War Clouds Over a Green Campus

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Mar 14, 2012

BE’ER SHEVA, ISRAEL—It’s a bit of a challenge, though definitely not impossible, to concentrate on science from a war zone. The campus of the very green Ben Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) is a modern tech oasis, but its Israeli city of Be’er Sheva is just 25 miles from the Gaza Strip. By the time of our arrival, Islamic Jihad operatives based there had been lobbing missiles, more than 100 of them, into the city for three days, causing injuries but no deaths.

The tit-for-tat violence began with a surgical Israeli strike into Gaza that took out Zuhair al-Qaissi, secretary general of the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees, who’d reportedly been planning a second strike to match his August murder of eight Israelis near the Egyptian border. That killing set off a chain that drew blood on both sides (and 20 dead among the Palestinians), though without much notice in the international press.

Our visit began amid sonic booms from warplanes, just hours after a bomb had landed near the dorms where we were staying, and another hit a fortunately unoccupied school. Hopes for an early cease fire were not realized. The bombing was a test of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which proved very effective at intercepting missiles (despite some technical malfunctions). The campus was on its second day of suspended classes when we met with Rivka Carmi, who studied genetic diseases among the indigenous Bedouin population as a professor before becoming the first woman university president in Israeli history.

“Be’er Sheva has been seen as the safest place in Israel, but now we are a front,” she said. “This has been a huge, huge challenge. We’ve had to cancel 70 exams on campus, and basically reschedule the whole semester.”

Ibex roam free in a Negev desert town. (Jim Motavalli photo)It’s fair to say that the university, and Israel itself, doesn’t need this. The Negev Desert covers something like half of Israeli territory, but it has only 10 percent of the country’s population. BGU was set up to help foster economic development in the Negev, and it’s done an admirable job. Not only has the school brought in 20,000 students with a curriculum that emphasizes science and the environment, but its programs foster everything from archaeology and eco-tourism projects for the Bedouin to wine making and agriculture (growing olives and, believe it or not, green peppers and tomatoes) in one of the world’s driest and saltiest deserts. It may be a cliché to say that Israel made the desert bloom, but it’s certainly true in the Negev.

Dr. Naftali Lazarovitch, growing fat tomatoes with desalinated groundwater near the Dead Sea. (Jim Motavalli photo)We visited one remarkable experimental project that captures runoff that usually disappears in flash floods and stores enough of it to grow olive or date crops. It’s a recipe for sustainable farming in a remarkably inhospitable territory. We visited with a scientist, Eli Raz, who’s exploring the causes of the cavernous sinkholes, as many as 2,000 in southern Israel alone, that have grown up along the rapidly receding Dead Sea. The sinkholes are an argument against the wholesale water diversion that has this extremely saline water body retreating more than four feet annually.

This Dead Sea sinkhole ate a road. There are 2,000 of these, and global warming is likely to make the problem worse. (Jim Motavalli photo)As a desert college, it’s not surprising that BGU has a big investment in solar energy, but it’s also heavily involved in creating biofuels from algae—another crop that grows well on barren soil. And it’s also approaching transportation from another angle with computer-based driving and traffic simulators.

From the driver’s seat of a Cadillac donated by GM, volunteers in one experiment test their reactions after getting a buzz on either from alcohol or marijuana. Preliminary data showed that drinkers tend to be over-confident and drive faster than dope smokers, who crawl along because they at least know they’re impaired. Test data from the simulator also showed that fancy displays and graphics sometimes reduce the effectiveness of onboard navigation screens.

Adi Ronen with BGU’s Cadillac driving simulator. (Jim Motavalli photo)Next door, urban street images are projected on a wide screen to test pedestrian reactions to potential hazards hurrying past—when will they push a button to indicate it’s safe to cross that busy intersection? A study found that elderly drivers notice pedestrians half as often as younger drivers do. New research is investigating how cell phone talking and texting distracts pedestrians from watching the road. Many of the test subjects are children. See video here and here:

Can soldiers eventually generate their own electric power on the march, eliminating the need to carry 15-pound battery packs to power radios and other devices? That’s the work of Raziel Riemer, an industrial engineering professor who’s invented a generator that captures human knee movements. Strapped on, his device made little whirring sounds as it produced perhaps one watt (per knee). The pads can be seen as a descendant of those 1960s bicycle lights powered by tiny wheel-mounted generators.

Raziel Riemer demonstrates his knee generator, designed to let soldiers get rid of their heavy battery packs. (Jim Motavalli photo)A visit to the ethnic and historical potpourri that is Jerusalem confirmed what the world has always known—that Jews and Arabs co-existed in this ancient land for millennia, and long profited from collaboration on agriculture, food (Israelis love cous-cous) and culture. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, marking the spot where Jesus may have spent his last hours, is a short walk from one of the holiest shrines in Islam. There is still opportunity for Arab-Israeli cooperation. The sinkhole problem exists on both sides of the Red Sea, and Jordanian scientists have made tentative visits to Israel to learn from BGU’s work. Water conservation and preventing desertification is important to both sides. Despite the missiles crossing overhead, science and educational missions would seem to offer the best hope for a very elusive peace.

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