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Israeli-Arab environmentalist works toward a sustainable future

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Thursday, September 1st, 2011

‘I see what we do here as very important in bringing people together,’ says Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed. ‘This is the future we need to invest in.’

Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed jokingly calls himself the “black sheep” of his family. That’s because, of the five siblings in his Arab-Israeli family, he was the only who wanted to pursue a higher education – a goal his parents wholeheartedly supported, as they had not had the opportunity to continue their own schooling to that level.

The payoff is that Abu Hamed is now director of the Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, based at Kibbutz Ketura in Israel’s arid Arava Valley.

He is the first full-time Arab faculty member at this environmental studies institute, which prepares future Arab and Jewish leaders to cooperatively solve the region’s ecological challenges and work toward a sustainable future for the region’s human and natural resources.

“They were looking for someone to direct the newly established center in 2008, so I applied,” he explains. That same year, he won the Dan David Prize for Social Responsibility with Particular Emphasis on the Environment.

A member of the Israeli Chemistry Society, Israeli Sustainable Energy Society and the American Solar Energy Society, Abu Hamed is involved in several initiatives at Arava. One of them is a sustainable automobile that would produce its own fuel with solar energy.

“We are also working on self-cleaning photovoltaic [solar] panels because in the desert you have a lot of dust and it covers the panels and reduces the amount of electricity it can generate. Our system will be integrated into the panel to blow away the dust.”

Another project close to his heart involves supplying Bedouins in the Negev and northern Jordan with access to cleaner, renewable fuels.

“The people in these villages are not connected to the grid, and they burn animal waste, wood — anything to cook and heat tents. In both regions, the job of energy and bringing water is the women’s job and because of that they have a lot of health problems,” Abu Hamed explains. This project is supported by funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Middle East Research Competition (MERC).

“The most important project of Arava is bringing young Arab and Jewish students to solve the region’s environmental problems and to be leaders,” he adds. “We are starting to see results. Palestinians are starting their own companies and NGOs, and they are all working together on environmental problems, peace initiatives and coexistence.”

Pure science and no politics

“From childhood I wanted to be scientist,” he says. Born in 1972, Abu Hamed was raised in the Arab village of Sur Baher near Jerusalem, and credits his love of science to the teachers in the village schools he attended. He and his wife have three daughters, who attend kibbutz schools.

Being on a kibbutz is not a new experience for him. “As a teenager, I volunteered at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel in the summers picking fruit,” he recalls. But that is quite different than living in a totally Jewish community.

Abu Hamed studied initially at Gazi University in Turkey. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering there, he got a PhD from Ankara University and then came back to Israel for post-doctoral work at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

“Weizmann was a fantastic place,” he says. “It was pure science and no politics. People were very kind and I never felt I was any different than anyone else.”

He also did a post-doc at the University of Minnesota’s Solar Energy Laboratory. While there, he learned of the Arava Institute with its student body of Israeli Jews and Muslims as well as Americans. He decided it would be a perfect fit, “a place that I can do the things I believe in.”

“I never thought to stay in America,” he says. “I always wanted to serve my community, to pay back what I received growing up. This region needs a lot more peace-building and environmental studies.”

He hopes that someday the institute will be unnecessary. But in the meantime, “I see what we do here as very important in bringing these people together and to know each other. This is the future we need to invest in. Even if one day we have peace, we will also continue working to make it deeper and deeper.”

Are there enough likeminded Israeli Jews and Arabs to realize this goal?

“I think there are a lot of people like me out there, but they need to get to know ‘the other.’ This is the main problem: that we do not know each other and therefore do not trust each other.”