The first things I see before getting to Israel are the stern faces of security guards at the gate. An experience unlike any other, makeshift kiosks set up with Bangkok airport security waiting to greet passengers. The tired faces—it is close to 12am and the stoic expressions of those who dictate boarding – suggest that midnight is only a number.
Behind the faces of the tired voyagers and the equally exhausted officials is that all too familiar sight: apprehension. Behind the steely eyes and frowns are the careful smiles and the rehearsed niceties. Flying into Israel for tourism is a rather benign affair—flying into Israel for the purpose of working with an NGO, alone, raises eyebrows. Israel has every reason to employ strict security measures—everyone is a tad bit nervous, and so was I. In the past, some individuals associated with certain NGOs or who had plans of visiting the West Bank were denied entry.
And then, when the questions are finally over and security has determined that I am fit to board the plane, I see the looks of weary travelers on board. Yikes. I’m the last guy to get on. There are stares from them all as I scurry to my seat, flashing my instinctual, Canadian, ‘I’m sorry’ grin at each and every one of them.
And then, greeting me while laid back in my own seat, the grinning man in a full black suit and a strangely large gold chain. Far be it from me to ask this man to give me my seat back—it is 1:30 AM and I’ve held up 200 people from getting to Israel. I see his grin and I return a smile of my own—it isn’t inviting. And then, I let sight go. Eleven hours of hard-fought but intermittent sleep.
06/10/2014. You see those numbers with your face and your passport number printed on a thick blue slip the size of a business card. Welcome to Israel: your answers are rewarded with a three-month stay visa.
Familiarity is most immediately experienced through our vision. In some way, my experience of having been here before is conflicted. In 2006, I lived in Israel for a few weeks while conducting a science research project under the supervision of scientists at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. From this perspective, the off-white, un-sanded rock that characterizes much of Israeli architecture strikes me as familiar, despite being foreign: the familiarity of past experience, or of re-living the sights of Israel eight years ago. The traffic, heavily industrialized and imposing personality of Tel Aviv, addressed familiarity in a less predictable sense: the familiarity of place. But for the Hebrew signage and lack of landmarks to which I could associate another city, Tel-Aviv is the quintessential urban melting pot, replete with corner stores and mega malls, stressed faces and touristy fingers pointing at buildings, views of some far off calm blocked by delayed public buses. You could see New York. Toronto. Montreal.
Tel-Aviv displays its own character, and perhaps it is not the reverie of Israel that one might see through their mind’s eye. It is that slowly overlapping and blending character of the metropolitan, that identity that despite our gallant efforts to argue otherwise, hurtles itself towards homogeneity.
The faces. There is something in the smiles, the nervous grins and exasperated sighs and frustration of flashing eyes and dejected stares into the floor tiles that speaks conflict in ways that belie an unprecedented and rarely accessible candor.
These are the members of Friends of the Earth Middle East—they have dedicated their lives to the preservation of Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian ecological heritage, with the hope and conviction that agreeing on water and environmental protection can be the spark that will kindle a stronger and more sustainable peace between all three states.
I see the hope in their eyes, the determination and the raw belief in their cause. I also notice the caution, the uncertainty, the concern that some of their target groups are entrenched in certain positions and are seemingly unwilling to be curious about different perspectives. The specific smile or laugh when asked to recall certain people or situations that they found particularly difficult; the frustration of being unable to make substantive gains due to strained professional relationships; the wariness to discuss certain positions of the organization with those who are so easily triggered by them.
I see all of this and I appreciate now that environmental protection and conflict resolution share a bond that few of us recognize. Only after seeing what I have seen here, do I come to understand that the two ideas go hand-in-hand. One cannot be successful without the other. Here in the Middle East, cooperating over water is a necessary condition for a peaceful future in which violence and discrimination can be weeded out. Likewise, mutual understanding and navigating sensitive issues, having difficult conversations while being aware of triggers and strong emotions, are needed to forge the strategic relationships required to successfully protect the environment.
I see myself playing a small and hopeful role here—by training the entire staff of FoEME in the techniques, mindsets and skills that will improve their success in forging and repairing the relationships that matter to them most, FoEME’s efforts to perfect and expand its collaborative programs will be fruitful and in that way, we may see more shifts from entrenched positions to better relationship building. When government, NGOs and industry can reach better understanding of one another, we stand a greater chance of cooperating over water and environmental protection. As FoEME believes, and as I also hope, cooperating over water might be the first step to the vision of peace in the Middle East.
What calms my mind, and helps me regain focus (and I imagine it does the same for so many field staff of FoEME), are the breezy and dazzling heights of Mt Gilboa near the Afula region of Israel. So I watch the crop circle designs and desalination pools and the Jordan Valley off in the distance, where I set my sights on nothing else but hope.