Following a conference on a proposed nature peace park between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights, Saleem H. Ali, a guest speaker at the conference gives his opinion on the prospects and potential of a peace park.
Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont and the author of Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future (Yale University Press, 2009) and the editor of Peace Parks; conservation and Conflict Resolution (MIT Press, 2007).
On January 7, 2010, Tel Aviv University hosted a unique conference on the role of ecological factors in peace-building between Syria and Israel. This was a bold initiative at a time when relations between the two countries have been strained by the Israeli government’s call for a referendum law on relinquishing any portion of the Golan and other annexed territories after the 1967 war.
However, despite the cynicism of many on both sides of the border, the Porter Institute of Environmental Studies, under the initiative of an enterprising postgraduate student Shahar Sadeh, managed to convene a meeting to discuss the prospect.
Even though Syrian participation at the meeting was not possible due to a prohibition of professional contact between the two sides, it was perhaps constructive to have Israelis discussing the issue independently since they are the occupying force in the region and would have to first resolve internal political differences on the issue.
I was asked to attend as the keynote speaker, given my previous research on such efforts worldwide and my background as a Pakistani-American who has explored such issues in the context of regional peace-building in South Asia.
Some “Realists” might roll their eyes on such a prospect but the concept of “peace parks” is more than an idealist’s ramblings and has shown promise in resolving territorial disputes. Warring parties can be made to realize quite pragmatically that joint conservation is economically beneficial and also a politically viable exit strategy from a conflict.
The US used such a strategy in the mid 1990s to resolve a decades-old armed conflict between Ecuador and Peru in the Cordillera del Condor region. The Obama administration’s deputy envoy to the Middle East, Fred Hof, has proposed the Golan peace park effort as a means of a peace-building with Syria as well in a formal paper written for the US Institute of Peace in 2008. In Hof’s plan, water guarantees to Israel which currently gets 30% of its water from the region) could be exchanged for return of sovereignty to Israel.
So the idea is one which policy-makers are considering seriously and there are even detailed maps and plans that have been prepared to consider such a solution. Syrian-American negotiator Ibrahim Suleiman and former director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry Alon Liel discussed this prospect in 2007 when they met with the Israeli Knesset’s Foreign Relations and Defense Committee to develop a plan to establish a jointly administered peace park between Syria and Israel in the Golan.
Golan region good for the Druze
Interestingly, the original Druze inhabitants of the region see themselves as distinct from Israelis and Palestinians since their religious group has its own culture and ethnic identity. The Golan Heights has a population of about 38,900, of which 19,300 are Druze, 16,500 are recently settled Jewish immigrants, and about 2,100 are Muslim. Golan is also an environmentally sensitive region with a cool and moderately wet climate that has allowed fruit orchards to flourish. Underscoring the unique environmental conditions of this area, Israel has allowed Druze farmers to export some 11,000 tons of apples to Syria each year since 2005.
This confluence of interests makes the region an ideal case for implementing a novel dispute-resolution strategy known as environmental peace-building. The strategy involves transforming disputed border areas into transboundary conservation zones with flexible governance arrangements. Such territorial arrangements are increasingly called peace parks.
To some realist commentators this term may suggest idealistic or naive notions of conflict resolution, but it is championed even by military officers, such as retired Indian Air Marshal K. C. “Nanda” Cariappa, a former POW who has called for such a strategy to resolve India and Pakistan’s dispute over the Siachen glacier.
The proposal was initially motivated by Robin Twite’s work at the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information during the 1990s. Now the strategic plan for the effort has been laid out in detail and the momentum is there to move forward on this solution, which is feasible in the Golan given the demographics of the region. According to one plan, Syria would be the sovereign in all of the Golan, but Israelis could visit the park freely, without visas. In addition, territory on both sides of the border would be demilitarized along a 4:1 ratio in Israel’s favor.
Two-sided ski resort? Skiing for peace?
When I visited the Golan after the conference, it also occurred to me that another possible solution was also to find a way to make the spectacular Mount Hermon area a particular conservation and recreation zone where Israelis and Syrians could visit without visas but when exiting from this special zone visas would be required. Israel already has a major ski resort on one side and Syria is planning to build a resort on its side of the divide.
