Marin agency spearheads historic land mine removal project in West Bank

Roots of Peace, a Marin-based nonprofit that seeks to remove land mines around the world, has brokered a historic agreement to remove toxic land mines in and around Bethlehem.

The announcement came last month, some 21⁄2 years after a land mine in the Golan Heights blew the leg off an 11-year-old Israeli boy who was hiking. Following that incident, Israel got to work on a land mine removal bill and formed the National Authority for Landmine Clearance.

Roots of Peace helped promote the bill, which passed in March 2011.

Roots of Peace founder and CEO Heidi Kuhn (kneeling, right) at a symbolic olive tree planting in Bethlehem last year. photo/courtesy of roots of peace

Now Heidi Kuhn, founder and CEO of Roots of Peace, is in the Holy Land to help kick off the detonation and removal of more than 1 million land mines in the West Bank, the Golan Heights and elsewhere that were laid in the 1950s and 1960s. Crews have started work in the upper Arava Valley, and the Bethlehem project will follow.

“All it takes is a kid chasing a soccer ball for tragedy to occur,” said Kuhn, who arrived in Israel on Jan. 14.

The West Bank land mine removal project is supported by both Israeli and Palestinian governments, Kuhn said.

In December, Bethlehem Gov. Abdul Fattah Hamayel and a Palestinian Authority official from the Ministry of Interior met with Kuhn in Ramallah and signed off on the deal. In addition, according to a Roots of Peace spokesperson, a company based in Israel is doing the demining — a rare example of cooperation between the P.A. and an Israeli company, one Israeli official noted.

“There are an estimated 1.5 million landmines and unexploded ordnance planted in the Holy Land — preventing shepherds from tending to their sheep and children from walking the sacred lands,” Hamayel stated, according to a Roots of Peace press release. “Roots of Peace will lead the way with the historic demining and replanting consortium in the fields of Bethlehem.”

Kuhn called the demining agreement historic. She spent months negotiating with the Israeli government, the P.A., the U.S. Department of State and the United Nations Mine Action Service.

“Two years ago, these conversations were fraught with anger,” said Kuhn, a San Rafael resident who is not Jewish.

“We don’t point fingers,” she added, referring to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. “We just want to get them [the land mines] out. This makes more land available than the land they are fighting over.”

Fifteen years ago, Kuhn took on the mission of clearing an estimated 70 million landmines that endanger children and render fertile ground unusable in 70 countries.

In the West Bank and the Jordan River Valley, land mines contaminate some 50,000 acres, Kuhn said. Compounding the danger, heavy rains and mudslides can spread the explosives into areas populated by unsuspecting residents.

Human rights activists long had despaired that the Jewish state was not taking steps to rid the land of the mines. Although land mines had claimed lives and limbs, primarily of children, the government had declined to sign the 1997 U.N. Mine Ban Treaty.

“Their attitude was, ‘We cannot clear landmines because we are at war,’ ” said Noah Griffin, director of communications for Roots of Peace. Some feared a public education campaign might scare off tourists, he said.

But “things changed drastically,” he added, after young Daniel Yuval, playing with his sister on a rare snowy day in the Golan Heights, stepped on a landmine in February 2010.

“No one could turn his back on Daniel,” Griffin said.

Preliminary explorations revealed the land mines in the West Bank and Golan Heights were not part of an active military campaign but remnants of various conflicts dating back more than 60 years. For example, some were left by the Jordanian army before Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, according to the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency.

The “Demine-Replant-Rebuild” project will free up agricultural and grazing lands as well as paths to sites such as Qasr el-Yahud, a sacred place for Christians, Muslims and Jews in the West Bank.

Kuhn’s role in the project, as well as her fundraising for the effort, has made a fan of Andy David, Israel’s S.F.-based consul general for the Pacific Northwest.

Kuhn “has inspired many in Israel to take action,” David writes in a letter to the activist. “I am pleased that you are now expanding your work in Israel and the Palestinian Authority … Now, the first land mine will be removed by Roots of Peace in the fields of Bethlehem.”

The success of the demining project in the West Bank “could be the beginning of peace talks,” Kuhn said.

“Peace comes from the ground up, not from the top down,” she added.  “We want to bring the world to its senses.”

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.