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Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.


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Gidon Bromberg

Gidon Bromberg is an environmentalist who works to promote peace and sustainable development through environmental education. He is Executive Director of EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East, which has offices in Israel, Palestine and Jordan. The organization works on policy and at the grassroots level, with a major focus on water resources. In one of the organization's cross-border projects, communities of Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians work together to learn about and protect their shared natural water source. Visit Just Vision's Newsroom to see Gidon's TedxYale Talk!

  • Please tell me where you're from and how you got involved in this work.

    I was fortunate enough to receive a fellowship from the New Israel Fund, and I was sent to study Environmental Law. That was in 1993, during the euphoria of the peace process, Oslo. My thesis focused on the environmental implications of the peace process. The concern was that peace was actually going to help destroy the environment.

  • Why would peace "help destroy the environment"?

    If you look at the economic summits the governments had organized in Casablanca, in Cairo, and later in Amman, you see that economic development, the new Middle East, was all about major economic plans.1 The governments were talking and devising these plans, the private sector was coming out with thousands of new investment proposals for the region, and yet the environment simply was not on the table. So the conclusion my thesis drew was that the environmental community of the region-Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt-needed to get together, get to know each other and start working together, otherwise sustainable development will not be one of the results of peace. In Washington I had met some potential funders and threw the idea around a bit, but didn't receive too much interest. Upon coming back to Israel, I had to work for an environmental organization for at least for one more year in return for the fellowship. I negotiated with the director of the organization to spend 10% of my time focusing on regional environmental issues, and the rest on national Israeli issues. I wrote a proposal, and suggested holding a meeting in Egypt, in Taba, that would bring together four of the leading environmentalists from each country-Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Egypt-to discuss what, if anything, we should do. I sent it to several people, and it's never happened to me since, but I got a phone call one week later from one of the funders that said-again, because of the euphoria-"If you can organize it, we'll pay for it." In the last ten years, that's never happened again! We've been funded many times, but a response in one week by phone has never happened since. That meeting happened in Taba in December '94. Various options were presented from meeting occasionally, to exchanging emails and somehow staying in contact, to creating more of a network where maybe we would meet periodically, to creating an organization, knowing that this would be the first regional organization ever created. There has never been an organization under one board that includes Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians.2 We created ourselves at a time of euphoria, at a time when the need was realized and people were involved. I think it's due to all of us being environmentalists, and therefore having a very strong common language, and a common vision for the region, over and above peace, that enabled us to jump the gun and really start something new.

    • 1. The first Middle East-North Africa Economic Summit was held in Casablanca, Morocco in October of 1994. The summit brought together politicians and business leaders from countries in the Middle East and the greater international community. The purpose of the summit was to increase regional economic cooperation and development in the Middle East. In 1995, the summit was held in Amman, Jordan and in 1996 in Cairo, Egypt.
    • 2. No documentation has been found to confirm or deny this claim.

  • Where did you find the other people for that first conference?

    I received recommendations from various people that had attended conferences. Israeli and Arab environmentalists had met, even before the peace process, in various international conferences. So I got some names, but I also targeted major organizations: the umbrella organization of all Egyptian NGOs, and we got two representatives from that organization to come; the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature in Jordan, for instance; in Israel, it was also the umbrella organization of all Israeli environmental NGOs that attended.

  • When you yourself got involved, was it for peace or was it for the environment, how did you see your goal?

    Both, always. The organization has always had two objectives, promoting sustainable development and promoting peace, so we call it sustainable peace. They're very closely related, at various levels. From an economic perspective, particularly in the globalized world that we live in, businesspeople are always looking for cross-border business opportunities to benefit from, and they often result in major environmental impacts. I'm talking about industrial zones that are proposed at the border shared by Israel and Jordan, or the Gaza Industrial Zone1 between Israel and Palestine. There are major environmental concerns with tourism development. Peace brings opportunities for mass tourism to the region, and that has negative environmental impact. From the people-to-people perspective, understanding one's shared environment, understanding the fact that the environment knows no borders, that water flows according to its natural flow, and the border is actually irrelevant - that's something people comprehend. There is a common interest; we are dependent on each other, and that is particularly true in a small region such as this one, where each of the countries is incredibly small, where all the water resources of all three countries - certainly Israel, Palestine and Jordan-cross borders; there is no water source that is purely Israeli or purely Palestinian or purely Jordanian. The environment is something that creates interdependence, and interdependence requires a common understanding if we're to manage that environmental resource properly.

