Last week a prominent multi-national Dutch engineering firm, Royal HaskoningDHV, announced that it would end its involvement in a project to install a wastewater treatment plant in East Jerusalem. This is a unique and interesting case in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It could well be a harbinger of the future of the occupation.
This case is interesting because it involves Israelis with good intentions; Palestinians who have no choice but to cooperate with Israel; and Europeans who have lost the ability to define their position regarding conflict. Alongside these actors are the usual suspects: Israelis whose priority is to strengthen the settlements; Europeans who want to make a profit out of providing aid to the Third World; and Palestinians who are struggling to liberate Palestine. And this case is unique, because most disputes over Jerusalem are of a win-lose nature, with the Israelis winning and the Palestinians losing. In this case it seems that Israel is losing, while the Palestinians are losing on one level but perhaps winning on another. But it is still too early to determine whether this incident indicates a serious change in the delicate balance of the relationship between Europe, Israel and Palestine.
A bit of background: the sewage of most Palestinian neighborhoods and villages in East Jerusalem has run eastward, to the Dead Sea, mainly through the Kidron Valley, since the Jordanian period (1948-1967). The Kidron Valley wends its way from the eastern side of the Old City, through the Judean Desert, to the Dead Sea. The sewage of some Jewish neighborhood-settlements in East Jerusalem, which were built after 1967, also runs partially in the same direction. In 1967, when Israel gained control of the West Bank, the population of what became known as East Jerusalem was approximately 70,000, all of them Palestinian Arabs. Today the population of that same area is 600,000, with 350,000 Palestinians and 250,000 Israeli Jews.
Since 1967, the quantity of sewage has grown more than 10 times. Not all of it flows to the Dead Sea, but what does go in that direction causes perennial problems, like a proliferation of mosquitoes. Perhaps more crucially, the sewage is leading to an ecological crisis—this will affect not only the Dead Sea, its landscape and the local flora and fauna, but also the springs of Jericho Valley.
So far, the municipality of Jerusalem has done very little to solve this problem. Only when state agencies threatened to sue the municipality for neglect did the mayor's office adopt the idea of Reuven Laster, an Israeli environmentalist, to treat the wastewater in the Kidron Valley. The cleanup of the Valley is being promoted as a means of turning its unique landscape and historical sites into a tourist destination. Most, if not all, of the Kidron Valley is located in territory that Israel occupied in 1967.
In order to push Laster's plan forward, a local authority was established for the Kidron Valley, with a steering committee composed exclusively of Israeli Jews— most of them municipality and state officials. A Palestinian from East Jerusalem was invited to participate in the planning committee, and the Palestinian Authority was also invited to participate in the endeavor.
For the Israelis involved in this project, rehabilitating the Kidron Valley has nothing to do with the occupation. Some of them are not interested in politics at all: they are neither anti-occupation activists nor advocates of the settler movement. Their only concern is the environment, without any reference to nationalism or religion. For politically aware people, this is difficult to understand. The Kidron Valley restoration project's PR video, for example, shows romantic Oriental images of Bedouin shepherds with their flocks, with no hint of the fact that Israel has expelled dozens of Bedouin families from this area, destroying their tents and schools, in order to expand the settlements.
But it is also true that the ostensibly non-political nature of this project helped in gaining the participation of Palestinian Authority officials. Since they are well aware of the ecological damage to the Jericho Valley and Kidron/Wadi Nar area, these officials closed their eyes to the political implication of the project—i.e., legitimizing the Israeli settlements in the area, both in East Jerusalem and in Area C of the West Bank.
It is not clear how much of this background information was known to the Dutch firm, which is the biggest in Holland, before it signed an agreement with the Jerusalem municipality. It is also not known exactly what (or who) pushed the Dutch government to discourage the firm from taking part in the project and to define it as a violation of international law. But for the BDS movement, this was an important victory. Not only on the diplomatic level— i.e., vis-a-vis Europe or Israel, but also within Palestinian society. The Palestinians who had supported the project have so far not challenged the Dutch company's decision to withdraw its participation. The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, was forced to adopt the position of the BDS movement. This puts the PA in a strange position, since it continues its security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank.
Supporters of Israel and the settlements (the difference between the two is increasingly blurred) unsurprisingly condemned the Dutch move. Some used the hollow argument that the Dutch company's withdrawal harms the peace talks. This claim should not be taken seriously unless it is also directed at Israeli actions that are no less harmful.
A stronger argument is that Palestinians will suffer from the cancellation even more than the Israelis. This is probably true. But while it is good to see supporters of the settler movement sympathize with Palestinian suffering, at least when it is caused by other Palestinians, their argument ignores the fact that nations, throughout history, have demonstrated their willingness to suffer in order to achieve freedom. This has particularly been the case when it was clear that their occupier, as in the case of Israel, was not going to grant the occupied their freedom as an expression of good will.
In fact, being willing to suffer and refusing to cooperate with Zionism has been the Palestinian official position for the last 80 years. The prominent Palestinian nationalist Musa al-Alami, who was a Jerusalemite, told David Ben Gurion during their 1934 meeting (according to Ben Gurion's memoirs): "I prefer the country to be poor and desolate, even for a hundred years, until we Arabs are capable, alone, of developing and making it flourish.”
So far this policy has not been particularly beneficial to the Palestinians, mainly because Europe and the United States have supported Israel in this conflict. A significant change in Europe's position and action might change the balance of power between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Meanwhile, the sewage continues to flow in the Kidron Valley, and the settlements continue to expand.