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Arrested development: Strangling Palestine's green power

Feb. 12, 2012 8:52 P.M. (Updated: Feb. 17, 2012 9:38 A.M.)
By: Charlotte Alfred
MASAFER YATTA (Ma'an) -- Development organizations and green energy pioneers face a political quagmire when working in Palestinian communities under full Israeli control.

In recent months, the army issued demolition warnings against six solar and wind power systems in the South Hebron Hills, which were funded by European governments and development groups.

"What can you do if there are impediments to development, such as an undefined de-development policy?" says Tsafrir Cohen, Middle East coordinator of Medico International, which supported two of the systems.

Known locally as Masafer Yatta, the communities lie almost entirely in Area C, the 62 percent of the West Bank under full Israel civil and security control since the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Around 150,000 Palestinians living on this land must apply to Israel to build on their land, including connecting to water, road and electricity networks. The UN humanitarian affairs office says that permits are only possible on the one percent of Area C that has an Israeli-approved zoning plan, most of which is already built-up.

Development groups thus face a dilemma.

Cohen says if Medico International abandons development work in Area C, moving to Palestinian Authority-controlled areas where permits are not a problem, they would do little more than "painting the walls of Bantustans."

"We cannot just facilitate a nice jail cell, and a system where people don’t have rights."

Gifts of nature

Green energy advocates saw a chance to circumvent the spiraling demolitions of Palestinian buildings in the West Bank, which doubled in 2011 according to the UN.

Although Masafer Yatta is isolated and restricted by geography and politics, "they benefit from the gifts of nature -- the wind and sun," a founder of local renewables group Comet-ME, Noam Dotan, says.

The wind and solar energy systems springing up around the region also have advantages in the long term. All Palestinian energy is purchased from Israeli suppliers, restricting Palestine’s independence and viability as an independent state, he says.

"Palestine does not have its own energy -- renewables could be a future source," Dotan notes.

But the champions of renewable energy in Palestine are working under different limitations than other green power movements, Ala Qawasmi, an engineer with Comet-ME, says.

"The land area is limited, and it would be easier to connect to the grid than, for example, in African communities, but the problem here is political."

"Grid electricity would be much better for us than solar," says Aziz Muhammad Hadhalin, 26, an engineer and community activist in Masafer Yatta village Um al-Kher. "But solar is our only choice because building is forbidden by the Israelis."

Hadhalin says the solar installation cannot by itself provide the village with enough continuous energy. But Qawasmi points out it is vastly better than the previous solution of diesel power generators.

Solar and renewable energy is cleaner and more competitively priced than the gas-guzzling generators, he says.

Villagers used to switch on the generators for only a couple of hours at night to save money, so the solar panels and turbines whose batteries’ store power gave villagers their first access to refrigerators and washing machines depending on continuous energy.

Renewable energy under threat

But villagers now fear even European-supported renewable power will be frustrated by the Israeli military’s planning regime, after the army ordered six solar and wind energy systems taken down.

It began on Sept. 10, when Israeli authorities issued demolition orders for a Spanish-government funded community solar panel in Masafer Yatta.

Supplying 450 Palestinians living in Imneizil village with electricity, SEBA, the Spanish NGO supporting the project, says it never received a reply to its application for a permit.

COGAT, the Israeli military of defense department in charge of civilian life in the West Bank, says the solar panels are illegal without a permit, and the whole area "is missing any legal status," according to spokesman Guy Inbar.

"Their decision makes me very sad," Imeizil resident Nihad Mur, 25, told Ma’an in November.

"With solar light, we can see each other at night … We have access to the news, we don’t have to go out to fetch water … our clinic can use ultrasound machines."

She hopes her 3-year-old son Muhammad will grow up to be a doctor, but the village school needs the panels to power computers, and some of its classrooms are also under demolition order.

Threats to demolish vital village resources are intended to "silently move us from the land," village council head Ali Muhammad Ali Heirezat says. "We have been here since 1948, and we don’t have another place to go."

Forces handed out 10 more demolition orders to Imneizil on Dec. 29.

After international media attention and contacts by the Spanish government, Israeli authorities told the Spanish consulate in Jerusalem in November that they were freezing the demolition of the solar panels.

COGAT's Inbar says they are reviewing a plan of the village which could give it legal status, and will postpone demolition unless the plan is rejected.

"We can expect the Israelis not to demolish any EU-funded project in the West Bank without losing credibility in the international media," a SEBA representative told Ma’an on hearing of the freeze.

But on Jan. 4, a solar electricity system funded by the German Foreign Office in Saadet Thaalah received a stop work order from Israeli forces, effectively a demolition notice as the structure was already completed.

After contacts by the German government, Israeli authorities postponed a hearing to implement the demolition, which powers around 80 villagers.

"It shows you need a big guy behind you," says Tsafrir Cohen from Medico International.

But COGAT, which says the system is on "unregulated" land, insists the order will be enforced "based on predetermined priorities as were set ahead by the authorized ranks in the (Israeli) Civil Administration," according to Inbar.

Then last Tuesday, Israeli forces issued stop work orders to four solar and wind power systems in Haribat, al-Nabi, Shaab al-Butum, Qawawis and Wadi al-Shesh villages.

Masafer Yatta activists now fear for every village that is using the wind and sun for power. Development organizations involved in the project are questioning its future.

"This is a big fight, because how else can you have security that you are not spending money on nothing?" says Cohen.

Development under occupation

Hebron governor Kemal Hemaid says last year’s surge in demolitions is designed to put pressure on the Palestinian Authority and international organizations, to prevent them from working in Area C.

"They are stopping internationals from doing anything here," Hemaid says.

Meanwhile, a recently-leaked EU report calls for greater European support for development and building projects in Area C to safeguard a viable Palestinian state.

"The window for a two-state solution is rapidly closing with the continued expansion of Israeli settlements and access restrictions for Palestinians in Area C, (which) compromises crucial natural resources and land for the future demographic and economic growth of a viable Palestinian state," the report says.

But Medico International representative Tsafrir Cohen lays out the paradox facing Europe.

"There will be no Palestinian state without these people, and without their rights … one of these rights is electricity," he says. "And the German Foreign Office supports the two state solution."

"But at the end of the day an occupying power can do whatever they want."

View Electricity access in Masafer Yatta in a larger map

This Ma'an special report is the last in a series published over the week, which can be accessed here and here. This map shows some of the stories collected by Ma'an.
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