    • 1. For a brief history of the Gaza Industrial Zone see http://www.cpsd-pal.org/activities/research13.html provided by the Center for Palestine Private Sector Development (CPSD). Also see the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs: www.mfa.gov.

  • Are you resisting economic development?

    In some cases. We also try to find common ground with economic development; we're not against economic development. We try to promote sustainable development-economic activities that enhance the environment, that benefit not only people but also the environment. We don't always find that. There have been several cases where we've come out strongly against the development being planned. But our general vision is to formulate alternative plans, so that we're not saying "No" to development, we're saying development could take place if we try to balance it. Our work at the Dead Sea is a good example. In 1994 some fifty thousand hotel-rooms were being proposed for around the Dead Sea.1 That's the equivalent of Eilat being expanded eight times, so it's an enormous amount of development.

    • 1. See "Symposium on Promoting an Integrated Sustainable Regional Development Plan for the Dead Sea Basin- Final Report" (July 1998) produced by EcoPeace and the Middle East Environmental NGO Forum at http://www.foeme.org/.

  • Was that cross-border development?

    Yes, Israelis planning, Palestinians planning, Jordanians planning. We approached the issue by making a suggestion to the three parties, and we got funding to hire our own planners. Like with everything we do, we hired a Palestinian planner, an Israeli planner, and a Jordanian planner, to devise an alternative strategy together. In this case, we developed a World Heritage1 concept for the Dead Sea. Unfortunately it is not registered, but it meets all the criteria. It's not registered because of the conflict. Mismanagement of the Dead Sea is also due to the conflict. We presented an alternative to the development that was planned, and said, "okay, you can build hotels, but let's identify concentrated areas, clusters, so that we don't see hotels built all around the shores of the Dead Sea," which was what was being proposed by tourism developers and the governments. That's how we've tried to deal with the economic sector, but it's also a unique way of bringing the governments together. We come with concrete proposals that are attractive. Today, the World Heritage concept is attractive to business, because business also understands that registering the Dead Sea as a World Heritage site is tremendous for tourism. It requires that the governments cooperate. In fact, the very first time that the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority, and the Jordanian government sat around the same table to talk about the Dead Sea was at a conference we organized in 1998.2 Since then, they've been continuing to meet, and tremendous things have happened. The Dead Sea is still in bad condition.

    • 1. For information on UNESCO's World Heritage program see: http://whc.unesco.org/.
    • 2. See http://www.foeme.org/docs/tzafta.htm.

  • How is what you're doing going to give people a shared resource that brings them together, compared with how joint economic development might?

    At the moment, there is no cooperation when it comes to the resources at the Dead Sea. It's competition, and it's greed. It's everyone grabbing absolutely as much as they can from the water resources or from the mineral resources at the Dead Sea. Our work is to put cooperation on the table in ways that make economic sense, particularly for tourism, because only if the three governments cooperate together can the site become a World Heritage site. One country can't register for World Heritage status alone. If there are three countries that share a site, all three must agree and submit their request to UNESCO. So what we're doing requires cooperation. What's happening at the moment is a greedy competition, in which the strongest party wins, and it's basically Israel and Jordan who win. Palestine loses out terribly at the moment.

  • Can you give me an overview of the Friends of the Earth Middle East programs?

    First of all, the nature of the organization is such that everything we do is cross-border. We don't do anything that deals just with the environment of Israel, or the environment of Palestine or the environment of Jordan. The mandate of the organization is cross-border. Ninety percent of our work today is focused on water issues. We're an advocacy group and we're aiming to change policies. We're not a tree-hugging organization that is trying to protect nature for nature's sake or a public awareness organization per se. It doesn't mean that we don't do those activities, but we always try to identify a policy that we're trying to change. Much of our work is advocacy aimed at the governments. Much of the work at the Dead Sea for instance-bringing the governments together, bringing the private sector together-has been focused on what you might call the elite. Other activities however, are focused very much on communities. We have a project that's in its fourth year now, called "Good Water Makes Good Neighbors."1 We focus on communities on either side of the Green Line or on either side of the border between Israel and Jordan, that share a water resource-a river, a stream, a wadi2 that runs through them. The communities utilize that common resource to try and better understand each other's reality-their water or environmental reality-but also to improve the environment they share and in the process build good neighborly relations. That's what peace is all about, being good neighbors.

