Israeli-Palestinian research: walking on eggshells

An-Najah University in Nablus, West Bank Copyright: El-Awady

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Israeli-Palestinian scientific cooperation persists despite an unstable political atmosphere in the region, reports Nadia El-Awady.

The conflict in Gaza and Lebanon has failed to cut off collaboration between Palestinian and Israeli researchers. But it has, perhaps inevitably, complicated the situation.

In fact, Israel’s offensive on Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, and the daily images of death and destruction that bombard television screens all over the world have made participation on both sides a delicate matter indeed.

For the Palestinian scientists involved in this cooperative effort, arguing for the benefits of such an approach might seem to imply support of the Israeli occupation. Meanwhile, the Israeli scientists involved might be seen as supporting ‘the terrorists’. But this has not deterred some on either side from collaborating.

My first encounter with the Israeli-Palestinian Science Organization (IPSO) was at the World Science Forum held in Budapest, Hungary, in November 2005. As an Egyptian reporter more accustomed to media portrayals of conflict, I was surprised to see Israeli and Palestinian scientists sitting side by side, explaining their joint scientific projects to an international audience. Speaking to IPSO scientists, and later visiting them in Israel and Palestine, I found the situation more complex than I had anticipated.

One sunny morning in late June I met the Israeli co-director of IPSO, Dan Bitan, at an outdoor restaurant in East Jerusalem. The comforting sounds — birds chirping, gentle laughter and spoons chiming against teacups — seemed a world away from the troubles in Gaza.

Earlier that month, members of a Palestinian family had been killed there by Israeli gunfire. Hamas, the Palestinian resistance group, responded by kidnapping an Israeli soldier. What followed was a full-scale Israeli incursion into Gaza.

As we sipped our tea, Bitan explained that IPSO promotes cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli scientists by securing funding for research projects with a collaborative component. Founded by Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, and Menahem Yaari, president of the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities, IPSO was launched in November 2004 with support from UNESCO.

Closing the development gap

IPSO’s International Scientific Council, which includes eight Nobel Laureates, decided to split the budget so that, in most cases, 70 per cent of the research funds go to the Palestinian component, and 30 per cent to the Israeli team members.

Bitan believes this will eventually help in closing the gap between Israelis and Palestinians, an essential element toward peace.

"Better [Palestinian] universities enable development," he says. "The Palestinians are equipped to become a developed country. They have the drive and inspiration. And the Israeli neighbourhood would benefit," says Bitan.

But he says the task has not been easy.

"Many donors in the United States and Europe have expressed fatigue from Israeli-Palestinian cooperation," he says. "Donors hoped the cooperation would be an important factor in peace-making. But it wasn’t."

According to Bitan, most, if not all organisations undergoing this sort of work have reported reduced funding for cooperative projects. But this could be devastating to the peace process as a whole, he says.

"You can’t expect civil society to cooperate to bring peace if you don’t invest billions of dollars in the cooperation. There are too many vested interests in conflict and not enough vested interests in peace," says Bitan.

But opinions are divided about these collaborations. There are those who support it from both sides, those who wholeheartedly oppose it, and a small third group that meekly approves of it under certain conditions. Many Palestinian scientists strongly oppose scientific cooperation with Israelis, regardless of its potential benefits.

A problem of access

Hikmat Hilal, a Palestinian professor of inorganic chemistry at An-Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus, is one of them.

Hilal says that since the occupation began, Israeli checkpoints scattered all over the West Bank have made any movements within and between Palestinian towns and villages a daily hassle and a major hurdle to conducting research.

"I think it’s shameful to cooperate with Israeli scientists when I’m not allowed to cooperate with my colleagues at Birzeit University [just outside of Ramallah]," he says.

An Israeli university once invited him to speak at one of their conferences. "How can I give a lecture at their university, while they prevent me from reaching my own?" he asked. "Let’s first talk about reaching my own university peacefully and safely, and then talk about giving lectures in their universities. I stood for two hours in the sun yesterday until I was allowed to pass through," he says, adding, "Israeli scientists have not protested in one demonstration about what is happening inside our universities."

