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Peace and Science in the Middle East

Geography of the Middle East

      The ancient cultures of the Middle East and the modern political conflicts there are shaped by a surprisingly diverse and youthful landscape. The landscape of the region is dominated by a narrow elongate (20-30 km wide) valley, that is surrounded by the western highlands of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and the eastern highlands of Jordan. Much of this valley is below sea level, including the deepest place on the Earth surface, the Dead Sea at –420 meters. The topographic barriers were significant enough to help create different kingdoms and cultures, yet not significant enough to prevent interaction among these cultures through commerce and war. The north-south oriented valley was also an important migration route for early humans, and is still a migration route for flora and fauna, particularly, birds, from Africa to Eurasia.

      The Dead Sea Valley is not a true tectonic rift but is part of a continental transform, a tectonic plate boundary that laterally offsets the Arabian tectonic plate against the African tectonic plate. Other continental transforms, such as the San Andreas and the Northern Anatolian faults, do not exhibit a rift-like topography. Therefore, some other forces or processes must be active here in addition to the lateral displacement of two plates.

      The Peace Treaty between Jordan and Israel, and the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestinians opened the door for scientists to cooperate in projects that tackle this question, although the security situation and the occasional conflicts, still pose substantial hurdles.

      The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Middle Eastern Regional Cooperation Program (MERC) has funded two multinational projects of geophysical study of the Dead Sea rift and its surrounding. The first project was conducted between 1996-1998 by the Geophysical Institute of Israel, the Natural Resources Authority of Jordan, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Its goal was to merge of the Jordanian and Israeli data bases of the gravity field and conduct joint interpretation. The second project was conducted between 2001-2005 by the Geophysical Institute of Israel, Al-Balqa' Applied University of Jordan, Al-Najah University in the Palestinian Authority, and the U.S. Geological Survey. It had two goals, to map the subsurface fault structure using a high-resolution airborne magnetic survey across the international border, and to study the deep structure of the plate boundary and its surrounding highlands using seismic refraction methods.

      The primary objectives of these projects were (1) to delineate subsurface sedimentary basins and faults along the Dead Sea Rift to be used in exploration of groundwater, oil, earthquake hazard assessment and infrastructure projects, such as the Dead Sea-Red Sea Canal; (2) to demonstrate the suitability of advanced geophysical methods in this environment; (3) to transfer technology to the various project participants and (4) to promote peace in the Middle East through scientific and economic cooperation.

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