For a biblical stream whose name evokes divine tranquillity, the Jordan River is nobody's idea of peace on Earth. From its rowdy headwaters near the war-scarred slopes of Mount Hermon to the foamy, coffee-colored sludge at the Dead Sea some 200 miles downstream, the Jordan is fighting for survival in a tough neighborhood—the kind of place where nations might spike the riverbank with land mines, or go to war over a sandbar. Water has always been precious in this arid region, but a six-year drought and expanding population conspire to make it a fresh source of conflict among the Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians vying for the river's life-giving supply.
All of which makes the scene one morning last July all the more remarkable. Accompanied by military escort, three scientists—an Israeli, a Palestinian, and a Jordanian—are standing knee-deep in the Jordan River. They are nearly 40 miles south of the Sea of Galilee, under the precarious ruins of a bridge that was bombed during the Six Day War of June 1967. The scientists are surveying the river for Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME), a regional NGO dedicated to building peace through environmental stewardship. It's a scorching hot day in a former war zone, but if these men are concerned about the danger of heat stroke, getting clonked by a chunk of falling concrete, or stepping on a mine washed downstream by a flood, they're hiding it well.
"Hey, Samer," says Sarig Gafny, an Israeli ecologist in a floppy, green hat, "check this little fellow out." Samer Talozi, a tall, self-possessed young environmental engineer from Jordan, peers over his shoulder at the tiny invertebrate his Israeli colleague has scooped into a glass sample jar. "It lives!" he says with a laugh. "That is one tough crustacean!" A few yards away, Banan Al Sheikh, a stout, good-natured botanist from the West Bank, is absentmindedly wading upstream while focusing his camera on a flowering tree amid the tall reeds and other riparian species along the riverbank. "Watch your step, my friend," Gafny calls out after him, "and whatever you do, don't step on a bleeping mine."