Side by Side, Arabs and Israelis Repair a Wreck of a River
By MARTIN ROSENBERG
Published: March 16, 2004
AD HANNAH, Israel — For years, the Alexander River, flowing through Jewish and Palestinian towns in Israel's narrow midsection, carried an angry stew of human waste, stone-cutting debris and the detritus from olive and sesame production.
Now that is changing. The 20-mile-long river, really a stream that could be bounded in two or three leaps, is being restored.
The project has required Israelis and Palestinians to work together without fanfare at the local level, even as settlements, barriers and suicide bombings have divided their people and their national leaders. It signals a growing environmental consciousness in Israel, particularly when it comes to scarce water resources; many Israelis see it as a sign that the nation is growing more ready to care for its biblical homeland.
Recognition of the Alexander River cleanup has quickly spread. Last fall the project received the top prize in a leading Australian restoration competition, the Thiess Riverprize, beating out efforts in Europe, China, India and the United States.
"Two communities at each other's throats in armed conflict," said Stephen Nelson, who administers the competition, "somehow found a collective will to repair a damaged and poisoned river."
The project's guiding spirit has been Nahum Itzkovitz, the mayor of the Emek Hefer Regional Council, north of Tel Aviv. The council is the local government for 32,000 people living in 50 villages and kibbutzim in the rapidly developing region between Tel Aviv and Haifa.
Mr. Itzkovitz, 53, started planning the Alexander cleanup a decade ago, enlisting the help of Amos Brandeis, a young architect. "I tried to have some vision to keep it green," the mayor said.
Mr. Brandeis, 38, who has a degree in regional planning from the Technion in Haifa, said the goal was to restore the river "in a very comprehensive and interdisciplinary way."
The centerpiece of the cleanup is a million complex of reservoirs and treatment plants completed in 2003 in Yad Hannah, just inside the barrier that Israel has been building on the West Bank to separate Israelis and Palestinians. It was financed mainly by the Jewish National Fund — an organization founded a century ago to buy land in the Palestine region, and now dedicated to environmental causes — and by the Israeli Ministry of the Environment.
Twenty yards past the so-called green line that separates Israel and the West Bank, a tributary of the Alexander, filled with human waste from the Palestinian cities of Nablus and Tulkarm and from 70 other sources of pollution, has been diverted into the Yad Hannah complex. There it is cleansed in settling ponds and purification equipment.
"Prior to the Yad Hannah plant," Mr. Brandeis said, "the raw sewage simply flowed into the riverbed and contaminated the groundwater, the Nablus stream and the Alexander River."
Still, the new plant is just the first stage, he said, adding, "The capacity of the existing plant is not enough for the long term."
In Israel, wastes from dairy farms have been diverted from the Alexander. Since 1994, three large reservoirs have been built — at a cost of million to million each — to receive wastewater, which is treated and then reused for watering local citrus and avocado groves.
In some areas, the Alexander's banks had collapsed over the years, leaving ugly scars. Those banks have been resculptured and native vegetation has been planted. Small riffles — drops in the river — have been created to give it an audible burble.
Parks, trails and picnic areas have been installed. Some attract crowds of families on weekends and holidays. Schoolchildren come to learn about the huge and rare Nile soft-shelled turtle, which grows as long as three feet and once inspired artists in ancient Egypt. At one time common around the Mediterranean, the turtle is rebounding in the Alexander, with perhaps 70 to 100 adults living there.
Palestinians plan to restore the sewage ponds in Tulkarm, where raw sewage flows into the river. They will have the help of the German government, which got involved after Mayor Itzkovitz got in touch with friends in the German Parliament in 1996.
Mr. Brandeis praised local Palestinians for their willingness to work on the restoration. "We had the good luck to find brave Palestinian leaders as our neighbors," he said, adding: "The cooperation is not between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It is between neighbors on the local level only, trying to avoid any political questions, trying to concentrate only on the problems that make the ecology and the people from both sides suffer."
But chaos on the West Bank may impede progress. Edward Abington, a former United States consul general in Jerusalem who is now a political adviser to the Palestinian Authority, said that with the authority "almost in a state of disintegration," local government was no longer effective. In late February, Ghassan W. Shakah, the mayor of Nablus, the West Bank's largest city, resigned because of the collapse in government authority.
Still, as the river has begun to heal, other benefits are flowing. Israelis involved in the cleanup recently traveled to the small West African nation of Burkina Faso, to help that country begin a river restoration.
"Ecology knows no political borders," Mr. Brandeis said. "A river can be a bridge between people."
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