ABU KBEITA, West Bank—Driving around the West Bank it’s easy to tell if you are among Jewish settlements or Palestinian communities. Red roofing tiles on concrete houses, paved roads, playgrounds for children, and other indicators of Western-style suburbia mean you are in a settlement. If houses are densely packed together, and the road is bumpy, it’s Palestinian land. And where the roads between villages are dirt or nonexistent, the roofs are tin, and homes lack water or electricity, you are almost certainly in the twilight zone of Area C, a technical designation for parts of the West Bank where Jewish settlements lie—and where Palestinians live in conditions reminiscent of the developing world.
In Area C, home to all the Jewish settlements on land occupied by Israel since the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel is the sovereign power on both security and civilian matters. In Area B, the Palestinian authority handles civil issues and Israel is in charge of the security aspects; Area A has reverted to full Palestinian control.
The different rules translate into very different living conditions for Palestinians. In Area C’s Abu Kbeita community, in the Southern Hebron Hills, a few dozen Palestinians live lives similar to those of their ancestors centuries ago; they are typically shepherds. The community lies just outside a security fence surrounding the Jewish Beit Yatir settlement; electricity lines pass above the Palestinian homes, which are little more than sheds, connecting the settlers’ concrete houses to the Israeli electrical grid and the outside world.
The wires are a reminder of the new wedge dividing Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank: renewable energy development. Israelis in settlements that international law says are illegal are investing in solar farms to sell electricity to Israel’s grid; meanwhile, the Israeli Civil Administration that supports the settlements places significant obstacles before Palestinians wanting to access electricity. In the past few months construction on at least four solar farms has begun in Area C, all of them on settlement land. Human rights lawyers say these facilities, because they aim to support the settlement economy, violate international law. Meanwhile, Palestinians here who hope to benefit from solar electricity have seen their installations damaged by vandals and threatened with destruction by Israeli authorities.
Increased violence between Israelis and Palestinians has grabbed headlines in recent weeks: Knife attacks across Israel and demonstrations in West Bank and on the Gaza border have left 10 Israelis and 70 Palestinians (including some of the attackers) dead. Though the impetus is ostensibly Israeli actions involving the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the cause of Palestinian anger in the West Bank runs much deeper, fueled by the reality of life under a military occupation, including lack of access to modern comforts like the energy that powers their Israeli neighbors’ homes.
According to the 2014 annual report of the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the 300,000 Palestinians in Area C “are subject to a complex system of control by the Israeli authorities that includes restrictions on the ability of people to build or access land. Many of these restrictions relate to Israeli settlements and their infrastructure.”
OCHA suggests that when it comes to access to land, resources, or infrastructure, settlers get preferential treatment. It is commonly understood that the more homes and infrastructure built and maintained by Israel exist in the West Bank, the more entrenched the settlement movement becomes—and the more difficult it will be to end it. The solar farms are the latest of these “facts on the ground” and as such would advance a goal of making the settlements permanent.
In October, I traveled to the occupied territories to investigate this trend. The solar plants themselves were unremarkable; they looked the same as any such facility. What was striking was the stark contrast in living standards they would enhance.
Stone attacks on Jewish cars are frequent during these tense days in the West Bank. Driving around the South Mount Hebron region in our Israeli rental car, we stick close to vehicles with Palestinian license plates, hoping it will make us less of a potential target. We are going to meet Noam Dotan and Elad Orian, Israelis who in 2009 founded the NGO Comet-ME (Community, Energy and Technology in the Middle East), which aims to help Palestinians with, as Orian put it, “basic human needs”—water and electricity.
Most Palestinians around the tiny Qawawis village where Comet-ME maintains offices live in caves or rickety houses typically made from a sad-looking combination of wood, aluminum, and an occasional stone. Many, here and throughout Area C, lack connections to services like electrical or water systems.
Arriving at Comet-ME’s small compound, some of it built in renovated caves, we find Dotan, who is wearing a worn-out T-shirt printed with the slogan “Doing Good.” He shows us around the offices, the electrical lab, and a microbiological lab where they are developing a project to provide clean water.
Dotan explains that Comet-ME, a donor-funded group, has built 20 facilities providing electricity to about 2,000 people in the West Bank, which he describes as “perfect” for renewable energy—both windy and sunny. The average cost of installing equipment, aimed to last for 15 years, for one family is $5,000 to $8,000. Solar panels produce 60 to 80 percent of the electricity at each facility; wind turbines produce the rest. The energy is stored in batteries and is available 24-7. On average, each family receives 2.5 kilowatt-hours per day, or 912 kilowatt-hours annually, less than a tenth of the annual electricity consumption for the average U.S. home. Comet-ME trains one or two people from each community to maintain the equipment.
