How solar brought Muslims and Jews together in one West Bank village

One nonprofit looks beyond politics to bring contentious groups together in the West Bank.

Baz Ratner/Reuters/File
An ultra-Orthodox youth walks past a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit in 2013.

A solar project funded and operated by both Jews and Muslims is shining some light on Auja, a small Palestinian town located in one of the most controversial territories on Earth.

The $100,000 project is harnessing solar energy to power the drawing of water from deep underground to irrigate a grove of palms growing the prized Medjool dates. It is the first large project to be funded by both Jews and Muslims in the United States – including former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg – and to be operated by Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims on the ground.

The solar array is providing an economic boost to 45 farming families in this town of 5,000 Palestinians on the eastern flank of the West Bank who struggle with scarce water and unreliable and expensive electricity. Although claimed by the State of Palestine, along with the Gaza Strip and a portion of eastern Jerusalem, the West Bank has been contentiously occupied by Israel, which continues to build settlements across the region in defiance of international law, as The Christian Science Monitor has reported.

“It’s either you’re all in or you’re not in,” said 33-year-old Ben Jablonski, a former Manhattan investment banker who is leading the project through a nonprofit he founded called Build Israel Palestine. Mr. Jablonski, who is Jewish, started the organization in 2014 with Tarek Elgawhary, an Egyptian Muslim religious scholar in Washington, D.C. who also runs Coexist, an educational nonprofit.

Jablonski gave up his board seat with the Jewish National Fund, a nonprofit infrastructure developer that has limited but controversial involvement in West Bank settlements, in order to meet the demands from the Auja community, which insisted that donors and engineers involved in the project have no connections to Israeli settlements. 

“We don’t want anything to do with them,” Ahmad Injoum, a 54-year-old whose family owns the land hosting the solar array, said of the project requirements to the Times.

The use of water, land and other natural resources by Israeli settlements in the West Bank violate international conventions, according to Human Rights Watch,  a nonprofit activist organization that published a report in January suggesting that private companies doing business with West Bank settlements contribute to the human rights violations of Palestinians living in the region.

When it comes to water, already a scarce resource in the region mostly because of Israeli government restrictions, the half a million Israeli settlers in the West Bank consumed as much or more than the 2.3 million Palestinians living there, according to a 2009 report by human rights organization Amnesty International.

Build Israel Palestine’s work focuses on providing Palestinians access to water, and doing so by bringing Muslims and Jews together on projects, a feat that has been impossible to accomplish in the political realm.

“Note, our work is not a substitute for a political solution for the Israeli / Palestinian conflict,” writes the nonprofit on its website. “We are doing what we can to help people, which is needed regardless of the political climate,” says the organization.

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