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Students Examine Water and Peacebuilding in Middle East

By Anne Deekens

Gabriella Neusner, SIS/MA '16 with Israeli archaeologist and peace activist Avner Goren.

Photo Credit: Andrew Conca-Cheng

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories is exacerbated by water demands. Water in the region is scarce and often distributed disproportionately, which compounds tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. Additionally, the lack of wastewater management facilities in the West Bank means that approximately 70 percent of sewage in the region goes untreated.

To help address these concerns, a practicum team from the School of International Service (SIS) traveled to Israel and the West Bank for two weeks this summer to assess the peacebuilding significance of household-level wastewater treatment systems being built by local non-governmental organizations in the West Bank.

The team worked under the guidance of SIS faculty members Professor Eric Abitbol, lead instructor and research supervisor, and Professor Ken Conca for the practicum, titled “Water, Cooperation and Peace in the Middle East.” The student research team included students from a variety of SIS graduate programs. Support came from both SIS and the Center for Israel Studies (CIS) at American University.

The students conducted field work and appraisals of a joint project of the Palestinian Wastewater Engineering Group (PWEG) and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES), two non-governmental organizations that are working together to help Palestinian communities gain access to water.

According to Conca, the PWEG/AIES project is helping to improve the livelihoods of people and is good for the environment. The collaboration also underscores that Israelis and Palestinians can work together on issues of common concern.

“There are many opportunities for Palestinians and Israelis to cooperate on water, but the current political climate has made it very difficult to realize those opportunities,” said Conca. “Civil society cooperation helps to balance some of the inequities in the current water relationship, keeps open a channel for dialogue, and supports the building of a more capable Palestinian state. All of these are needed, not only for people’s water security, but also for moving toward peace and conflict resolution.”

In order to develop recommendations for achieving peace and conflict resolution, the students conducted interviews with officials from both Israel and the Palestinian territories—the Palestinian Water Authority, the Israeli Water Authority, and the Ministry for Regional Cooperation, as well as staff members and leaders at AIES and PWEG and local beneficiaries of the projects. Afterward, the students analyzed their data and engaged in group discussions about the complex set of issues surrounding water in Israel and the West Bank.

“We hope that students will gain experience in handling the challenges of working in a conflict environment, see the importance of local context, and learn how to work with partner organizations in a professional, effective, and useful manner,” said Conca.

Student Gabriella “Gabby” Neusner, SIS/MA ’16 in Global Environmental Policy, chose to participate in this practicum because of her research interests in environmental politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“Based on my interests and past studies, this practicum seemed like a great fit for me. I also chose to do a practicum for my capstone because I liked the idea of working with a team of other students and I wanted to gain experience conducting rapid appraisal field research. I am very happy with my decision,” said Neusner. “My practicum experience was challenging, interesting, and inspiring.”

After the field work was complete, the students wrote an assessment report for the two partner organizations. The team concluded that the work of PWEG and AIES is significant and has the potential to contribute to peacebuilding efforts in the region. Conca believes that by continuing the program and building partnerships, progress will only continue.

“We hope to sustain our partnership with the Palestinian and Israeli non-governmental organizations with whom we work. We’ve been doing this for three years now and they keep welcoming us back, so I am confident they see value in the partnership,” said Conca. “Each year, we’ve been able to build on the prior work, and as their partnership deepens, our ability to do useful peacebuilding work grows.”

Learn more about SIS practicum projects: http://www.american.edu/sis/practica/index.cfm