Environmentalists tap Palestinian schoolchildren to clean Jerusalem's holy valley

Six Olympic-size pools of trash and sewage are dumped in Kidron Valley, which abuts Jerusalem's holiest sites, every year.

Chelsea Sheasley
Zoubaida Salman, science teacher at the Sur Baher Girl's School, teaches her students how to make products like soap and teeth cleaner from natural products, as well as how to build electrical circuits (pictured). A joint Israeli-Palestinian environmental initiative is reaching into the schools to educate young Palestinians on the merits of environmentalism.
Chelsea Sheasley
Water barrels at Al Afaq Boy's School, painted by students. A joint Israeli-Palestinian environmental initiative is reaching into the schools to educate young Palestinians on the merits of environmentalism.

Blue plastic bags and old bottles litter the hill leading to Al Afaq Boy’s School in East Jerusalem, but a step through the school’s tall metal gate reveals a completely different scene. There are solar panels, rainwater harvesting barrels, and no trash in sight.

The school grounds reflect the effort of a team of Israelis and Palestinians who are introducing environmental education into East Jerusalem schools. They have achieved a laudable level of cooperation in a region where even garbage is tinged with political controversy. But challenges, including vandalism, remain.

“In traditional Palestinian culture, no one used to throw out anything: They would reuse it. With new technology, plastics, nylon, etcetera, it became easier to throw away,” says Khaled Abu Khaff, a manager at Only Green, the first environmental education center in East Jerusalem and a volunteer at Al Afaq school. 

Much of the environmental education effort in East Jerusalem started four years ago as a part of a plan to clean up Jerusalem’s Kidron Valley, which abuts the city’s most historic sites and separates East and West Jerusalem. It’s also full of trash and raw sewage: 15 to 20 million cubic meters are dumped each year – enough to fill six Olympic swimming pools. Political disagreement has stymied efforts to build a sewage treatment plant, but a team of Israelis and Palestinians is making a renewed push for the plant. They see environmental education as part of their task.

The Israeli lawyers leading the Kidron Valley project, Richard Laster and Dani Livney, partnered with grassroots organizations Only Green, Friends of the Earth Middle East, and Water Resources Action Project to identify and fund local residents interested in environmental education.

“We saw that there was so much that needed doing. A lot of garbage; not much planning, if there was any at all; sewage,” Mr. Livney says. “We felt like one of the main places to start would be in environmental education, to change the mindset of people because they had come to really accept the way the situation was.” 

Members of the Kidron Valley team helped install environmental education initiatives at 10 East Jerusalem schools through which concepts such as recycling and rainwater harvesting are taught. At Al Afaq and the Sur Baher Girl’s School, which in 2009 became the first schools to participate, teachers have eagerly embraced environmentalism, but it’s hard to measure how much of an effect the lessons are having at home, where locals cite taxes and poor roads as bigger concerns than the environment. 

So the teachers try to assign activities that involve parents. Al Afaq students ask their families to help them collect trash to bring to school, where it is reused for student projects like making flower planters out of plastic soda bottles cut open to fill with dirt and flowers. 

“At the beginning of the course the parents say, ‘What, you want us to collect trash?’” says environmental education teacher Hazar Khatteb. “But now they understand why.”

Some analysts say resistance is due to poor infrastructure and environmental movements that lag a few years behind the United States and Europe. The left-leaning Association of Civil Rights in Israel reported in 2009 that the Jerusalem municipality provided only 104 trash bins for 15,000 people in Sur Baher and its neighbor, Umm Tuba. Idit Alhasid, the founder of an environmental education business who is writing her doctorate thesis at Tel Aviv University on the role garbage plays in different cultures in the Middle East, says "it's only the beginning" of recycling and waste efforts in the region so wariness is expected.

Students at Sur Baher Girl’s School run an organic garden and take monthly measurements of rainwater harvesting barrels, donated by US-based Water Resources Action Project. The barrels provide water for the restrooms and supplied nearly half of the school’s water needs in 2011 and 2012.

One teacher at Sur Baher Girl’s School shows her students how to make homemade products from items grown in the school’s garden. “Smell it. It smells like the ones at the market,” she beams as she holds out a beaker of bright blue mouthwash. The class also makes teeth whitener from sage and salt, massage oil from rosemary, and olive oil soap.

Ideally, the students would make the products at home as well, but when asked, only a few said they have.

Mohammed, a student at Al Afaq, helped build a mosaic sculpture of the Earth stationed by the school’s entrance from recycled materials. His family doesn’t recycle regularly, but he brings in cans and plastics when the school asks him to. He says the projects have taught him new ideas.

“I’ve learned to save and take care of the things of the school and the environment,” he says. 

Al Afaq’s biggest plan, supported by a $15,000 donation from the US Embassy in Tel Aviv and US Consulate in Jerusalem, is to turn its courtyard into an environmental demonstration site for students from other Arab schools to visit and learn about recycling, rainwater harvesting, and solar and wind energy. School leaders were hoping to start the program in April, but the vandalizing of a hydraulic pump and other equipment in December delayed its launch.

The motive and identity of the vandals remain unknown, but it could be a result of resentment among some community members who say inequity between East and West Jerusalem is a more important issue that these initiatives don't address. Mr. Abu Khaff says the most common complaints he receives are about poor roads, not trash.

 “This type of [environmental] knowledge is not the top priority, but step by step we are changing that,” says Abu Khaff. “The top priorities are economic. We pay a lot of taxes and don’t get back from the municipality.”

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