Israeli Arabs focus on the green revolution

Israeli Arab environmental activists in Kalansuwa have begun a grassroots campaign to close a local landfill.Activists in Israeli Arab towns and villages have become the catalysts for a burgeoning environmental awareness in their communities, and are working together with their …

Israeli Arab environmental activists in Kalansuwa have begun a grassroots campaign to close a local landfill.Activists in Israeli Arab towns and villages have become the catalysts for a burgeoning environmental awareness in their communities, and are working together with their Jewish counterparts to make the country a more livable place.

These activists say that key allies in their fight are local religious leaders.

Raid Fadilla, an environmental education coordinator for a number of Arab towns in central Israel believes that “if all religions connected environmentalism to religious thought, we?d reach sustainability quickly.”

And Fadilla should know. This hugely energetic man organized Israel’s first conference on the environment and Islam. Also, thanks to him, environmental issues are now a matriculation subject in his area’s schools. He has forged links with the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, and the Heschel Center, among others.

He told the 35 imams who attended his conference about environmental problems in the Arab sector and the world. “It was the first time they had heard about these issues,” he says. “I emphasized the connection of Islam to the environment, to sustainability, to water.”

Fadilla and the imams agreed that one Friday in every month, the imams’ sermons would be on the environment. The imams also agreed to write a booklet on Islam and the environment.

“The imams in our community have a big influence, more than a teacher or political leader,” says Fadilla. “They can make a revolution. We want them to make a green revolution.”

All Mustafa Natour had to do was follow his nose to make his first attempt at leading an environmental group a success. And he didn’t have to go far to smell something rotten.

His town Kalansuwa, a Muslim town with a population of 17,000 in central Israel, is getting by. It has a well-developed infrastructure and some nice neighborhoods. The environment has never been a priority for residents. But now there is one small problem – the town stinks.

Close to Kalansuwa, a wealthy resident had created a landfill in the middle of an agricultural area and started accepting smelly organic waste. To make matters worse, hundreds of noisy semitrailers drive through the town every day to get to the landfill.

No one dared to publicly complain and the municipality ignored the situation, Natour told listeners during the third annual Conference on Religion and the Environment held last week in Jerusalem.

The conference, which included Israeli, Arab and American participation from religious and environmental leaders, was sponsored by the Interreligious Coordinating Council In Israel and the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

Natour, who is director of the local community center, and other center members, decided to do something about the situation. But Natour and his friends were not just naïve do-gooders.

Two years ago Tel Aviv’s Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership had trained them to be environmental leaders. A year ago they began looking for action.

The group wrote a two-page article in the local press; nothing happened. They wrote letters to the environmental ministry and the regional health authority, nothing happened. They went to the municipality of the next town, which had jurisdiction over the landfill; nothing happened.

It even took two months before Natour convinced some of Kalansuwa’s residents to join in the protest. The residents had to overcome cultural inhibitions about complaining to someone who is a respected member of the community. Finally, they got the local religious leaders, or imams, involved, who then spoke against the landfill. This, says Natour, had a big impact on changing residents’ minds. “They [the imams] have tremendous clout, especially with their Friday sermons.”

The protesters hooked up with an environmental group in the Jewish sector, the Israel Union for Environmental Defence, as well as a nearby Jewish town also suffering from the stink. They used the press and television to push their case. They blockaded roads, stopping the trucks from passing. Protester numbers grew and today there are 50 dedicated environmental activists covering all Kalansuwa’s neighborhoods, both male and female, from children to the elderly.

The story hasn’t yet come to a clean ending, but the local pressure, as well as media scrutiny, has pushed the neighboring municipality into hiring lawyers to work towards shutting the landfill down.

Action, a little money, and a little professional advice are key to the process, believes Natour. The effort alone has been worthwhile, he says. Success can simply be teaching people about the environment; the learning and the doing both help develop grass-roots democracy.

And Natour is quick to point out that if the locals and their religious leaders had not gotten together, nothing would have changed.

Many might think it a luxury for Israelis – Jewish or Arab – to focus on the environment while Israel is suffering from major security and economic problems.

Not American environmental lawyer and activist Jonathan Sebastian Leo, who was a keynote speaker at the ICCI conference. “It’s not a luxury. The longer any society waits to develop environmental and public health practices, the greater the cost,” Leo said.

“It becomes more important to focus on other things than violence and security. What are you defending? A land, a way of life, a set of ethics, and if in the process of providing security you soil your own bed, you poison your own soul, what are you left with? The value of what you have been trying to save has been denigrated.”