I enter the cave of a family of five, the Abu Araaim family, in Qawawis. They were connected to electricity four years ago, and now they have bright lights, a fridge to store the dairy products they produce, and a TV blaring Al Jazeera. The water they drink is cleaner, as the electricity enabled installation of water pumps and filters. “It changed people’s lives,” Dotan tells me, “and opened a window to the world.”
Despite this, 16 of Comet-ME's 20 facilities, Orian says, are in various stages of facing demolition by order of the Civil Administration. He shows me a thick folder in which he keeps communication with the Israeli authorities; it contains demolition orders even for parts of Comet-ME’s offices.
“The Israeli Civil Administration issued demolition orders against solar installations, which provide minimal electricity for the weakest Palestinian communities,” he says. “After we get an injunction [against the construction] we’re entering into the bureaucratic grinder: We ask to get permission in retrospect, and they refuse. Then we get a hearing, and they won’t accept our claims. So we appeal, and the appeal is denied. Then the Civil Administration can file a final demolition [order]. That is the case with one of our facilities, so we petitioned [Israel’s] Supreme Court asking them to withhold the demolition. They issued an interim order [against demolition], and that’s where we stand now.”
I later asked Alon Cohen-Lifshitz, from the Israeli NGO Bimkom, which works on issues of planning and development in the West Bank, to walk me through the process a Palestinian would go through to obtain a permit for installing solar panels on a home in Area C. “There is no such process,” he laughed. “The primary condition for laying panels on a structure would be that that structure was built with permission. It’s almost impossible to find any such building in Area C.”
Asked why, Lifshitz replied, “Israel wants as many Palestinians as possible out of Area C and to have them relocated to Areas B and A. That aspiration take shape in many forms—not letting them connect to water and electricity is one of them.”
A request to interview an official from the Civil Administration about its policy was refused, but I received a written response to some questions: “Erecting solar fields and panels should be done in accordance with the photovoltaic facilities regional master plan for residents in area C. During last year, in order to encourage usage of such energy, we made changes that ease the process of receiving building permits. Comet-ME Panels were built without a permit, against the law, hence are subject to demolition orders.”
The occupying power must manage [natural resources] for the benefit of the occupied people, and...if the proceeds are not invested back in the occupied community, that is a violation of international law.
Michael Sfard, human rights lawyer
But the master plan the official referred to, which was provided to me, deals only with solar facilities that are connected to the electrical grid. It contains no section about off-grid facilities such as the ones Comet-ME is building for Palestinians (or that Palestinians build on their own). Arab villages are rarely connected to Israel’s electrical grid, which makes the requirement that solar panels be connected to it a catch-22 for many. Moreover, a 2013 U.N. report stated, “The lack of an appropriate planning and zoning system in Area C means that most Palestinians cannot obtain permits for construction or rehabilitation of homes, animal shelters, or essential infrastructure.”
“One would think,” Orian says, “that at least when it comes to an unlimited natural resource like the sun, the authorities would allow all to benefit from it.”
At the same time, Israel’s government is facilitating construction of such infrastructure in the Jewish settlements—including, in recent months, solar-power-generating plants. Just a few miles from Comet-ME’s headquarters, it’s easy to see how this effort has changed the landscape surrounding Jewish settlements. We come to a settlement-owned solar field being built near the Palestinian city of Yata, in Meitarim industrial complex—a 5-megawatt project of the publicly traded Israeli company Energix and the Har Hevron Regional Council, which administers Israeli settlements in the area. The guard on duty denies us entry.
From there we travel down to the Jordan Valley. It’s only a 90-minute drive, but a completely different landscape. Growing pressure in the ears tells us we are descending from bare, rocky mountains to the lowest point on Earth, just off the Dead Sea. Along the way, I spot many solar panels on the roofs of public buildings and factories inside settlements.
The drive to turn unused settlement land in the occupied territories into solar fields began with the settlement movement itself, in particular a man named Adi Mintz. He chaired a settlers’ organization, Amana, which works to advance and build new settlements, and is now the CEO of a private company owned by Amana, Green Yesha, which promotes environmentally friendly projects in settlements. Green Yesha pushed the Israeli government to issue permits for solar farms on settlement land; Israel’s Electricity Authority, a regulatory body issued the first such permits a few years ago. Initially, banks were reluctant to provide loans for projects on disputed land that eventually might be turned over to the Palestinians, but a ministerial committee formed by Israel’s right-wing governing coalition decided in February 2014 the state would back the loans.
