Connecting the West Bank to solar energy: A day at the Abu Kbeta family compound

ActivismIsrael/Palestine
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(Photo: Tomer Weinstein)

It was early morning Wednesday, exactly at 6:54am when I boarded the train from Tel-Aviv to Beit Shemesh. I was on my way to meet Noam, co-founder of Comet-ME (Community Electricity and Technology Middle East), one of only a handful of Israeli NGOs operating in the West Bank. Comet-ME aims to bring electricity to Palestinian communities that are off the electricity grid using solar panels and wind turbines, the latter of which they manufacture themselves. On the phone the night before, Noam explained that we were to lay electricity lines at the Abu Kbeta family compound at the very south of the West Bank. He also warned of the chilling January weather and advised me to bring warm clothes. Thus, armed with extra warm gear I got off the train at about 8am, met Noam and we headed in his small car to Comet-ME’s international HQ–his back yard. Perched on a hilltop overlooking rolling knolls was a 21-foot container filled with equipment and a covered area in front protecting parts of wind turbines.

We were waiting for Elad, the other co-founder, to arrive and take us to the project’s site. Both Elad and Noam are physicists; Noam is an ex-high tech executive and Elad an environmental expert. They met regularly at peace rallies and demonstrations. “Elad and I were political activists in Ta’ayush (an Arab-Jewish grassroots movement)” Noam explained. “We were working with the cave dwellers of South Hebron, helping them to draw water from wells, herd their cattle and harvest their olive trees all the while protecting them from Jewish settlers who would disturb them and beat them up.”

After a long while as activists Elad and Noam decided, “not to be a part of the conflict but rather a part of the solution.” The area of South of Hebron, which is in Area C (Areas in the West Bank under complete control of Israel), has two main problems: access to water and lack of electricity. At that time Noam had a growing interest with building wind turbines and coming from an electrical background they both decided to focus on providing electricity. “Tens of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank are not connected to electricity,” Noam continued. “For political reasons Israel prevents from about five thousand Palestinians of South Hebron to connect to the grid.” Elad and Noam decided something must be done to create a just existence for these people and started building wind turbines. In 2008 they managed to secure funds for their first project.

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Installing solar electricity in Umm al-Kheer. (Photo: Tomer Weinstein)

Elad arrived at the HQ. We loaded the gear onto the car, and set out to the West Bank. We passed through a checkpoint and began our climb up the beautiful mountains of Judea that were covered with green fuzz this time of year. We zoomed past the quarries of Hebron, and then the city itself. Elad was on the phone with Ala trying to arrange a meeting point. Ala is Comet’s new addition from Bethlehem. A mechanical Engineer, he is the on-site manager for this current project funded by the German Foreign Ministry. Instead of meeting us on the way as planned, Ala was in Umm al-Kheer, a small community where they were installing solar panels for another project. We changed direction and headed there.

We arrived at the village, a collection of shacks, just as a semi-trailer carrying bulldozers, and several 4x4s were leaving the area. We parked, got out and found ourselves in the aftermath’s confusion: Men and women from the community shouting, kids wandering and Peace activists and international press just arriving. “The Israeli Civil Administration demolished a widow’s house at the edge of the village earlier this morning” a peace activist told us. The solar installations Elad and Noam had set up were in another part of the village. Noam exclaimed, “this is anti-humanitarian. They are forcing people to demolish private property on private land when only a few kilometers away on stolen land a handful of settlers built an outpost and Israel immediately connected it with a road, electricity and water.” We met up with Ala, had a quick chat to catch-up on today’s work, and headed out in two cars.

As we passed to our right the large urban sprawl of Yata, south of Hebron, Noam explained that six local communities received demolition orders from the Israeli Civil Administration specifically for the wind turbines, solar panels and electricity rooms they had built. “Why?” I asked. “The backdrop is a recent European Union decision to initiate humanitarian projects in Area C – a move that apparently does not sit well with the Israeli authorities. Comet-ME’s projects are costly: about 80% of the funding goes directly to procurement – that’s a lot of dollars per Watt,” he clarified, “and the money comes from European development agencies, who are now taking a stand, trying to persuade Israeli authorities to back down. Sadly, this comes on expense of the local population.”

