A kibbutz in the Arava.
A kibbutz in the Arava. Photo by Ilya Melnikov
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What was once seen as a catalyst for regional peace is now faced with imminent closure. The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, where students from Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority learn together, may not open its gates in the next academic year.

Located in the southern kibbutz of Ketura, the institute was established in 1996 as an engine for the vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace. This is the only place in the Middle East dealing with the common environmental problems of Israel and its neighbors.

"From my point of view it's a severe blow," explained Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed, director of the institute's Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation. "We won't have partners on the other side, the environmental problems won't go away and it will be increasingly difficult to solve them."

The institute, Abu Hamed says, doesn't only promote international cooperation, but peace between peoples as well. "Studies here enable students to become better acquainted with the other side's culture and mentality, and thus show more understanding and tolerance. I see closing the institute as the end of hope. We're talking about a place where we overcome the difficulties and try to create research, social and political partnerships. Students are turned into ambassadors for their colleagues at their homeland."

Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva is responsible for the institute's academic program. But as for staff salaries, scholarships and rental payments to the kibbutz, the institute has to raise funds.

"Most of our budget is composed of contributions from people in the United States and Canada. Contributions have fallen due to the world financial crisis, and we're in imminent danger of closing," said Abu Hamed. "We need $1.5 million to begin 2013. Some donors promised us hundreds of thousands of dollars over a span of years, but those contributions have shrunk or vanished."

The financial difficulties and Middle East political reality impair not only the institute's ability to function - they also affect student recruitment. Forty new students arrived last year; this year there are only 25 newcomers.

"Politics makes it much harder to recruit students from Jordan," says one institute staffer. "Even those who want to come don't tell their parents and friends that they're going to study in Israel. Sometimes when we present the academic program we don't say that the studies take place in Israel."

While studies in Israel are not seen favorably in Jordan, the staffer said that Palestinians still want to study in Israel, but the Palestinian Authority makes it difficult for them. Another reason for the decline in new enrollment is the fast-emptying kitty, he said. "It's difficult for us to help students from Jordan and the PA with scholarships."

The Arava Institute plays a major role in next month's Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy and Innovation Conference, as well as in the Hevel Eilot Regional Council's vision of turning the Arava into Israel's renewable energy capital.

Regional council head Udi Gat thinks no effort should be spared to strengthen the institute. "We're very proud of the activity of the Arava Institute, which is a center of attraction for academic excellence and an exceptional platform for attracting students, researchers and lecturers to the Eilot-Elat region. The institute creates a considerable number of academic positions and is important for the development of the entire region."

Dorit Bennet, head of the regional council's environmental unit, also sees the institute as an essential element in the area's development. The institute, she said, "shares our view of renewable energy as an important catalyst for development." Next month's conference includes the dedication of a building whose laboratories will be devoted to alternative energy development.

Despite the encouraging words and the noble intentions, the institute's future still depends on finding new revenue. In a few days, students, graduates and staffers will depart from northern Israel on a bicycle tour to the Arava, with the purpose of raising awareness and money for the institute's salvation.

Arava Institute CEO David Lehrer said: "As part of the recovery plan, a public council was recently formed at the Arava Institute, headed by former Israeli ambassador to France Daniel Shek. The council aims to raise public awareness of the institute as a leading institution in the field of environmental studies, and assist in raising funds in Israel."