    • 1. For more information on the project, see: http://www.foeme.org/docs/newsletter5_01.htm
    • 2. Arabic for valley. Refers to a stream bed in a valley that is usually dry except during the rainy season

  • How do you get communities working together on their shared water resource?

    First we identified communities that were willing to work with the other side... a community group, a school, a mayor [willing to lead the community]. We have 11 communities involved in the program. We identified a person from each community that was willing to work on a part time basis for the project, sometimes it's a school principal. It is very important for us to work with someone from the community who demonstrates knowledge and commands trust in that community. In each case we identified a school that is willing to work with the project. We created a group of what we call "Water Trustees" that volunteer at least once a week to do something on water issues in their community. For the first year everything was done separately. Basically, getting to know your own water reality: Where is your water coming from? How is it being allocated, what's happening to your sewage and your solid wastes, how is water being priced? Testing: what quality is your water? For the first year, we really had each community get to know their own water reality, and in the second year we started asking the questions, "What's the water reality of my neighbor? What did I imagine my neighbors' water reality to be and what is it actually in reality?" We did this by exchanges, first and foremost by the staff, because we have a staff person in each community, so the staff would exchange the information. The staff members would present the Water Reality of the other side to the Water Trustees, who had been asked beforehand, for example, "What do you think the water reality is?" They often got very different responses. For the most part Israeli kids were quite ignorant of the lack, of the extent of the water scarcity that exists in Palestine and in Jordan. In fact, it's probably more severe in Jordan than in Palestine, which I think shocked everyone, even the Palestinian kids. There is a sense in Palestine that every Israeli has a swimming pool in his backyard and has so much water that they don't know what to do with it. That was also sort of put back into proportion. Towards the end of the first year and for most of the second year we were working on a common petition identifying an issue that both partner communities are concerned about, generally protecting the river or stream they share, or the water shortages the communities face. They put that into a common petition, and then got the kids out to get adults from their respective communities to sign on to the petition. It helped bring the sense of common interdependence to a much broader community. That was very successful. We collected some 13,000 signatures, and we held another event in Jerusalem, with officials from the three governments involved in a joint event. We got to present these petitions to the respective government officials. We had a kid from Beit Shean stand up and say, "I'm from Beit Shean. My community is worried about the River Jordan, which is polluted by Israel, Jordan, and Palestine, and we want this change to happen." Then he hands the petition-we had collected 3,000 signatures-to the Israeli Water Commissioner's office. The Palestinian kid from the neighboring community of Bardala stands up and says, "We're worried about the future of our common water. We collected so many signatures," he hands it to the Palestinian Water Authority. The Jordanian kid from Sheikh Hussein (all three kids are neighbors), hands it to the representative from the Jordanian Ministry of Water and Irrigation. It was a very powerful event. Are those three officials able to meet together to cooperate on policy? They do meet; it was actually unusual to have the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian [officials] meet together. The Israeli and Palestinian officials and the Israeli and Jordanian officials do meet, but they meet together in a secretive way. The public is not aware of when they meet, what they talk about, what they're actually doing. Still, until today. It's very secretive. It's very much out of the public eye, partly because of the politics, because they're concerned that people will try to stop them from meeting-people and groups who are against cooperation-but also partly because water somehow is seen as a national security issue.

  • Why is water a national security issue?