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Abu Kbeta family in Umm al-Kheer. (Photo: Tomer Weinstein)

After a 20-minute drive we crossed a checkpoint and Noam remarked that we are back in Israel. “This Palestinian family lives outside the West Bank?” I asked. “It’s a crazy situation” Noam began. Some sections of the West Bank Barrier are not built on the internationally accepted 1967 borderline but are erected within the West Bank. In this area it actually bites into the West Bank by about two kilometers, leaving the family within Israel. After a long legal battle in Israel’s High Court of Justice, the family received a unique recognition and is now allowed to stay outside the West Bank but not more than 500 meters away from their land. When they want to enter the West Bank for shopping or when the kids go to school, they must pass through the checkpoint, only a few hundred meters down the road, waiting for 30 to 45 minutes every day while their bags are x-rayed.

The Abu Kbeta family compound sits midway down a gentle slope. From afar the place seems like a run down storage area; shacks scattered around, ruins of stone buildings, an old tractor, and a few greenhouses to the right of a muddy pathway leading up from the main road. Towering over the compound just 100 meters away, behind a fence, is what looks like a suburban neighborhood. According to the family, I would later discover, during the 80s the Israeli government appropriated a piece of land belonging to them to build on it this quiet looking settlement. Noam told me that Jewish settlers almost never threatened them or destroyed the installations. On one occasion a group of settlers did cut off one cable connected to a solar panel, but the community chased them away before they could do more harm.

We drove up the muddy road, parked the car, unloaded the equipment and took it to the far end of the compound. The aim for the day was to conclude the laying of electricity cables, installation of light fixtures and switches, eventually connecting all shacks and caves to solar panels that would be placed above one of the caves.

42-year-old Ibrahim, his two brothers and his teenaged sons greeted us. Ibrahim and his brothers have been living here all their lives, born in one of the caves where the main fuse was installed the other day. Ibrahim has three wives and 22 children: from babies to teenagers. He and his brothers divided the land between them after their father had died. There is no running water nor electricity and the families rely on olive trees, goats and wheat for their subsistence.

There was a feeling of excitement in the compound. The children were very curious, asking questions, smiling at us and offering tea. Noam reminded me that it’s their sixth time here. “We’re in the West Bank a few times a week, and because our work has an ideological backing of opposing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank,” he continued, “it creates a bridge of understanding and strengthens trust between us Israelis and them.” Ibrahim told me that the family had installed once before small solar panels that give out 12v – enough to recharge cell phones and switch on a very dim light in the shack, which is the living room.

Work today is done in Arabic, English and Hebrew. At 11am with clear skies and a warm sun, we commenced. Noam, Elad and Ala were all business, and not much talk. They split the work among them: Elad was working on the light fixtures and switches, all the time making sure not to drill too deep and hit tin covers that make up the outer walls and roofs. When needed he translated between Hebrew, English and Arabic. Ala was installing electric boxes as well supervising the whole project.

Noam was planning with Ibrahim and his brothers where to put the cables. The family, including the children, dug trenches in the ground where needed. We were all working shoulder to shoulder. “The Palestinian communities never tried to stop us,” Noam said at one point, “on the contrary, we develop strong and deep bonds with the local population and they ask us for help in other issues. Over time we also established good relations with officials responsible for electricity in the Palestinian Authority.”

The day was beautiful and at one point I was only with a T-shirt, sweating and catching some sun, happy that Noam’s forecast was not coming true. If it gets bitter cold here, how do they stay warm in these conditions, I asked myself. We stopped for lunch at about 3pm–tomato salad and two huge platters piled with yellow rice and chicken they bought the same day–having no refrigeration they must consume meat within 24 hours of buying it. As we ate, Ibrahim’s older brother told me that every time they would build more sheds the government came and destroyed them, seven times in total, until an appeal they lodged reached the Israeli High Court of Justice that concluded that all structures that are already up should not be destroyed while new ones were not allowed to be built.

By 4.30pm we were out of the compound, having worked on seven structures including the sheds and one cave. Within the next few days, when the three would finish, the compound will have enough electricity to run a refrigerator, a washing machine and a computer. Young and old were all grateful. Ibrahim smiled “after more than 40 years, we will finally have electricity.”

