Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Israel, Palestine and the environment

Arava Institute students Arava Institute students Arava Institute of Environmental Studies
08 Oct
The Arava Institute brings together Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and international students to talk about a shared issue – the environment 

Located on Kibbutz Ketura, on the Israeli border with Jordan, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies has, for 20 years, brought together undergraduate and graduate university students from both sides of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict to teach and talk about environmental issues.

Recognised as one of the top environmental think tanks in the world, it is now a key player in issues such as water scarcity, sustainable agriculture and cross-border nature conservation – problems that defy disputed borders. Even during some of the worst periods of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the Arava Institute has managed to maintain a diverse student body.

David Lehrer, director of the institute, tells Geographical that the institute’s main role in the region is ‘building a cohort of young environmental leaders who understand that our common interests are much more important – especially around water – instead of the things that divide us’.

Political escalation in the region has meant that the Israeli and Palestinian relations have gone from bad to worse. The Israel–Gaza conflict claimed more than 2,000 lives in 2014, and rockets continued to be launched from both sides of the borders throughout 2015. As well as the human loss, the lack of cooperation exacerbates water shortages and environmental degradation the region. 

oasisA small oasis in the Negev desert. Some students will take trips into the the Negev region of southern Israel to learn about the Arab and Israeli communities living there (Image: Oleg Znamenskiy)

Rebecca Farnum, researcher at King’s College London, studies environmental think-tanks and the positive influence they can have in state-to-state relations. Academic centres such as the Arava Institute can be critical in forming diplomacy during conflict and ensuring that it lasts afterwards. Farnum says ‘eventually state negotiations stop and there’s some kind of treaty reached. Is that the end of diplomacy? No, it can’t be or you’re going to find yourself back in the same position. It is this kind of peer-to-peer and academic diplomacy will inform treaty making and official state negotiations.’

According to the Arava Institute , it is the graduates who will eventually prove of benefit to the region. ‘Things seem to be going from bad to worse,’ says Lehrer. ‘However, on the ground, we’re seeing more and more alumni achieving influential positions and becoming involved. They are part of environmental units on a governmental level across the region. It is an issue of critical mass, when there are enough of our graduates and others from similar programmes, we will see real impact.’

Students of the Arava Institute examine the desert environment (Image: Arava Institute of Environmental Studies)

During the studies, the conflict is actively addressed. A peace-building and leadership seminar is part of the curriculum, which gives the students a chance to talk about environmentally-related subjects that are usually easier to avoid; history, politics, religion, war and occupation. ‘These discussions are not very quiet,’ says Lehrer. ‘The students can scream at each other and stomp out the door.’ However, it is the geographical isolation that, Lehrer says, helps to forge cooperation: ‘We are located in the middle of a desert in the middle of nowhere. So no matter how much they disagree, they all go back to the same dorm rooms, sharing coffee, sharing tea, sharing computers and sharing spaces.’

While it helps keep the students in, it is the desert that becomes the shared interest of the Arava Institute. Using the arid landscape of the region as a common denominator, cooperation is easier to come by. ‘Bridging conflict with environmental issues has a lot of potential, in that it is hard to escape,’ says Farnum. ‘For people in the Middle East, it is very easy to see when there isn’t enough water.’

For Lehrer, it’s culture and relationships that need to be addressed first. ‘The truth is that water is not the scarcest resource in the Middle East,’ he says. ‘It is trust. We don’t trust each other. Without trust there will never be peace in this region.’

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe to Geographical!

Adventure Canada


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...
    The green dragon awakens
    China has achieved remarkable economic success following the principle of developing first and cleaning up later. But now the country with the world's...
    The true cost of meat
    As one of the world’s biggest methane emitters, the meat industry has a lot more to concern itself with than merely dietary issues ...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...


NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...


Long-term studies reveal the Sahara desert has expanded substantially over…


South America’s wealthiest economy is at a crossroads between environmental…


The European Court of Justice finds the logging of a…


In this extract from his new book, Tides, mountain climber…


New data from the World Health Organization reveals that nine…


In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan,…


Benjamin Hennig maps out the global production and distribution levels…


Millions of Americans are living in areas at high-risk of…


New interactive maps combine precipitation and temperature to show climate…


Public transport in India could be on the verge of…


To retrace the route of the fur voyageurs on the waterways…


IPCC Cities and Climate Change Conference: Alberta host dresses non-renewable…


Increased carbon dioxide is affecting freshwater ecosystems


The latest laser scanning technology reveals new insights into the…


Deforestation is having an unexpected effect in the Amazon: fewer…


The iconic Douglas fir tree, familiar to fans of the…


Rocky Mountain forests are not regenerating after wildfires


Cape Town is edging closer to ‘Day Zero’, the long-feared…


Ongoing restoration projects are breathing new life into Florida’s Everglades


Despite protests, an experimental pedestrianisation system is proving to be…