A number of U.S. states air their public squabbles about the use of common water sources, and the tensions sometimes lead to litigation. Imagine if water shortages were due to an entire region’s desert landscape, and any hope for solving the area’s environmental problems demanded cooperation among not just states or countries but also historical enemies.

The Arava Institute of Environmental Studies, affiliated with Ben Gurion University in Israel, set about in 1996 to tackle those dual issues that have plagued the Middle East since biblical times. Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis and students from around the world “study a range of environmental issues from a trans-boundary and interdisciplinary perspective while learning peace-building and leadership skills,” according to the group’s website.

The institute, located in southern Israel on Kibbutz Ketura in the Negev Desert, plays a role in research, conservation, environmental protection and sustainable development in the region, tackling such issues as air quality, ecology, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy and energy conservation, and integrated water resource management. Examples include a joint project of Arava and the Jordan University of Science and Technology that searches for new crops that can tolerate the saline, brackish and poor quality water in the region; and the development of a low-tech solution to organic waste disposal and methane gas production in Bedouin villages of the Negev.

“The word Arava in Hebrew comes from the word which means to mix,” said David Lehrer, Arava’s U.S.-born director. “Some students come in spite of cultural differences and some come because of those differences. For many Jordanians, it is their first time in Israel and they will tell us that they come to the program in spite of the fact that their friends and relatives question why they are going to live with the enemy.”

Roee Elisha, a native of Eilat, Israel, conducted a water budget analysis of the water resources in the Dead Sea vicinity while he was an Arava student. He is now associate vice president of the Israeli Government Company for the Dead Sea Preservation.

“Students who choose to study at Arava come from different backgrounds,” said Elisha. “We all bear in our mind and souls the desire for a better future in our region and the world, while striving for regional and world peace. Changes don’t occur overnight, but they occur. Arava helps to create the change, step by step.”

Palestinian Ghadeer Khoury said she didn’t feel comfortable around Israelis when she first arrived at Arava, even though she jumped at the chance to apply to the program. She said at Arava she had two choices: “Stick to my preconceptions and beliefs, or challenge myself and get to know the Israelis. I decided to challenge my fears and give peace a chance.”

Like Elisha, Khoury, a civil engineer working on road projects in Ramallah, discovered that change requires time and dedication. “I learned that I shouldn’t give up or lose faith.”

Arava is a private nongovernmental organization with no endowment, and Lehrer faces the challenge of finding financial resources to keep the institute in operation. He gets help from U.S.-based Friends of the Arava Institute, a nonprofit organization with supporters around the country and in Canada.

“We raise $1.5 million annually,” said David Weisberg, the executive director of Friends of Arava, based in Harrisburg, Pa. “The biggest hotbeds of (volunteer) activity are Atlanta, Denver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.,” he said.

Friends of Arava conducts programs around the U.S. to convey Arava’s mission. A typical event, such as “Crossing Political and Religious Borders to Share Water in the Holy Land” held recently in Atlanta and cosponsored by Jewish National Fund, featured Arava alumni telling their stories and, when applicable, sharing how Arava’s research might benefit the local region.

Lehrer said Arava is at its maximum capacity of 45 students and applicants are being turned away, contrary to the opinion of some who doubted the program at its inception. “There was definitely skepticism, but I don't think that even the most optimistic were able to envision the kind of success and impact that the program is having,” Lehrer said.

Arava: An oasis of hope in the Middle East
An eco-institute in the holy land works to build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians.