Palestinian solar power: why Israel may turn out the lights
As peace negotiations remain stalled, a project to bring rural electrification to Palestinian communities in the West Bank faces demolition by Israel.
She'b El Buttum, West Bank — Israeli scientists defying military occupation restrictions have brought a great leap forward to the lives of traditional Palestinian herders in a remote corner of the West Bank.
Over the last several months, tent dwellers in this hamlet on a rocky hillside south of Hebron have been brought out of the dark ages by Comet-Middle East, a German-funded project headed by two Israelis that affords them electricity for the first time through solar panels and wind turbines.
"We are very satisfied with the electricity," says Nuzha al-Najar, who used to spend five hours a day manually churning butter. With an electric device, that chore has now been reduced to less than an hour. Using a washing machine instead of doing laundry by hand also saves her time. And her family has begun watching television for the first time. "The kids watch it at night and learn from it," she says happily.
But the gains are now jeopardized by a larger fight over the future of the West Bank, captured by Israel in 1967. The struggle pits Israeli authorities, whom critics say are preventing Palestinian growth and favoring Jewish settlers, against the European Union. The latter wants to expand aid projects for Palestinians in rural areas of the West Bank, known as Area C, in order to preserve chances for a viable Palestinian state in the future.
Area C, which comprises 60 percent of the West Bank, refers to territory that remained under full Israeli civil and military control under the Palestinian self-rule agreement of 1993. The area is home to about 300,000 Israeli settlers and half that amount of Palestinians, with the former's presence being expanded and the latter coming under increasing Israeli pressure due to planning strictures, demolitions of homes and animal sheds, and settler violence, according to UN officials.
It is "exceptionally difficult to impossible" for Palestinians to get building permits in Area C, says Ramesh Rajasingham, the senior UN humanitarian official for the West Bank. Consequently, they are forced to build without permission, he says.
'Illegal' settlements all around
For decades, Israel has refused to hook the herders of She'b el-Buttum up to its electric grid because it says the village of 150 was built and grew illegally. However, Israel provides electricity and water and has paved roads to unauthorized Jewish settlement outposts — illegal according to both Israeli and international law — situated on the neighboring hilltops.
Impoverished and accessible only by four wheel drive vehicles, She'b El Buttum, population 150, has become a major flashpoint in the struggle over Area C. At the beginning of the month, Israeli military authorities issued demolition orders against the turbines and solar panels here and in five other villages on the grounds that they were built illegally. The German government has voiced "concern" over the orders and says it is "in close contact with the Israeli government in order to find a solution."
Major Guy Inbar, a spokesman for Israeli military authorities, said of the demolition orders: "All the tents and buildings have been built illegally. Of course the solar panels were also built illegally. Using the backing of international assistance does not give immunity to violations." He stressed, however, that no final decision has been taken yet regarding the fate of the panels and turbines and that a subcommittee of military administrators is studying the matter.
Ms. al-Najar, an amiable but illiterate woman who wore a traditional black dress with purple embroidery, is worried that the power may now be cut off. She says the electricity has given her a chance for the first time ever "to relax a little. Work is hard. I worked all my life, first with my father and now with my children. Our income is from sheep and it takes a lot of effort. I am happy to have some rest." She takes issue with the Israeli assertion that She'b El Buttum was built illegally, saying her forebears have lived here for generations, long before the occupation started. Her nephew, Mohammed, adds that demolitions "will put us back in the old era." That was when he used to have to walk to the town of Yatta just to charge his mobile phone.
'I wanted to do something'
Noam Dotan, who co-directs Comet-ME and constructs the wind turbines, says: "This electricity is a first step for them. Having basic needs met is the key to their development." Mr. Dotan, a retired high-tech executive and physicist, for years took part in protests on behalf of local Palestinians before deciding that "I wanted to do something for and not just against."
He said there had been no point applying for a permit to build the turbines since it would have been turned down after a long process. Instead, he built them at night to try and escape notice of the authorities for as long as possible.
An internal EU report late last year said that if Israel's policies in Area C are not stopped, the "establishment of a viable Palestinian state seems more remote than ever."
But Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, denies that Israel is harming peace prospects through its policies in Area C. "We are acting in the framework of signed agreements. We were willing to move forward to sign more agreements, but that is not happening because the Palestinians refuse to negotiate." Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has made an Israeli freeze on settlements in the West Bank a precondition to resuming peace talks
In She'b el Buttum, Mr. Dotan said of the electricity "It's not a security threat. It's a positive project. What do they want? Do they want the people to be more poor? To be more violent?"