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EcoPeace Middle East teach environmental issues to Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian children in the hopes they'll bring awareness back to their communities (screen shot via YouTube).

Sophia McNamara introduces Gidon Bromberg and EcoPeace Middle East — an organisation brokering peaceful cooperation with environmentalism.

ECOPEACE MIDDLE EAST is a unique regional organisation that brings together Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmentalists.

It is the only regional non-government organisation (NGO) that exists in Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Among its many battles, Ecopeace Middle East recently helped increase the supply of clean water and energy to Gaza. This is particularly critical considering the United Nations has predicted that Gaza will become uninhabitable by 2020.

I interviewed Israeli co-director and co-founder of EcoPeace Middle East Gidon Bromberg and he told me:

“Just a one hour drive from here in Tel Aviv, there is a water and sanitation crisis in Gaza … Two million people have run out of water. And today, about 97% of the groundwater is undrinkable.”

Bromberg came up with the idea to start EcoPeace when he realised the environment was being completely left out of the peace agenda of the early 1990s.

Originally from Elsternwick in Melbourne, Bromberg attended Elwood High School (formerly Elwood College) and graduated with degrees in Law and Economics from Monash University. Since age 11, Bromberg had known he wanted to return to his family’s hometown of Tel Aviv, Israel.

Straight after university, he made "aliyah" — a term that describes the process of a Jewish person returning to Israel.

Bromberg came across an advert saying that a newly established non-profit called the Israel Union for Environmental Defence wanted their first lawyer. He volunteered there one day a week for four years, while still working four days a week in private practice, taking a pay cut in the process.

He was then offered a scholarship to study his Masters of Law at the American University in Washington DC, where he ended up being right on the doorstep of negotiations for the Oslo Accords and the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty. Bromberg’s Masters thesis posed the question: will peace be environmentally sustainable? He concluded that peace could, in fact, be truly harmful to the environment and sustainability unless it was put on the political track.

Bromberg had the idea to create a regional environmental organisation that would address this exact issue. He wanted to hold a meeting with Israeli, Egyptian, Palestinian and Jordanian environmentalists to discuss the possibility of this organisation. He spoke with potential investors in Washington DC — they all told him it was a great idea, but he needed to come back to them when he was older.

In 1994, he went back to Israel and, as part of his scholarship, he worked for a year at the Israel Union of Environmental Defence as a full-time lawyer. 

Bromberg immediately wrote to all the potential investors in the United States again, this time from Israel. One of them called him and said he had thought about it and that if he could make the meeting happen, he would fund it. As these were the days before the internet, Bromberg had never met a Palestinian, Jordanian or Egyptian environmentalist.

The World Wildlife Fund had a guide on environmentalist organisations in the region — so he contacted all of them. Bromberg had a meeting in East Jerusalem with a Palestinian environmentalist, who responded to the enquiry, and spoke over the phone to an Egyptian and Jordanian.

Bromberg explained:

“The most difficult people to get a response from were the Jordanians. They only sent one person. We had four Palestinians – two from Gaza and two from the West Bank – four Israelis and four Egyptians.”

The meeting was in Taba, Egypt. It was held on 4 December 1994 over two days. It nearly didn’t happen because the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty was only two months old — the Egyptian Border Control had never seen a Jordanian passport at the crossing and initially refused him entry. Eventually, they were able to cross to Taba and have the meeting with the Egyptians. On the second day of that meeting, EcoPeace was born.

Co-operation between Israel, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt is outright difficult, by anyone’s standards. However, people were optimistic after so much progress towards peace was made in 1993. EcoPeace was the product of identifying a very narrow window of opportunity — and grabbing it.

But Bromberg said the window was closed within a year when the spoilers came in:

There were people who just didn’t want to see the peace process advance, on both sides. You had terrorist acts, assassinations committed by fellow Israelis, the rise of the first Netanyahu Government ... By 1998, it was so bad that our Cairo office actually had to be shut down because our Egyptian staff were told by the Mubarak Government that there should be no cooperation with the Israelis.

From 2001, EcoPeace had to reinvent itself amidst the unprecedented violence from the Second Intifada. The organisation took a leading role in peace-building through grassroots environmentalism.

“The conflict setting has led to a lot of animosity and hatred between the three states,” Bromberg explains. “It takes a brave set of people to be willing to work together when the public context is one that tells you if you work with the other, you must be a traitor”.

Today, EcoPeace has adapted to a changed political climate, increased water scarcity and urgency required by climate change. They focus heavily on shared natural resources, regional water security and sustainable development.

A particularly successful initiative by EcoPeace is the Good Water Neighbours Program. This is where youth and adult activists, as well as mayors and municipal staff from Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian communities all work together across the borders to advance shared solutions for the rehabilitation of natural watersheds.  

The Jordan River, possibly the holiest river in the world, with large religious significance in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, “has been turned into little more than an open sewer now,” says Bromberg.

Bromberg says the issue is about more than the river itself:

"The largest number of volunteers from Jordan who have joined ISIS are from Jordan Valley communities. There is a link between ecological demise, poverty, underdevelopment... and then radical, dangerous ideologies. Water security, ours and our neighbours, are national security concerns."

This is the case EcoPeace make when they lobby Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian governments into committing themselves to cross-border water and sanitation projects.

In June 2015, they published the Regional NGO Master Plan for sustainable development in the Jordan Valley. They identified 127 feasible interventions that would rehabilitate the Jordan Valley. The challenge now lies in lobbying the three governments and getting them to sign a memorandum of understanding and committing to some of these interventions. EcoPeace have managed to get nine memorandums signed in recent years, and half a billion U.S. dollars of funding secured for cross-border water and sanitation projects. 

Bromberg once notably said:

“The critical challenge that we face, is the belief that there is no solution."

Since the peace negotiations began in the early 1990s, Israelis and Palestinians alike have undertaken peace negotiations with the belief that "nothing is agreed upon, until everything is agreed upon". Issues of water security and sustainability have essentially been held hostage to other issues, such as refugees, borders and the status of Jerusalem.

The critical point that EcoPeace raises is this: nature knows no borders. Israeli officials may stop people from travelling from Gaza to Tel Aviv with explosives, but what is being done to prevent diseases like cholera or typhoid from spreading among Palestinians or arriving in Israel?

Today, about 70% of Israel’s drinking water is produced through desalination and 85% of its wastewater is treated and reused for agriculture. Israel no longer suffers a water shortage for domestic use.

The directors of EcoPeace believe that:

“ ... a logical next step, beyond water sales, would be to negotiate a fair allocation of the natural water resources that Israelis and Palestinians share, thus solving one of the key issues plaguing the peace process."

It is in both Israel and Palestine’s best interests to be "good water neighbours", as EcoPeace call it.

With his Jewish heritage and upbringing in the multicultural melting pot of Melbourne, combined with a law degree from Monash University, Bromberg had a valuable foundation that gave him the ability to make a meaningful contribution to environmentalism and peacebuilding in the Middle East.

Bromberg says:

“The growth of EcoPeace really exemplifies that we [as lawyers] can really take our legal training and build something that has a real impact on not only people’s lives, but the direction and manner in which decisions are taken."

Sophia McNamara studies Law and Arts at Monash University. She spent three months as an intern at EcoPeace Middle East in Tel Aviv, Israel.

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