Bridging the Divide in the Holy Land

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Science  21 Apr 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5772, pp. 352-356
DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5772.352a

Israeli and Palestinian scientists are working together in a research program that seems all the more daring now that Hamas has come to power


JERUSALEM—”This will be the first Palestinian nanotech lab,” says Mukhles Sowwan, peering into a dark, empty room at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem. Making this a reality will be no mean feat. Sowwan, a physicist, needs about $1 million to equip a state-of-the-art laboratory for the kind of science he wants to do, and he can't look to the university for help: Finances at Al-Quds are so precarious that faculty paychecks failed to arrive on time last month—for the third month in a row. “I'm cutting expenses in every way possible,” Sowwan says, including designing some of his own devices and software.

But Sowwan, 31, has something that few other Palestinians have: an Israeli research partner. Ever since doing a postdoc in the lab of Danny Porath, a physicist at Hebrew University in West Jerusalem, Sowwan and Porath have teamed up to coax biological molecules to assemble into circuitry and memory devices far smaller than present technology allows. Beyond the promise of breakthroughs, however, what makes the collaboration tick, says Porath, is that “we are first of all good friends.” This rare fraternity amid one of the world's ugliest conflicts is helping Sowwan realize his dream of bringing nanoscience to the West Bank.

Help has arrived from UNESCO, which 2 years ago laid a challenge before the two communities: Come up with competitive projects involving scientists from both sides of the ethnic divide, and we'll fund you. Last year, UNESCO's Israeli-Palestinian Scientific Organization (IPSO) awarded the first 10 grants. Sowwan and Porath are among the winners.

It's an open question whether such science-for-peace efforts can change communities. Critics say that truly equal scientific exchange will only be possible when Palestinian researchers enjoy university infrastructure on a par with that of their Israeli colleagues. But this is part of the plan, says Dan Bitan, an Israeli historian who co-directs IPSO. The intention, he says, is to build up Palestinian science “one project at a time.” The first crop of IPSO projects is receiving raves from observers. “These projects are world-class,” says Edouard Brézin, a physicist and president of the French Academy of Sciences.

The fragile endeavor now has a fresh concern: How will the budding collaborations fare under the new Palestinian Authority government led by Hamas, whose leaders have previously called for Israel's destruction? “These Palestinian researchers are so rare to be willing to collaborate,” says Brézin. “Will Hamas stop them? That is something we fear.” IPSO's saving grace may be that it has been developed “bottom-up” by Israeli and Palestinian scientists rather than as “a top-down imposed cooperation,” says Yaakov Garb, an environmental researcher with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer-Sheva, Israel, and Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who co-directs the Brown-based Middle East Environmental Futures Project. IPSO belongs to both communities. And although science and conflict mix poorly, says theoretical economist Menahem Yaari, president of the Israeli Academy of Sciences, “we realized that if we wait for the fighting to end, then we'll wait forever.”

Yaari wasn't the only high-profile academic frustrated by the barriers to Arab-Israeli scientific cooperation. Sari Nusseibeh, a philosopher and president of Al-Quds University, and Torsten Wiesel, a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York City, also felt that it was time for action. At a UNESCO meeting in Paris in 2003, the trio decided that “rather than just talking about peace, we would do it,” says Yaari. So with about $3 million cobbled together from UNESCO, the French government, and several nongovernmental organizations, they launched IPSO in 2004. Grants are modest, amounting to about $300,000 for each project over 3 years.

Because tensions were high, says Yaari, “we decided to start cautiously” by embarking on a quiet advertising campaign on the electronic message boards of Israeli and Palestinian universities. Selection criteria were strict: Projects had to be “internationally competitive” and involve “an equal contribution from each side.” The organizers expected a couple of dozen applications at most.

But the idea struck a chord. Nearly 100 proposals flooded in, in fields from physics to epidemiology. And far from charity cases, the quality “spoiled us for choice,” says Bitan, who has administered the program from the start.

Several IPSO awardees let Science shadow them for a week. Their schedules consisted mostly of routines familiar to scientists the world over—from group meetings and grinding departmental paperwork to the coveted hours of isolation at the bench. But they also faced an obstacle course of practical problems that would seem alien to most scientists, any one of which is capable of destroying harmony.

Getting from A to B

Shahal Abbo curls his toes on the silky carpet in Mustafa Khamis's East Jerusalem home as he describes how another IPSO team came about. “Our collaboration had an ironic start,” he says, cracking a smile beneath his bushy moustache. An agronomist in Rehovot, Abbo recalls talking with his Israeli peers: “You can imagine my colleagues' reactions when I told them I had to write a letter for Jihad.” He was not referring to an Islamic holy war, but a young scientist. Jihad is Khamis's Palestinian former graduate student, who needed the power of Abbo's pen to get through army checkpoints.

Their project was a natural for collaboration because it focuses on a problem shared by both Israelis and Palestinians: how to use the precious water in sewage to irrigate crops. “Although [Jihad and I] understood the problem well, we only had a slight idea for a solution,” says Khamis, a physical chemist at Al-Quds University, as he fills miniature cups with potent Arab coffee.

Khamis envisioned a two-part answer: a water desalination device that would be small and cheap enough to service a single village and a crop that could thrive on the water it produced. With help from the European Union and an Israeli company, he designed a $50,000 prototype purifier in the 1990s that could process the daily wastewater of 500 people. The output, laden with salts and metals, was not clean enough to drink but did pass muster for agriculture. The next challenge was to find a crop.