Bitan disagrees, saying that laws prevent Israeli institutions from issuing political statements. "Institutions have to be neutral. This is the legal structure," he says. This did not prevent Israeli academics, however, from signing petitions to re-open Palestinian universities during the second Intifada, says Bitan. "Of course we are against the impediments and prevention of free movement of academics, and IPSO will be more active in asking for free movement."

Lisa Taraki, a sociologist at Birzeit University, and an outspoken opponent of Israeli-Palestinian scientific cooperation, argues that scientific cooperation ‘normalises’ oppression.

"I think we have to realise that Palestinians and Israelis are not on an equal footing; Palestinians are occupied and Israelis are the occupiers. The institutions of the occupying power are very much part of the structures of domination and control, and universities and research centres are no exception," she says.

Yet while bombs are dropping on Beirut, buildings are being destroyed in Gaza and missiles are being fired into northern Israel, IPSO’s work goes on. More than US$1.7 million is being spent on joint Israeli-Palestinian research projects.

According to Hasan Dweik, IPSO’s Palestinian co-director, the organisation has approved ten projects for funding after a rigorous peer-review process by the organisation’s International Scientific Council.

Six are now completely funded, two are partially funded and two projects are awaiting funding. These include studies on leukaemia, groundwater salinisation, hereditary heart disease and blood vessel disorders.

Azzam Saleh, assistant professor of life sciences at Al-Quds University, is in the final stages of an IPSO-funded project to test soil, water and crops in the West Bank for pesticide residues. The project also evaluates how Palestinian farmers use and dispose of pesticides.

Saleh says Israeli-Palestinian scientific cooperation is important as a way of providing funds and access to study sites. Palestinian scientists, he explains, face a multitude of obstacles in obtaining funding and accessing the necessary equipment due to prolonged inspections at Israeli ports.

Small steps, big solutions

IPSO is also helping to set up one of the Arab world’s first nanotechnology laboratories at Al-Quds University.

The laboratory’s director, Mukhles Sowwan, submitted a research proposal to IPSO together with Danny Porath, a physicist at the Hebrew University in West Jerusalem. They will study how the electrical conductivity of a molecule is affected by stretching it. IPSO’s funding will help maintain some aspects of the research project.

Equipment at the Hebrew University’s Center
for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology

Sowwan explained that nanotechnology can provide solutions to some of the basic problems facing Arab society today, such as tackling water pollution through the use of nanofilters.

Sowwan says that although the Arab world is technologically tens of years behind the rest of the world, nanotechnology is still a relatively new field, offering Arab states that invest in it an opportunity to contribute to scientific knowledge.

Porath’s laboratory at the Hebrew University will be playing an important role in training Sowwan’s students. They will be trained to use the lab’s cutting-edge equipment, which will soon be available at Al-Quds University. IPSO funding will allow Porath’s laboratory to buy additional resources, allowing more students to work on the project without affecting ongoing research.

In his office in Al-Quds University’s faculty of engineering, Sowwan explained his position on scientific cooperation in the region. His problem is not with science, but with the Israeli army and occupation. "I do not politicise science. My main priority is technology transfer," he says.

Sowwan’s laboratory, empty in June as seen here, has
recently received some of the long-awaited
nanotechnology equipment

His office is overlooked by a 12-metre-high concrete wall, from which an Israeli surveillance camera keeps a constant eye on activities within the university grounds.

"We’re always asked by the West, ‘In recent history, what have you Arabs provided in terms of knowledge?’", he says. He hopes that Arab investors and donors will eventually realise how important it is to fund laboratories like his. "The costs of such a laboratory are not small," says Sowwan.

"We’ve already succeeded in forming a core for something larger to come. Not only will the whole region stand to gain from this laboratory, but we can also teach nanotechnology to the Arabs … and provide knowledge to the world," he says.

So while the political situation remains tense, a group of scientists are bold enough to transcend the boundaries. Whether their ambitious goals will be realised has yet to be seen.