“The state gave collateral because no one wanted to put money into it,” said Danny Danan, the CEO of Enerpoint Israel, which is building 13,000 solar panels on 12.3 acres at the Netiv Hagdud settlement.
The solar farms at Netiv Hagdud, Meitarim, and Kalia Kibbutz, an Israeli settlement at the northern tip of the Dead Sea, are three of the large commercial fields that have been built or have begun construction on occupied Palestinian land since the government guaranteed the loans. For the settlements the solar farms are an investment: The electricity produced is sold to the state-owned Israel Electric Company for a profit and tied into Israel’s electrical grid. Foreign companies, including American ones, are involved in the projects as investors and vendors of materials and equipment.
The solar farm Danan’s company is building, at Netiv Hagdud, is some 12 miles from the Palestinian city of Jericho. I traveled to the site with Dror Etkes, an Israeli who runs Kerem Navot, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit that researches land use and access policies in the West Bank. Etkes, 47, seems to know every curve along the roads here and obsessively monitors changes and construction around the area. He was the one to initially identify the gold rush for solar power in the occupied territories. “For an Israeli,” he said, “land is a very cheap and very available resource in the West Bank. Sun is also not a problem in this part of the world.”
Enerpoint Israel, a subsidiary of the Italian company Enerpoint, and another company, We Are Green, invested more than $6 million in Netiv Hagdud. On completion, it will produce 4 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 600 Western-style homes.
Reached by phone at his office in the city of Rosh Haayin, which borders the West Bank a few miles east of Tel Aviv, Enerpoint Israel CEO Danan was keen to discuss obstacles facing companies like his. He talked at length about difficulties competing with what he defined as the “gas monopoly” in Israel and the limited number of permits companies get for developing renewable energy.
But when asked about the construction in Netiv Hagdud, Danan fell silent. Like others who operate businesses across the green line, Danan was reluctant to discuss these operations. “Don’t involve me with politics,” he said.
I also called Zeev Peretz, the owner of Shachar Energy, which specializes in installing solar systems and holds an agreement withGreen Yesha, to ask about his company’s work in the West Bank. “I don’t like the sound of your questions,” he said when I asked about the construction of solar farms in the West Bank. “I have no interest that people will know what is going on in Judea and Samaria,” he said, using the settlement-movement terms for the occupied territories.
I asked Michael Sfard, one of Israel’s leading human rights lawyers, what international law says about the use of resources on occupied land. He said that “any exploitation of the occupied lands for the economic benefit of the occupying power” is prohibited. “Regulation 55 of the Hague Regulations…stipulates that the Occupying Power is considered (only) a trustee of public property, including natural resources of the occupied land. This regulation was interpreted to include natural resources, like mines and oil fields.” Although unlimited resources such as the sun or wind make the issue “indeed more complex,” Sfard continued, “the occupying power must manage such resource for the benefit of the occupied people and…if the proceeds are not invested back in the occupied community, that is a violation of international law.”
Although no sign states the name of the company building the 10.8-megawatt solar field in Kalia Kibbutz, the biggest in the West Bank to date, I learned the project is a joint venture of the kibbutz and the Israeli company Clal Sun, in which the American company SunEdison is a shareholder. The CEO of Clal Sun, Ofir Goma, confirmed as much in a phone call. Once the site is active, Goma explained, the produced electricity can reach anywhere in Israel.
When I asked Goma for a tour of the site, he said he would have to ask for permission, as it is a “sensitive” issue. Surprised, I asked him, “You are the CEO—who do you need to get permission from?”
“You mentioned my shareholders,” he replied, “so you understand this is a loaded matter.”
I called SunEdison, but its representative referred inquiries back to Clal Sun. “Kalia project 100% belongs to Clal Sun,” Juan Ignacio Moreno Arranz, senior marketing and communications manager, replied by email. “We have a joint venture with Clal Sun, but this project belongs to our partner and not to us.”
Getting out of our car at Abu Kbeita, the Arab community near the Beit Yatir settlement, we meet two Red Cross employees who are just about to leave. A well-dressed foreigner and his local translator, they came to complete a report on an incident that happened three days earlier: Stones were thrown on solar panels providing electricity to Abu Kbeita, cracking a few of them.
Electricity arrived here only two years ago, produced via the now-shattered solar panels. “It was hard without it,” one of the residents, Ibrahim Abu Kbeita, tells me in perfect Hebrew. “My kids couldn’t do their homework at night. We didn’t have a TV. Life truly improved since.”
Speaking of the settlers at Beit Yatir, he says, “Kids are coming, throwing stones, breaking the panels, scaring us.”