This is where Abbo's expertise dovetailed. “Chickpeas were the obvious choice,” he says, “not only because everyone eats falafel and hummus here, but because the plant is very well adapted to this soil.” Since the project began in 1999, Abbo has been breeding chickpea plants that thrive in Khamis's treated water.

On a dusty hill on the edge of the Al-Quds campus, a truck-sized tank quietly hums, churning wastewater with bacteria and straining it through filters. A pipe leads to a lower terrace where neat rows of chickpea plants are sprouting. Khamis dashes indoors to show the extra dimension to this project that helped clinch funding from IPSO. Piece by piece, he is assembling a world-class environmental testing laboratory for the West Bank. Meticulously clean instruments measure nearly everything there is to know about a drop of water. “We don't even have such a facility on the Israeli side,” says Abbo. To expand the collaboration, Khamis hopes to add a plant genomics wing within a few years.

A rare friendship.

Although difficulties abound, Mukhles Sowwan (left) says he is encouraging his students to study nanotechnology at Hebrew University with Danny Porath (right).


But the road ahead is bumpy. Pausing next to a plasma spectroscope, a $120,000 device that identifies heavy-metal contamination, Khamis's cheerful guise clouds over. “This broke down last year, and we have not been able to get a replacement part,” he says. Nearby is another expensive instrument that has never been installed. “The companies refuse to send technicians because of security reasons,” says Khamis. That's one impediment an IPSO grant has not overcome.

Show me the money

Sowwan checks his watch and gasps. The European sales director of a nanotechnology device company has flown in from the United Kingdom just to meet the Al-Quds physicist for lunch today. “We must rush,” says Sowwan as he passes through a rainbow of hijab veils worn by his female students. Although the meeting is in an hour at Hebrew University, just 5 kilometers away, the road is blocked by the security barrier—which in Jerusalem takes the form of an 8-meter-high concrete wall that chokes traffic and possibly creates ecological problems as well (see sidebar). It was built, the Israeli government says, to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks. The best route these days is to drive 45 minutes through outlying Arab villages on narrow, crumbling roads and, inevitably, through a checkpoint. Because Sowwan lives on the Israeli side of Jerusalem, his license plate makes it easier to pass, although he is sometimes stuck for hours in a queue.

The contrast between Al-Quds and Hebrew University is staggering, as if we've teleported from the Middle East to southern California. Bare-shouldered students bask on manicured lawns between stone buildings and a statue of Albert Einstein, a university patron. The campus has also been a haven for Palestinian scientists such as Sowwan, who would otherwise have no equipment to use, let alone experts to learn from. Nanoscience at Hebrew University has been particularly open-armed, producing a string of successful researchers of Palestinian origin publishing in major journals, including Science. Although Sowwan has now officially moved to Al-Quds, he retains full membership at the university's Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology.

War-zone science.

Psychiatrist Viveca Hazboun's Bethlehem offices were destroyed by artillery fire.

Good chemistry.

Mustafa Khamis (left) has teamed up with Shahal Abbo (right) to tackle the shared problem of water scarcity.


The salesman is waiting in a bustling campus cafe. The meeting proves frustrating. Yet it's typical for Sowwan and other talented but underfunded Palestinian scientists. He spends an hour trying to bargain a $250,000 atomic force microscope down to $50,000, to no avail. (Tip to lab managers: Sowwan did get it to $120,000.) The IPSO grant alone will not be enough to put his new lab at Al-Quds on par with Porath's. Nevertheless, Sowwan says, “it's a start.”

Where collaboration is a dirty word

To some critics, IPSO's problems run deeper than a shortage of funds. One Israeli professor, in a series of open letters e-mailed to the Israeli academic community last year, railed against it as “dangerous” and “playing into the hands of terrorists.” Yaari responded but was unable to persuade him that the collaborations were worthwhile. “In the end we agreed to disagree,” he says.

IPSO scientists have been taking even more flak from the Palestinian side. “Cooperation is viewed as an attempt to normalize the abnormal situation of occupation,” says Khamis. “Even the word ‘collaboration’ is taboo here,” adds Viveca Hazboun, a West Bank psychiatrist with a project proposal under review for IPSO funding. Palestinian “collaborators” deemed too helpful to the Israeli government have been murdered by extremist groups, she says.

Hazboun has two strategies for easing tensions on the Palestinian side. Among colleagues, she avoids the term “collaboration.” “We call it ‘scientific exchange’ instead,” she says. She also promotes tolerance among her research subjects, the estimated 45% of Palestinians in Bethlehem who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder. “If you can forgive, you can move on,” says Hazboun, whose previous clinic was destroyed 3 years ago by Israeli shells during a siege on Bethlehem.

Ultimately, Israeli and Palestinian scientists will need the consent of their governments to work together. It remains unclear how Hamas will interact with the newly elected Israeli government led by Ehud Olmert, but IPSO is forging ahead. “Creating a culture of peace is our responsibility as Israeli and Palestinian scientists,” says Hasan Dweik, a chemist at Al-Quds who co-directs IPSO with Bitan. Another 13 projects have been chosen for the next round of funding later this year, he says.

IPSO researchers, too, are optimistic. Despite the barriers, Sowwan plans to send his Palestinian students to learn in Porath's lab on the Israeli side. “It will be difficult,” he admits, but “science is a universal language, like music. It can make people understand each other.”

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