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After Palestine's U.N. statehood bid, a garden of peace struggles to bloom in Jericho

Palestine is in the spotlight again, but few people talk about the desertification and environmental crisis caused by its occupation. Can the “green” issue unite disparate factions in the region? Hadani Ditmars reports on a unique garden where peace could bloom again. 

photos and text by Hadani Ditmars

As Mahmoud Abbas returns to a hero’s welcome in Ramallah, after his impassioned speech at the UN calling for its recognition of the Palestinian state, hopes are high for a “Palestinian spring.” 

But while his unusually feisty speech has cemented his once shaky leadership amongst his people, spring is still a long way off in Palestine. Eighteen years after the Oslo Accords, patience with US brokered “deals” and continued illegal settlement expansion has worn thin, as have pragmatic solutions for two states. How can you have a Palestinian state unless it has a Swiss cheese-style map, with towns and villages surrounded by Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank? 

As Sami Musallam, former governor of Jericho puts it, “there’s not much land left to negotiate.” 

Sami says this from the perspective of the Jordan Valley, the largest area in the Palestinian territories, where Israel continues to demolish homes and confiscate farmland for resource draining settlements. The battle between farmland and residential real estate is of course a global phenomenon not limited to the Middle East by any means. It’s the story of a lot of places – including – albeit at a micro level, our good old UBC farm – which has had to fight condo development now for some time.

The land devouring both peoples

The whole settlement issue in Palestine reminds me of a story by Z’eev Ben Arieh, an Israeli Sufi who wrote a book about Sufism in Israel and Palestine.What did the sheikhs say, I asked, about the conflict? Since Sufis reject the whole idea of nationality, subverting nationalist aspirations on both “sides”, their answer was intriguing.

“One sheikh told me,” recounted Z’eev, “that both sides are so attached to the land that they are in fact, fetishizing it, worshipping it. As a result, the land is devouring both peoples.”

In a land of multiple narratives, this analysis made strange sense. The conflict was after all, all about the land. But if the land is devouring people metaphorically, it’s also being devoured itself – by settlements that import a suburban American housing model into a fragile, arid ecosystem, destroying farm land in their wake, siphoning ground water for swimming pools and contributing to desertification. 

Ongoing Israeli policies of expansionism, industrialization and urbanization have taken precedence over sustainability and conservation, and the occupied West Bank has become an easy dumping ground for toxic waste from factories in Israel. 

Regardless of the political outcome, environmentally, the region is in crisis.

A desert garden blossoms for peace

Since there is so much talk of the “Palestinian spring” and since the early Zionists were so fond of the slogan “we made the desert bloom,” perhaps the story of the botanical garden in Jericho is an apt metaphor for the fate of the peace process.

Hopefully, with its biblical overtones, the “garden” story might even be a narrative that both Israelis and Palestinians can share.

Native plant species in the garden

It began a few years after the Oslo accords, when the deputy governor of Jericho, Majed Fityani, decided to irrigate some once fertile land that had fallen fallow due to desertification.Jericho, below sea level and a few kilometres from the slowly disappearing Dead Sea, is in an environmentally unique and fragile ecosystem. In addition to drought and desertification, there are serious water shortage issues due partly to Israeli control of resources.

Nonetheless, the area has a strong tradition of agriculture and is almost food sufficient – a factor that many say has contributed to the town’s relative peace and stability. Jericho is one of the oldest human habitations in the world; organic farming has been part of local tradition for centuries, and is evident in Jericho’s many date farms.

Fityani, like many of the town’s inhabitants, was virtually trapped inside the confines of Jericho, due to IDF checkpoints that surrounded the town, and the nearby border with Jordan. A former political prisoner in Israel, Fityani would have been arrested if he had ventured out into either territory. So he decided to make due where he was and start the garden as an environmental education centre, an internal Palestinian and foreign tourism initiative, as well as a national symbol of Palestine.

An official from Wildlife Palestine checks netting

He joined forces with Sami Musallam, and they formed the non-profit umbrella NGO, the Committee to Promote Tourism in Jericho. As they began to irrigate the garden, native plant species that had been dormant for 50 years sprang up from the ground. As the area became green again, migratory birds began to arrive en route from Europe to the Rift Valley. 

A sanctuary for birds and animals 

A small wildfowl centre was established where students would measure and weigh and document the birds as they arrived.

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