Keith Yamamoto presents Tareq Abu Hamed with the AAAS Award for Science Diplomacy
Dr. Keith Yamamoto (left), President of AAAS, presents Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed (right) with the 2024 AAAS David and Betty Hamburg Award for Science Diplomacy at the 2024 AAAS Annual Meeting in Denver, CO. Credit: Robb Cohen Photography & Video

Using Science to See the Human in the Other: An Interview with Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed

Abu Hamed is the recipient of the 2024 AAAS David and Betty Hamburg Award for Science Diplomacy, and Executive Director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies

Award for Science Diplomacy environment environmental diplomacy climate change Israel Palestine Broader Middle East and North Africa
https://doi.org/10.1126/scidip.adp2383

Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed is the Executive Director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES) in Israel, and recipient of the 2024 AAAS David and Betty Hamburg Award for Science Diplomacy. He received the honor for his leadership in using science to build relationships across the Middle East, particularly between Israelis and Palestinians, to work together to address mutual environmental concerns.

Dr. Kimberly Montgomery, Director of International Affairs and Science Diplomacy at AAAS and Executive Editor of Science & Diplomacy, had the pleasure of speaking with Abu Hamed about the award, his work, and the importance of fostering dialogue during the 2024 AAAS Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado.

Montgomery (interviewer): Congratulations on being awarded the 2024 AAAS David and Betty Hamburg Award for Science Diplomacy, which you received for using science to address environmental challenges and build relations between nations across the Middle East and North Africa, despite political conflicts. Could you dive deeper into some initiatives you’ve worked on?

Abu Hamed: The Arava Institute is an academic and research institution that advances cross-border environmental cooperation in the face of political conflict in the Middle East. A third of our students are Arabic speakers, including Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, as well as Jordanians, Moroccans, Sudanese, and Israeli Arabs. Another third of students are Jewish Israelis, and the last third is international. 

Students come to Arava for an academic, university-level program, but then are brought into a dialogue about conflict in the region. Palestinian and Israeli citizens in particular talk about the conflict; they talk about family stories, personal stories, religion, culture, and more. They do not always agree with each other, but they have this understanding that helps build community. A foundation of trust is extremely important; without it, regional cooperation is not possible. 

This is what science diplomacy means—using the global language of science to bring people together. Participants in our programs are exposed to the human in the other, and build long-lasting relationships with people in the region. This has been our mission for a while, but this award came at an opportune time, which enforces my will to hold onto hope and peace. We appreciate this recognition of the work of the Arava Institute.

Montgomery: We at AAAS are honored to be part of that recognition. You have seen political tensions rise and fall across the Middle East throughout your career. Nevertheless, environmental challenges continue to progress, regardless of geopolitical context. How has your work been impacted by the current political situation, and what do you think the future of your work will hold?

Abu Hamed: We are continuing our work at the Arava Institute. We had about five weeks in session before the outbreak of the war, during which dialogues occurred between Palestinians and Israelis. Because of these dialogues, students decided to continue to work together. It seems overly simple to put it that way, but it is truly remarkable to have Palestinians and Israelis together in a classroom during such a war, even as some of our Israeli Jewish students were called to the army. This led to some unique occurrences, where we saw Palestinian students calling Israeli students wishing them to be safe. This can be attributed to the opportunity that they had to see the human in the other.

Regarding the research, in continuing our semester, we redirected our focus on empathy and solidarity with our partners, keeping our connections with all of our partners in the Middle East and North Africa. However, at the same time, most of our scientific research stopped. Research has been impacted, major conferences had to be canceled, and the number of students for the current semester is lower due to travel restrictions. It was a conscious decision to stop because the focus right now should be on people, not science—that is what provides the foundation for our collaboration. Bringing science back into our mission will take time, but progress is already underway. About three weeks ago, we started to ease back into small conversations about scientific cooperation. It is not easy. But we may be the only organization in the Middle East that still has Palestinians and Israelis working together. This is thanks to the science and environmental diplomacy at the foundation of our collaboration.

Montgomery: It is inspiring how, in spite of very challenging conditions, you continue to emphasize the importance of seeing the human in another. It sounds like you are optimistic about the future of your work as well—is that the case?

Abu Hamed: I have to be optimistic; there is no other option. The wars, the conflicts, they are a symptom of disconnection between people and the polarization of both sides. You are experiencing this same challenge in the United States. It all stems from the same problem: a lack of dialogue. People are not willing to listen, or do not seem to know how to listen to others, but it is important to remember that listening does not mean that I agree with you. When I invite someone to speak to my students that I totally disagree with, it does not mean that I am trying to convince my students to be something else. We just want to expose people to all ideas, all ideologies, to build understanding and to keep communication channels open. 

