Remote West Bank Villages Get Power
Dahlia Shaham sits with some woman from Tha'le during an energy workshop. The men are seated just outside the door. (Photo: Zak Rosen)
In the Mt. Hebron region of the West Bank, many Palestinian and Bedouin communities have little access to water and electricity. Now, a cross-cultural project among Israelis and Palestinians is bringing renewable energy to these villages, giving them a chance to increase their skills and incomes. Zak Rosen reports.
GELLERMAN: For some Palestinians and Bedouin communities on the West Bank, herding is a way of life, and so is poverty. Residents have limited access to water, electricity and food. But a group of Israelis and Palestinians is trying to make a difference and renewable technology is the key. Zak Rosen has our story.
ROSEN: It’s not that Israeli Dhalia Shaham doesn’t care about the prospects of Palestinian statehood. She does. If this were three years ago, she’d be following any sort of geopolitical development very closely. But today...
SHAHAM: Most of the discourse is about one state or two states. Where will the border cross? And that I find is one of the least important questions if you’re thinking about what peace would look like and how people are going to live.
ROSEN: Dahlia’s idea of what is important changed after she became disillusioned with her job at a think tank that advises the Israeli government on policy planning.
SHAHAM: The question is how people actually live and how their interests are taken care of and how they find ways to cooperate. And actually doing that work and finding out how this cooperation can take place and what are the limits of that cooperation is what I’m involved in now.
[SOUND OF CAR WINDOW OPENING: (To guard at checkpoint) “Boker tov.” WINDOW CLOSES, SOUNDS OF DRIVING]
SHAHAM: Yeah, so going into the West Bank, is no problem.
ROSEN: I’m driving with Dahlia from Tel Aviv, down to the West Bank to South Mt. Hebron where it’s sunny and rocky and pristine. On our way to a small village called Tha’le we pass several Jewish settlements, as well as young boys riding donkeys behind herds of sheep.
SHAHAM: It’s kind of like the western outskirts of Hebron.
ROSEN: At least once a week, Dahlia drives from her home in Herzilia, near Tel Aviv into South Mt. Hebron.
ROSEN: I am the Development Manager for COMET-ME.
ROSEN: COMET-ME stands for Community Energy and Technology in the Middle East. And what they do is build and install wind turbines and solar panels in small Palestinian and Bedouin villages.
[ARABIC BEING SPOKEN, LAUGHTER]
ROSEN: Tha’le, like a lot of villages in this area is made up of just a dozen or so families. The people here live in shanty-like tents or caves. That’s why they’re known as cave dwellers.
SHAHAM: A lot of them are in constant struggle to be able to hold on to the lands where they’ve been living for dozens of years that are being encroached on by settlement activity or military activity.
[SOUND OF WIND]
ROSEN: From where I’m standing, on top of a hill, on the outskirts of the village, I can see an electric line just a few hundred meters away. But the people here, mostly herders, don’t have access to that energy.
SHAHAM: In order to understand the political complications that deprive these people of electricity, you need to understand the structure of the Oslo accords that divided the West Bank into area A, area B, and Area C.
ROSEN: Area A is under full control of the Palestinian Authority.
SHAHAM: Area B is under civilian control of the Palestinian Authority but security and military control of Israel.
ROSEN: And then there’s Area C where Tha’le is, along with 62% of the West Bank. And it’s in Area C where the Israeli settlements are.
SHAHAM: Area C is under full control of the Israel Civil Administration and military. So these communities that are in Area C...
ROSEN: She’s talking about the Palestinian and Bedouin communities.
SHAHAM: They cannot receive services from the Palestinian Authority, because the Palestinian Authority has no authority to supply services. And they do not receive services from the Israeli Civil Administration.
ROSEN: And so, since some of these rural communities don’t have access to electricity, COMET exists as way for them to get it.
ORIAN: These are batteries that are specifically designed for solar applications for off-grid. The chemistry is specifically adjusted for that.
ROSEN: That’s Elad Orian. He and another Israeli physicist founded COMET in 2009. Today, they have eight employees. Half Israeli and half Palestinian.
[JAMEEL AWAD, SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
ROSEN: This is Jameel Awad. He’s 47 years old and has lived in Tha’le for his entire life. He wears chunky, brown, work boots and a blue kafia on his head.
[JAMEEL AWAD, SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
SHAHAM: He said that with the electricity they will have light and they will have chadada, which is the electrical butter churning and he’s saying we’re going to have television and the woman can have a better time and they can rest better.
ROSEN: In Tha’le, goats and sheep are the community’s lifeblood.
SHAHAM: Like if you have extra money you buy a sheep. It produces dairy products – they hardly do anything with the wool – so it’s mostly dairy production and then selling the sheep off as meat too.
ROSEN: Before they had electricity, the women here would spend up to three hours manually churning butter with the skin of a goat. But now, they can buy electric butter churners. Saving lots of time and energy. And, before electricity, there was nowhere to store their freshly churned butter. So it would usually turn into soup by the time it got to market. But now, they can store it in their refrigerators.
COMET has installed mini-grids in over a dozen communities so far. And in those villages, they say the electricity has increased the communities’ income by as much as 70 percent. That’s a big deal here; in one of the poorest regions of the world.
[SOUND OF COMET EMPLOYEE, SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
ROSEN: Since Tha’le sits at the bottom of a valley, COMET hasn’t installed wind turbines here, just 30 solar panels. And now that they’ve been installed Ala Qawasmi, a COMET employee from Ramallah leads a workshop with the residents. He explains the dos and don’ts of their new hook-up.
Then he hands out a laminated chart with text and pictures. It shows that it’s okay to use cellphone chargers, refrigerators and light bulbs. But the use of tea kettles and warm water washing machines will suck up too much energy.
SHAHAM: In South Mt. Hebron, even if occupation ends tomorrow, and the Palestinian state starts extending its national grid, it would still take years before they actually reach those communities.
ROSEN: More than once, Dahlia mentions her role here in the West Bank. She’s here because she and COMET have knowledge and technology they want to transfer.
SHAHAM: And you need to have an exit strategy.
ROSEN: And that’s why in the future, COMET hopes to move toward being run almost entirely by Palestinians.
SHAHAM: You need to develop this in a way that you cannot be there anymore and that it can keep going.
ROSEN: So after the workshop, someone from Tha’le will emerge as the electricity manager for their community. They’ll be taught basic diagnostic care and upkeep for the system. And each household will pay a utility bill, which goes toward subsidizing the cost of the program.
SHAHAM: In this work, my favorite thing about it is that I’m not bothered by the question, well I am bothered by it, but it’s not part of my work to talk about whether there’s gonna be peace or conflict. I’m in an island of peace. That’s where I work. And I'm not there because I’m Israeli and they’re Palestinian. I’m there because I have a function in an organization that provides them service.
ROSEN: And as long as the poverty gap exists in this region of the world, Dahlia wants her work to involve the people who are marginalized the most. For Living on Earth, I’m Zak Rosen.
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