don’t innovate.”
Israeli’s agenda to green its lands is not propaganda, it is real. But so is its environmental destruction strategy in neighboring Palestine.
Palestine faces critical environmental threats
Israel’s aggressive colonialism has decimated Palestine’s natural environment. Palestine’s water, soil, and air pollution have reached lethal levels. The UN Development Programme labeled Israeli occupation as an official risk factor in Palestine’s environmental risk assessment.
Israeli attacks on water desalination plants leave Palestinians, especially in Gaza, facing dangerous water threats. Diarrheal diseases approach epidemic levels. Cases of water-borne salmonella and typhoid are on the rise. Today, water pollution is the number one cause of child mortality in Gaza.
An environmental assault on Occupied Palestine might seem a strategic move to rework territorial integrity. At the same time, environmental degradation does not discriminate based on borders.
A recent report from EcoPeace Middle East, a cooperative NGO run between Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian scientists, warned of cross-border contamination: “Collapsing water, sewage and electricity infrastructure in the Gaza Strip pose a material danger to Israel’s groundwater, seawater, beaches, and desalination plants.”
The World Health Organization predicts that none of Gaza’s groundwater will be fit for human consumption by 2020. An ongoing assault on Palestine’s water management is on course to infiltrate the self-proclaimed “green desert” nation of Israel.
While cross-border organizations like EcoPeace Middle East are working toward multilateral solutions, Palestinians innovate to survive. Engineering minds whir in motion against stark environmental realities.
Sustainability, born from the ashes
GreenCake is quite similar to a cement brick—just remove most of the cement. GreenCake CEO Majd Mashharawi began the company in 2015, the year of her graduation from Gaza’s Islamic University. The brick she designed is made mostly from ash and is almost as durable as cement. With import restrictions in Gaza, building or rebuilding any structure is difficult.
GreenCake provides a construction option that locally sources materials, reuses waste, employs community members, and puts women in leadership positions. The company has sold over 50,000 blocks to date.
Mashharawi is also the 25-year-old CEO of SunBox, her second major innovation. The company distributes small-scale solar kits designed by the young civil engineer. The solar panel, battery, and generator are affordable, easy to install at home, and provide enough energy for daily basic household needs. It is nowhere near a comprehensive fix, but it is a start, and it does not rely on a vulnerable main grid.
The project is needed in Gaza, where occupation destroyed the strip’s only electricity plant in 2006. Without electricity, Gaza cannot consistently operate hospitals and desalination plants, and homes receive little grid power. SunBox now provides electricity to households and businesses, serving almost 1,000 people. And it is about to get bigger.
SunBox recently received a major grant from Action Against Hunger to install solar power systems on 10 desalination plants around Gaza Strip. The grant is a major boon for the community and not just in terms of electrical power, also in terms of people power.
Mashharawi is a big believer in employment to counter extremism and hopelessness. “If those young people had dreams, they wouldn’t throw themselves at the border where you could lose your head, lose your leg or lose your arm,” she explained. She hopes startups like hers can empower local women and help give purpose to a frustrated, unemployed population.
Mashharawi’s hopes echo a point of pride for Hanni Arnon, director at AICAT across the Israeli/Palestinian border. Arnon emphasized that AICAT does more than teach students about agriculture, that students see “women in roles of leadership, as heads of businesses, making decisions. They learn more about the importance of education.”
Their states are deadlocked in conflict over a common ground, but Mashharawi and Arnon, innovators with big dreams, demonstrate a common ideological ground. Harsh natural realities may provide some fertile grounds for cooperation.