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. 

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As the birds congregated there, so too did the wildcats who ate them. The wildcat (albeit a disgruntled-looking one) is in fact the symbol of Wildlife Palestine an organization that partners with the Jericho garden. To arrive at the garden to hunt the birds, the wildcats would have to cut through an Israeli military reserve, scooting under electrified barbed wire fences.

The Wall/Security barrier that began construction in 2001 had a negative effect on animal as well as human mobility (some gazelle are unable to get to their feeding grounds and some low flying birds cannot get past the 8 metre high fence). Its large footprint ate up over 8,000 acres of land, and resulted in the removal of tens of thousands of trees, altering surface water flow and increasing soil erosion.

A female Dead Sea sparrow, caught in a net

A student measures a female Dead Sea sparrow, an endangered species that the garden's bird sanctuary helped revive.

But despite a long running battle over whether a certain endangered bird should be called the "Palestinian” or the "Israeli” Sunbird, there was close co-operation between Israeli wildlife and Palestinian wildlife officials. Often, fellows from Wildlife Israel, which has much higher tech tagging methods, would show up when one of “their birds” ended up in the garden, and relations were quite amicable.

A green solution for peace

In fact, the whole “green” issue is one potential way to bring peace and reconciliation to the region, and to unite disparate narratives. Israeli, Palestinian and international ecological activists have protested the confiscation of farmland to build mass settlement housing as well as the Wall/Security barrier, not to mention the decidedly un-green effect of building multi-lane highway “by-pass roads”. There is also regional concern over desertification and water shortages. 

Jericho, now surrounded by checkpoints, has always been a symbol of possible peace and reconciliation. Home of an abandoned casino that once seemed a beacon of Israeli-Palestinian co-existence (a kind of "peace through gambling" if you will), it is now a sad symbol of stalemate.

But Jericho was always a kind of Palestinian Pugwash, and could be again.  Not only was it the site of secret meetings between Abbas and Olmert, it remains a place where disparate Palestinian factions can meet on “neutral” ground, far from the fray of Jerusalem and relatively free of Israeli presence (Jericho is manned by Palestinian police -- except, of course, for the occasional dramatic IDF incursion, like the one that crushed its police headquarters in 2006.)

Cultivating understanding

When I last visited the garden in 2007, I encountered a beautiful place full of wild birds, gazelle and wildcats, a wide variety of trees and flowers including one called the crazy flower – majnuni, the national flower of Palestine, which blooms in all colours, out of season and even through barbed wire fences.

Bus loads of Palestinian students would arrive to study the flora and fauna of their native land, foreign tourists came for early morning bird watching tours, and concerts of traditional Palestinian as well as Western classical music took place in the garden.

Next door, an equestrian training centre run by a Palestinian/Israeli couple (he was a former bodyguard for Arafat, while she was from a conservative Jewish family in Jerusalem) in love with horses and each other, offered mixed classes for Palestinian and Israeli youth, often riding around the perimeter of the garden.

As garden turns to desert, hope for revival

Sadly, as the situation worsened economically and politically, the garden suffered. Foreign funders pulled out and the Palestinian Authority had more urgent priorities. Today, the garden is in a terrible state -- practically a “wasteland” as Sami noted in a recent phone call. The NGO is almost at the point of ending its lease on the land, and has no operational budget.

They’re in desperate need of emergency funding, or the garden that once bloomed in the desert, will dry up completely.

Jericho garden in 2007: today, the area has mostly dried up and gone back to being a desert.

And so, after 18 years of “peace process”, the garden is dying. It could have been, and might still be, a key building block in supporting Palestinian civil society in a peaceful and environmentally sustainable way.

The success of the garden project could have a positive ripple effect in the region and could help generate income for the community. Its revitalization could contribute to cultural and social exchange between Jericho and the outside world (including amicable relations with Israeli civil society groups) and symbolically become a “garden of peace.”

The fact is that whatever the political outcome of the current crisis in the region, desertification and other environmental issues may soon pose a graver threat to both Israelis and Palestinians.

The Palestinian Botanical Garden in Jericho could be both a touchstone for similar projects, as well as a torch bearer for a more peaceful and sustainable future: one where instead of devouring land for power and profit, the land – and the peoples who share it – are acknowledged and respected.

For more information on how to help the Jericho garden grow, contact [email protected]

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