I’m optimistic because none of us have the luxury of giving up on things that we believe in, and environmental diplomacy is the only tool that we have to solve the region’s environmental and climate challenges. We see it working every day, as we manage to do projects even during the war. We see Arava Institute alumni still in touch with each other and becoming ambassadors of science and peace after they graduate.

People are not willing to listen, or do not seem to know how to listen to others, but it is important to remember that listening does not mean that I agree with you.

Montgomery: You have experience working and living on a kibbutz where the Institute is located, which is unique for someone who grew up in East Jerusalem. How have those experiences shaped your passion and vision for your work, and how do they connect to the role of science in that work?

Abu Hamed: The location of the Arava Institute in a kibbutz was one of the reasons I joined it. In high school, I volunteered in a kibbutz that neighbored my town. That was my first exposure, as a Palestinian, to my Jewish neighbor. That experience stuck with me and taught me not to look at them as the enemy, but as humans, and they, too, came to see me as a human. I wanted to give my family that same opportunity. The kibbutz is a very welcoming community and the best location for handling such a diverse group of students. They provide a very unique experience for students because they are based on research, development, and innovation. 

In terms of the role of science during political conflict, science is a global language that everyone speaks. This scientific language allows us to gather around the same tables, to become interested in others’ projects, to discuss achievements, and to learn from others. At the same time, when you bring people together for a long period, they are exposed to the human in the other. So, this global language is not only scientific, but also has humanitarian aspects that help people build relationships.

Montgomery: Your career has spanned academia and government, including being the Acting Chief Scientist at Israel’s Ministry of Science, Technology, and Space. How have these experiences prepared you to work at the intersection of science and international affairs? Furthermore, what advice would you give to other scientists who are interested in participating in science diplomacy?

Abu Hamed: I appreciated the experience working at the Ministry of Science and gained a new respect for the importance of public servants. I did work at the Ministry that I am really proud of, such as establishing a unit for engineering research, increasing scholarships for minorities and women in science, and increasing the budget for applied research. However, public servants are responsible for implementing the agenda of an elected government and do not have a lot of room for creativity, researching, or building, which impacted me. It was a worthwhile experience, but it also led me in a new direction, where my work is much more impactful.

It is extremely difficult to mobilize governments to address climate change. Climate action requires long-term investment, whereas government officials serve brief terms and want to see results in that time. This can be difficult to understand as a scientist, and it is important for people working at the intersection of science and diplomacy to be aware of. With these difficulties, we must remember the significance of cross-border collaboration, because one country alone cannot address the climate crisis. While it is a tremendous challenge, it is also a great opportunity to bring countries together, as we have done with Israeli and Palestinian climate scientists.

Montgomery: You just brought up a very important point, that it is difficult to convince governments of the importance of addressing long-term environmental crises where the immediate benefits of action are not always clear. Can you expand on this and other obstacles you have come across in your work? Furthermore, have you found a way to overcome them?

Abu Hamed: As I said, convincing governments of the importance of climate action is very difficult. In democratic communities, you can use a bottom-up approach because the public will ultimately elect officials whose agenda is aligned with what is most affecting them. The Middle East is a hotspot for climate change, with the temperature increase being much higher than the global average. We feel climate change and are paying a bigger price for it. So, we engage with the public to raise awareness and implement projects that will help the region cope with climate change. This encourages the public to push governments to have a green agenda. Again, it is a very significant tool for bringing people together because it is a common threat.

Montgomery: You received your scientific training from universities in Türkiye and Israel and have brought students from your home village in East Jerusalem to your offices at the Arava Institute as well as the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel. What is the importance of education and scientific collaboration across borders?

Abu Hamed: I was fascinated by the group of AAAS awardees this year,1 especially Ana Maria Porras, who uses art to communicate science. It is important to have diverse voices in science, and this is why I started exposing girls’ schools in my village to higher education in Israel. I took high schoolers to university campuses to dismantle the view that they could not pursue a degree or do so in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. It worked well, and I am proud to say that the schools have continued this initiative on their own. It is so important, because our time in university is also a multicultural experience that can stick with us our whole lives. We become ambassadors of the places we study in, and it can encourage others to follow a similar path. It is the beauty of science, and it is the beauty of education.

 

Disclaimer

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Endnotes
  1. For more on all 2024 AAAS Award winners, see www.aaas.org/news/aaas-announces-2024-award-recipients.
Relationship Building Science for Diplomacy Transboundary Issues and Shared Spaces