    Well, access to water, provision of water, is essential to all life. Therefore, if you try to get information, any information out of the Water Commissioner's office, the answer is no, this is top secret information. So that's another hurdle we've always had to face. That's another policy aspect of our work. We're trying to bring water issues into the public eye, to try to make our decision-makers accountable for what they are or what they're not doing. Another very important thing that we did in each of these communities is that we converted a school building into a model water saving building. We held competitions, either between schools or within classes, asking the kids themselves to design ideas for how they can conserve water in their own school. They came up with some incredible things, like: collecting the water of air conditioning systems. Kids calculated exactly how much water, and it amounts to one and a half cubic meters of water collected just from air conditioners every day! That's a lot of water. Collecting water from the roofs of the school, from the pavement of the school, from the drinking fountains. It's amazing how much water is wasted from the drinking fountains that can be collected for reuse. In the Israeli schools, we invested some 6,000 Euros in each school, and we're using that water to flush toilets, or for the garden. We created ecological gardens in each of the schools as well. When I say "we," it's the kids; they put all the pipes together. We didn't bring in some sort of contractor to do the work. It's very hands-on in the schools. In the Palestinian schools and in the Jordanian schools, the water from the roofs is used for drinking purposes. That helps solve water shortages. One of the things that shocked many of the young people was that one of our schools in Jordan was being provided enough water for three days/week. The other three days that kids come to school, there's no water in the taps. This is in Sheikh Hussein in the Jordan Valley, where it's 40 Degrees Celsius in the summer. That means the children have to bring their own drinking water to class. The toilets are locked because there's nothing to flush toilets with, so the kids have to go out into the yard. It is very embarrassing when a regional organization is highlighting the fact that some 200 kids in this particular school don't have water three days a week. Very quickly the municipality corrected that situation. Again, we were making the authorities responsible, accountable, for how they're dealing with water issues.

  • Do you think there's enough water in this region for everybody?

    Oh yes, definitely. There's definitely enough. The issue is not water shortage. Water scarcity is a relative thing. Most of the water that we have in this region goes to agriculture. It's not being used for drinking purposes. In Jordan, in Palestine, 80% of the water goes to agriculture. In Israel, 60% of the water goes to agriculture. It's not that there's a shortage of water, the issue is how we're allocating that water. From an environmental perspective, but also from an economic perspective, the current allocation does not make sense. Most of the region's farmers are receiving water either for nothing or for next to nothing, and therefore a lot of it is being misused. We're growing bananas! Israel and Jordan, in the Jordan Valley, we're both growing bananas, a crop with the most ridiculously high water consumption.

  • If you could generalize, across the different societies that you work in, do you find different attitudes about environmental work?

    Towards the end of the first year and for most of the second year we were working on a common petition identifying an issue that both partner communities are concerned about, generally protecting the river or stream they share, or the water shortages the communities face. They put that into a common petition, and then got the kids out to get adults from their respective communities to sign on to the petition. It helped bring the sense of common interdependence to a much broader community. That was very successful. We collected some 13,000 signatures, and we held another event in Jerusalem, with officials from the three governments involved in a joint event. We got to present these petitions to the respective government officials. We had a kid from Beit Shean1 stand up and say, "I'm from Beit Shean. My community is worried about the River Jordan, which is polluted by Israel, Jordan, and Palestine, and we want this change to happen." Then he hands the petition-we had collected 3,000 signatures-to the Israeli Water Commissioner's office. The Palestinian kid from the neighboring community of Bardala2 stands up and says, "We're worried about the future of our common water. We collected so many signatures," he hands it to the Palestinian Water Authority. The Jordanian kid from Sheikh Hussein3 (all three kids are neighbors), hands it to the representative from the Jordanian Ministry of Water and Irrigation. It was a very powerful event. Are those three officials able to meet together to cooperate on policy? They do meet; it was actually unusual to have the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian [officials] meet together. The Israeli and Palestinian officials and the Israeli and Jordanian officials do meet, but they meet together in a secretive way. The public is not aware of when they meet, what they talk about, what they're actually doing. Still, until today. It's very secretive. It's very much out of the public eye, partly because of the politics, because they're concerned that people will try to stop them from meeting-people and groups who are against cooperation-but also partly because water somehow is seen as a national security issue. Environmental justice includes issues of human rights, and fairness, and some sort of just notion of the division of natural resources. If one side grabs all the natural resources then the other side is going to lose out, not only on the natural resources themselves, but also on their economic potential. So there's a realization that we're not only dealing with the environment here, we're also dealing with political issues too.

