Things are hard for Palestinian scientists, researchers, and science students living in Gaza and the West Bank. They face the prospect of very little investment on the part of the Palestinian Authority into research, technology, infrastructure, and higher education. They also face the hours it often takes to get through the checkpoints between the territories and the State of Israel as they travel daily to and from work or school. In addition, they deal with limited access to resources, including lack of electricity and clean drinking water.
By means of illustration: The PA education department’s 2017 budget to support research, at a modest 20 million shekels ($5.5 million USD), was the first in half a decade to allocate any funding for scientific endeavors.
A sense of safety elusive for Israeli counterparts
Meanwhile, the Palestinian researchers’ Israeli counterparts certainly possess a world of sophisticated equipment and technological infrastructure at their fingertips. But simply as Israelis, they live with the constant threat of the terror attacks that could be directed at their own homes by militants on the Palestinian side of the security barrier.
But despite their differences and an atmosphere that normalizes hatred of the other group, the pursuit of knowledge unites scientists beyond borders. It’s that passion that has led to effective research and business partnerships, and to some measure of greater mutual understanding.
Peace through wind farms in a tense time
In 2010, the Israel Defense Forces intercepted a Turkish-led flotilla attempting to break through its naval blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza. After the IDF soldiers boarded, members of the flotilla fell upon them, wielding metal bars and knives, and took several Israelis hostage. The Israelis fought back, with the result that nine of the attackers were killed.
In the midst of all the tension and passions surrounding this incident, an Israeli-Palestinian project got off the ground with the goal of supplying wind power in the West Bank. A Ramat Gan-based Israeli company joined with a Bethlehem-headquartered Palestinian one to announce that they would work together to build and sell wind turbines to customers in the West Bank and surrounding areas.
This was one of quite a few cooperative scientific, technical, market-oriented projects that have brought Israelis and Palestinians together as curious, goal-oriented, and hopeful human beings intent on making the world a better place while pursuing the well-being of both peoples.
Here’s another such joint project, anchored in the common dependence on water in a largely arid region: In 2017, Israel and the PA announced their agreement, with support from the government of Jordan, to move supplies of fresh water from Israel to the West Bank. One of the key components of the water-transfer plan was a desalination plant to be built at the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba.
Building a new Silicon Valley
Another example: the Rawabi Tech Hub, located in the West Bank, in the first planned Palestinian city. The tech hub is bridging the knowledge gap and the cultural gap, as it brings together Israelis and Palestinians working in high-tech fields. Among its many benefits to local and cross-border business ecosystems, the hub is able to supply highly skilled Palestinian software and tech workers to Israeli companies.
The city of Rawabi, on which construction got underway in 2010, hosts the hub, which includes “Connect,” a tech-focused business center with a start-up incubator and a collaborative co-working and networking space. A major focus of the “Connect” space is to bring Palestinian and Israeli tech talent, entrepreneurs, and company leaders together. The long-range goal is to put Rawabi on the map as a 21st century Palestinian version of Silicon Valley.
This sort of science diplomacy can become a means of building bridges toward peace. Experts point to the current lack of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and to the disinterest of the Biden administration in serving as a facilitator for peace, as major reasons why person-to-person relationship-building of this kind has become especially valuable now.
In 2021, the renowned Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel teamed up with the Palestinian NGO Damour for Community Development to create the Center for Applied Environmental Diplomacy, based in Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel.
This pioneering organization receives support from a partnership with Oxford University’s Martin School Program on Transnational Management of Natural Resources. For the past three years, the Oxford team has brought on board Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian researchers to collaborate on forecasting models showing the effects of climate change on regional natural resources. The focus is on water and energy resources, as well as research into public health, security, and sustainability applications.
The Center’s organizers are preparing the organization to facilitate further collaborative, transnational research and diplomatic progress, alongside real-world programs in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan.
Arava and Damour have also partnered on projects like one working to bring more clean drinking water to Gaza. This Palestinian enclave draws most of its water from its coastal aquifer. But the aquifer’s water supply is dwindling, with the result that the remaining water has become dangerously salinized, and Gazans have had to resort to buying water from a local desalination facility.
In 2020, the Arava-Damour collaboration put a state-of-the-art, Israeli-made atmospheric water generator, able to produce 800 liters of clean water daily using only the air, in a Gaza Strip community.
These are small steps, to be sure, given the overall political picture and the continued intransigence of the PA in refusing compromise to achieve peace. But the alternative of no scientific and technical partnerships whatsoever would surely cost both Israeli and Palestinian lives.
In a region where these lives in many respects have become cheap, we’ll note with cautious optimism the people-to-people, knowledge-and-resource-sharing connections that might be able to help pave the way for greater political diplomacy in times to come.