Better neighbors through science

Fifteen joint projects have been approved by the Israel Palestinian Scientific Organization. Since the Oslo process – even during the tensest of times – scientific cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian academics has continued to take place. Both sides recognize that …

Fifteen joint projects have been approved by the Israel Palestinian Scientific Organization. Since the Oslo process – even during the tensest of times – scientific cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian academics has continued to take place. Both sides recognize that joint scholarship, particularly between Israeli and Palestinian scientists, can only provide benefit by moving their communities forward economically and intellectually, as well as advancing the cause of dialogue, mutual recognition, reconciliation and peace.

But until now, joint scientific projects had very limited funding and lacked an umbrella organization to encourage and support them. A new major initiative to solve that problem and encourage such cooperation to grow was recently launched in the form of the Israel Palestinian Scientific Organization.

The organization will allocate grants averaging $75,000 to selected projects proposed by joint Israeli-Palestinian teams doing scientific work.

The idea was first conceived in November 2002, at the UNESCO day of Science and Peace and Development, where Menachem Yaari, President of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Sari Nusseibeh, President of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem and Torsten Wiesel, Nobel Laureate, and former president of Rockefeller University, gave keynote lectures focusing on the subject.

With Wiesel agreeing to serve as chairperson, the organization was officially launched last April at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) . An initial meeting was held of IPSO?s top policymaking body, the International Scientific Council (ISC), which is composed of fifteen eminent international scientists and scholars, including seven Nobel Laureates.

“We knew that joint work existed, but felt that it was too sporadic, and that we could develop and expand on what is happening, both in terms of quantity and quality,” said Dan Bitan, who is the co-director of IPSO with Hasan Dweik of Al-Quds University. Both Bitan and Dweik also cooperate in managing other projects too – mainly in Science Education – for the Charles and Andrea Bronfman Philanthropies and Al-Quds University. The Bronfman Philanthropies contributed to the founding of the IPSO and is supporting the organization’s ongoing fundraising efforts.

According to Bitan, the IPSO is based on several premises:

- Israelis and Palestinians can create science together, and therefore it is the first criteria for selection of projects.

- Academic cooperation “helps create an infrastructure capable of bolstering sustainable development in both communities” according to its mission statement. Science and scholarship are key factors in developing higher education and thereby developing the professional human resources which are the only hope for both the Israeli and Palestinian economies, particularly the Palestinian economy.

- Science, in particular, “given its universal character, can be instrumental in stimulating dialogue, openness, and mutual respect, and thus in serving the cause of peace.”

In brief, the stated goals of the program are, “to identify areas of science where cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians is feasible and productive, build a science and scholarship-based bridge of good will between Israelis and Palestinians; and create an environment in which Israeli and Palestinian scholars and scientists will meet and establish dialogue.”

“As you know, there is a very wide gap between Israeli and Palestinian science, In order for the Palestinians to have a viable state, and for Israel to have good neighbors, they must have a good economy, and this means also good science,” Bitan told ISRAEL21c. “It’s directly important for the Palestinians and indirectly for Israel to close our gap as much as possible. It will take time but it has to be done and we have to begin.”

The first project to be funded is a cooperative effort to evaluate disposal and management of waste sites of pesticides in the Palestinian Authority.

The proposed research, a collaboration between Prof. Rafael Carel, Haifa University and Dr. Azzam Saleh of Al-Quds University, will study waste sites across the West Bank, and examine the extent of contamination by pesticides used in agriculture.

“Environmental contamination by pesticides in soil, water and products is a global problem crossing borders and communities,” their proposal states. “In the densely populated area west of the Jordan River it may affect both communities, Israeli and Palestinians. Thus, it is in the interest of the two societies to control the use and disposal of pesticides.”

At the same time, the scientists will suggest ways to improve the safer use of pesticides by Palestinian farmers and better methods for disposing of used containers and management of sprayed crops – so as to prevent pesticide residues from reaching Palestinians or Israelis who buy the produces.

The researchers believe that their study could benefit both communities and promote future cooperation in research, training and education.

According to Bitan, the two years between the conception of the IPSO and its creation was devoted to finding the finances to fund the projects. And even though funding was not complete a decision was made to issue a first call for proposals under the hope that the high level of the projects would generate interest in funding.

With little publicity and fanfare, the IPSO received 62 proposals in a wide range of academic fields, mostly in the fields of medicine, agriculture and the environment, According to Bitan, the outpouring of proposals is a testament to the potential of IPSO concept.

After a stringent selection process, 15 projects have been approved with more on the way in the next month. Bitan said that he expect to be able to fund ten of the projects in the next few months and the IPSO is intensively fundraising in order to be able to issue a second call soon.

While there was no connection, Bitan finds it is significant that the emergence of the organization occured at a time when threats of academic boycott of Israel hit the headlines.

“The roots of the program are in the long years of joint work that even preceded Oslo, and the brave continuing work that Sari Nusseibeh and Al Quds University was doing, and persisted on during the worst days of the intifada,” said Bitan.

Nusseibeh recently made headlines following the British Association of University Teachers’ (AUT) decision to boycott two Israeli universities. He opposed the boycott soon after it took place, saying that he believed as a Palestinian “it is in our interest to build bridges, not walls; to reach out to the Israeli academic institutions, not to impose another restriction or dialogue block on ourselves.”

Later, appearing at London’s Royal Society – the United Kingdom’s National Academy of Sciences – Nusseibeh, together with Hebrew University President Prof. Menachem Megidor, stated that “it is through cooperation based on mutual respect, rather than through boycotts or discrimination, that our common goals can be achieved.”

The AUT boycott was repealed by a special council meeting a month after it took place, on May 26th, following a long and heated public debate.

Bitan said he greatly admired Nusseibeh for standing firm in his anti-boycott position in the face of accusations from within the Palestinian community that he was ‘prematurely normalizing’ relations with Israel.

The vast majority of Palestinians agree that cooperation would be beneficial to them, but many are afraid that cooperating now means accepting and legitimizing Israeli occupation. Nusseibeh responded that – if based on mutual respect and equality – cooperating with Israeli academia would benefit Palestinian interests.

Bitan sees IPSO is the most constructive answer to calls for an academic boycott of Israel.

“Those in Europe and elsewhere don’t really know what to do when they are confronted with Israeli-Palestinian academic cooperation – they don’t know how to deal with it – it is hard to call for boycotting Israeli academia, when you know that this means you are also boycotting cooperation which benefits Palestinians as well.”