The summit of Mount Hermon is still under Syrian sovereignty and including this in the proposed peace territory would give Israelis an incentive to also come to the negotiating table since it would give them friendly access to a unique ecological region. This would be similar to the status of the eastern Sinai under the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty or also similar to the status of Hong Kong and Macau in China whereby there are separate entrance concessions for these areas as compared to mainland China.
When one examines the status quo between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights it is clear that neither side is willing, at present, to relinquish its claim to this vital region. Syria has a legitimate claim on the basis of recent history, while Israel has a claim based on the ruins of 29 ancient synagogues, and perhaps more consequentially as a security buffer.
As argued by Rabbi Michael Cohen of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, “one way to break through this stalemate of legitimacy is to phrase the dynamic in a different way. That is to say, it is not so much that Israel wants to keep the Golan Heights, but that they don’t trust giving the Heights back to Syria.”
This understanding of the dynamic opens up possibilities for a new scenario whereby a third party is involved. In addition to the peace park proposal, it is also possible to set up a Druze Autonomous Area that is neither Israeli nor Syrian but jointly administered by a commission.
Similar proposals have also been initiated by Friends of the Earth Middle East along the Jordan River, where there is already a “peace island” where Israelis and Jordanians can visit without visas and where the original peace treaty between the two countries was signed and which is currently under deliberations for expansion.
This case is particularly intriguing since under the treaty there is an Israeli kibbutz which is allowed to grow crops on Jordanian sovereign territory. A Yale University architecture class has already been working on the design of the expanded park in collaboration with neighboring Jordanian and Israeli communities. There is also a marine peace park agreement between Jordan, Israel, and Egypt in the Gulf of Aqaba (which was established as part of the first round of Oslo negotiations). The Golan proposal is geographically much more significant in terms of its joint-management potential and also as a means for instrumental conflict resolution between two states that currently do not recognize each other.
Opposers and proponents of land for peace
The conference showed that the fractures are still quite acute. On the one hand there was a speaker from the “settlers association of the Golan” who fervently opposed any land for peace. While on the other hand, there was also a resident farmer and academic scholar from the Golan Heights, Yigal Kipnis, who expressed a willingness to relocate if peace involved giving land back to Syria in exchange for security and joint environmental monitoring.
Academics were also highly polarized in their approach to the issue with some resurrecting ancient narratives of Judaic habitation in the area while others acknowledging that under international law the territory was definitely “occupied.”
As the Obama administration considers its legacy in the Middle East, it should give priority to the Golan conflict and creative approaches to conflict resolution. Using the environment in this context is very promising but we must also be cautious and appreciate that conservation has also been used historically as a means of land appropriation.
Arabs are highly suspicious of conservation efforts in this context just as Native Americans have been suspicious of the US. National Park system, whose establishment often excluded them from their land. Thus any peace park must be one where access and economic development are concurrent with conservation. At the same time, the resolution of the Golan conflict cannot be considered in isolation from the Palestinian issue for too long. Ultimately, to cement lasting peace the Palestinian issue will also need to be resolved. Otherwise, the peace between Israel and Syria might end up being just as cold as the one between Egypt and Israel has become of late.
Ultimately, ecology defies political borders and the governments of the Middle East will need to become aware of this natural reality. Many countries in the region are signatories to international environmental agreements as well such as the Convention on Biodiversity and the Convention on Desertification. Perhaps these agreements will provide another avenue to pursue ecological cooperation as well.
At the end of the day, as erstwhile adversaries realize that they are inherently confined by their ecologies, the chances of cooperation are likely to rise. Even when there is a scarce and distributive resource such as water at stake, cooperation is possible if conservation goals are articulated in terms of the quality of the ecosystem. The Holy Land, and particularly the Golan, presents a diverse array of topographies, climatic zones and biodiversity which has the most potent potential for using ecology as an instrumental tool for conflict resolution.
-Saleem H. Ali