Israel threatens to demolish German-funded solar energy systems in West Bank

Solar panels help provide electricity to more than 1,500 Palestinians in Area C.

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours IPS

SHEB AL-BUTTUM, WEST BANK (IPS) - A handful of makeshift homes built from small boulders and plastic tarps and secured with thick ropes sit in the isolated community of Sheb al-Buttum in the South Hebron Hills. A few meters away, several rows of solar panels and two wind turbines are affixed to the rocky hilltop, providing electricity to the village’s 150 residents.

“We use the electricity for the milking machine, for the washing machine, the fridge, and for getting light when night falls,” said Ismail al-Jabarin, a 43-year-old Sheb al-Buttum resident. “Before getting access to electricity, we lived on a generator that functioned two hours a day only, and had frequent problems. It is much, much better with electricity.”

As herders who rely on goats, sheep and other animals for their livelihoods, residents of Sheb al-Buttum used to spend three hours a day manually churning milk into butter. With access to reliable electricity, the process now takes only half an hour.

“If the military forces come and destroy the electricity, our life will turn miserable again,” al-Jabarin said. “Our life is much more comfortable with electricity. Life without electricity is deplorable and very difficult.”

Stop-work orders

The Israeli Civil Administration — the Israeli military body that controls Area C of the occupied West Bank — has issued stop-work orders on solar panel and wind turbine systems in six separate communities in South Mount Hebron, including Sheb al-Buttum. Area C is the part of the West Bank under Israeli control, while Area A is under Palestinian Authority control and Area B under joint control.

These orders in Area C are seen as the first step to demolishing the renewable energy systems entirely. The systems were installed by Israeli group Community Electricity and Technology Middle East (COMET-ME), and funded in large part by the German foreign ministry.

“The solar units were installed illegally through donations from an international body without requesting the proper permits as required by the law,” Guy Inbar, spokesman for the Israeli Civil Administration, wrote in an email message.

“International aid is an important component in improving and promoting the quality of life of the Palestinian population but this does not grant immunity for illegal or uncoordinated activity.”

According to COMET-ME co-founder Noam Dotan, however, applying for building permits in Palestinian communities in Area C is futile. “We didn’t ask for permits [for the renewable energy systems] because we wouldn’t get any permits,” Dotan said.

“The reason you cannot get a permit is strictly a political reason. You see all the Israeli settlements around: they expand, with or without permits. Palestinians do not get permits. We wouldn’t be able to get a permit to build and install a single solar panel.”

Permit applications rejected

Approximately 150,000 Palestinians live in Area C, which accounts for more than 60 percent of the West Bank. As the occupying power, Israel has a responsibility under international humanitarian law to guarantee that the basic needs of residents living under its control are met. This includes providing Palestinians with adequate housing, health, education and water rights.

Despite this, Israeli settlement watch group Peace Now found that between 2000 and 2007, the Israeli Civil Administration rejected 94 percent of Palestinians’ building permit applications in the area.

During the same period, Israeli settlers built over 18,000 new homes in Area C. Israel also provides settlement outposts like Mitzpe Yair — which sits on the hilltop opposite Sheb al-Buttum and is illegal under both international and Israeli laws — with electricity and water, paved access roads, and other services.

“The settlers prevent us to enter [the valley] to graze our sheep. Any time we go with the sheep there, they just don’t allow us; sometimes they even shoot at us and at the sheep,” said Sheb al-Buttum resident Ismail al-Jabarin. “They have everything [in the settlement] while we don’t have anything.”

Currently, COMET-ME’s solar panel and wind turbine installations provide electricity to more than 1,500 people in 19 communities throughout the South Mount Hebron area, which counts a total Palestinian population of approximately 8,000.

The organization says it is now working on building international pressure to overturn the demolition orders. The German government, for instance, has voiced its concerns to the Israeli government, and is said to be closely following the situation.

In the dark

Still, should the demolitions go ahead, at least 500 Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills would be left in the dark.

“You can’t even start to imagine the impact the electricity brought to the daily life here. At four o’clock in the afternoon in the winter, it’s already dark. Children coming from school, they need some light to read and prepare homework. People are using all sorts of mechanized, motorized equipment for the dairy [production] process. They would just go back to the Stone Age,” COMET-ME’s Noam Dotan said.

“Israel goes around the world to help when there are earthquakes, tsunamis, whatever, but in their own backyard, when they have under-developed communities that they are obliged to protect, they not only don’t do that but they demolish projects made to support the people.”

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