    • 1. A city in northern Israel, population approximately 30,000.
    • 2. A village in the West Bank in the Jordan Valley.
    • 3. Sheikh Hussein is a town in Jordan just across the Jordan River Valley from Bardala and Beit Shean, population approximately 8,000.

  • What would you say are the biggest challenges right now to doing the work?

    Things are still incredibly difficult, but there is more of a sense of a political willingness, a political opening, which makes it so much easier to move forward. Nevertheless the types of issues we face are first of all sections of the public that simply object to cooperation, that see cooperation as collaboration, as contrary to the interests of their side. That's reflected in threats, in people refusing to meet with us, to associate with us. We've known not only threats; we've had incidents of shootings at our organization, because of our organization. Our Jordanian director was shot at in Amman outside our office at the very start of the intifada. That was incredibly scary. To the credit of the office as a whole, the staff said, "No, if we close the office, we're giving in, and we're not giving in." Several of our Palestinian staff have been threatened by representatives of their own communities. This office has received not quite threats, but certainly ugly messages that we're collaborators, that we're despicable. I've had my tires slashed. But I have no doubt that our Palestinian and Jordanian staff face the greatest risks.Some of the community work is so important because it brings the issue to the community. We've had events with adults in community groups and someone stands up and says, "This is a project that's working with the enemy, and people should stop and get out." Those involved in the project or attending the meeting have had to deal with that. We had one school principal respond to an individual like this by saying, "Well, this project is benefiting my community. This project has actually improved the water situation for this school, and has brought drinking water to our sons and daughters. What are you doing for my school? What are you doing that allows you to tell others to get up and leave?" We had a horrible case several months ago where a member of the Tanzim knocked on the door of one of our staff, after the last summer camp that we held, charging, "Why did you bring students from this community to that summer camp?" And again, he responded, "Well, I'm working with my neighboring community to stop the wall, what are you doing to stop the wall? This community is partnering with me for the benefit of my community." And of course the member of the Tanzim wasn't from their community, wasn't from their village, he was from a city. As horrible as it is, we're able to empower people to respond. I think maybe that's the difference between this and dialogue for dialogue's sake, which I think is also incredibly important. Dialogue for dialogue's sake is part of peace building. But if you're also able to have dialogue that shows real on-the-ground, concrete change, then you're more empowered to respond to the critics, because there are so many critics, and the critics are very powerful. And I think that's one of the secrets of the success of our work.

  • What do you hope to achieve in the big picture?

    Peace, and sustainable development. That's the mandate of the organization; we're working at creating peace between peoples. We're very much aware that if you only focus on the prime ministers or the presidents signing some sort of accord, it's meaningless. Israel and Jordan have had a peace treaty for ten years. There's no peace between Israelis and Jordanians; it doesn't exist, it's a fallacy. It's not peace, and if it stays at that artificial, governmental level, with a change of government, it will all crumble, it will all disappear. The type of peace process that involves people, that involves communities and the shared environment, creates real foundations for peace, it builds understanding.

  • What role do you think international communities, either governments or individuals, could play here?

    I think they have a very important role, but I'm very critical of the role of the international community. The international community is partly responsible for the conflict in the first place; during the last 10 years of the peace process I think the international community hasn't done enough politically, but also economically. The way that money is given in this region is terrible; it's counter to peace.

  • Why are you critical of the way money is given in this region [by donor countries]?

    It's Congress that has mandated that money that goes for the Palestinians can only be spent on the Palestinians, it cannot be spent on working with both communities. This is generally the case with the way donor funds are spent. They're spent on a bilateral basis between the country that's giving and the country that's receiving, and it's generally one country. That's inappropriate in a conflict area. When you're dealing with a conflict area, you need to have specific rules, specific guiding principals to identify ways of overcoming the conflict, ways the dollar that you're going to spend is going to contribute to peace building. If [people from outside's] attitude is not "We're here to help both of you resolve this horrible conflict," then they're not doing any good. They're not helping anyone by being biased for the benefit of one or the other. It's a conception of the role of peace building in a conflict area. I think that that's a really significant bias that exists in the international community, and it's also due to lack of training. People come out here with great intentions to help the process, but they haven't been trained to work in a conflict situation. End.