Noam, Ala and I drove back in the same car. We dropped off Ala at the outskirts of Bethlehem (Israelis are not allowed into the city) and continued to Beit Shemesh train station. “The key to our success is that we are always in the field” Noam said. “We build mutual respect and trust over the years. It’s a process that takes time. But you can see the respect they show us, and how they protect the gear”. I asked Noam what was Comet-ME’s vision. “We want to establish a Palestinian organization which will eventually take over our work in the West Bank.” “You want to cease to exist?” I was stunned. “At the end of the day, the development work in Palestine like many other undeveloped places, should be carried out by local people. We are just guests. We are happy to be part of the process and pass the know how to motivated young people that would carry on many years after.” “We do everything alone, Elad and I” he continued, “from grant writing, down to building the turbines and ordering parts. We also do the installations and all necessary maintenance work. We’ve connected 1500 people to electricity in 4 years. There’s a lot to teach.” To sustain their projects, Comet-ME installs prepaid meters that the beneficiaries have to top up themselves. With this money, which goes into a bank account, they can finance about 70% of new batteries and perform other maintenance work.

The sun was low in the horizon as we made our way down the winding road towards the hills of Bet Shemesh. Suddenly, I noticed three people running on the roadside as if they were being chased. Noam stopped mid sentence and said as we passed them “you see these guys? These are illegal Palestinian workers that have an arrangement with Israeli employers from the area. There’s a hole in the fence somewhere down in the valley to our left and they sneak through it early in the morning and come back at dusk. Everyone knows about it, but no one closes it up. It’s there to ‘release pressure’ in the West Bank–to give people there a chance to work, even though they get picked up by the Israeli police and the pay is about 50 to 70 Shekels a day (about $20).”

Noam dropped me off at the train station, and I thanked him for an eye-opening experience. I waited for the train to take me back to the bubble of Tel Aviv, to a nice hot shower, some warm food I cooked yesterday and sitting down to write about my day with Comet-ME.

For more information about Comet-ME click here.

 

About Allison Deger

Allison Deger is the Assistant Editor of Mondoweiss.net. Follow her on twitter at @allissoncd.

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3 Responses

  1. ritzl
    March 8, 2012, 5:13 pm

    COMET-ME does great work. The problem is that Israel destroys this good work.

    A few years ago, Villages Group worked with them to install rainwater collection bladders in a few households to water small plots of greenhouse tomatoes. IIRC, they’re gone.

    Another aspect of this is that Sen. Levin’s (MI) constituents make small wind turbines, perfectly suited to these household needs. The company that makes them is (or at least was) HQd in Sen. Reid’s state (NV). What a great opportunity to get Reid and Levin (powerful) to combine to allocate (yes earmark) money to this project. It would replace, to some small degree, the jobs aspect of our military aid to Israel, and fits perfectly into Obama’s [stated] support of Green energy as US jobs producer. The US politics align perfectly to do so, by no coincidence.

    The downside, or trade off, to that is as you point out that the turbines being placed are made in the WB. Gaining some powerful players in US politics might be worth it though. Emphasis on might, all things considered. (There may even be a battery manufacturer to throw into that political mix.)

    Keep up the great work. You bring hope to people who need it so desperately.

  2. ritzl
    March 8, 2012, 5:31 pm

    Actually, how do you get around (or through) the permitting obstacle? Area A?

    I’m not trying to diminish anything about the good you are doing at all, I just think it’s an important, practical question.

  3. Henry Norr
    March 9, 2012, 5:25 am

    Sorry, guys, but to me this piece reads like some kind of liberal-imperialist-NGO fantasy: Israeli do-gooders, with a Palestinian sidekick tagging along, bring light to the benighted villagers, and “Young and old were all grateful.”

    Author Weinstein (who apparently is or until recently was a project manager at Cisco, I discovered by googling his name) mentions that the Israeli authorities had destroyed a widow’s house the day he visited Umm al-Kheer, and that they had repeatedly destroyed Ibrahim’s family’s sheds until the Israeli Supreme Court made them stop. But he doesn’t convey the sustained and systematic quality of the ongoing Israel campaign to force the tiny village’s Beduin residents out, evidently to make way for further expansion of the adjacent settlement of Karmel. I’m not sure when it began, but the heroic Ezra Nawi was arrested in Umm al-Kheer in 2007 when he tried, in vain, to protect a home from demolition. In October 2008 the Israeli army demolished ten house-tents there, leaving 60 people homeless, according to Operation Dove, the Italian humanitarian organization that’s been active in the area since 2004. In July 2009 the army came back to destroy some toilets. In September 2011 they leveled three houses and one toilet.

    At the beginning of this year 12 structures were under demolition orders, and on Jan. 8 eight more were added to the list. Then on Jan. 25 (perhaps the day Weinstein was there?) the Israelis bulldozed not one but two houses – neither of which had a demolition order! (Video here.)

    Aside from downplaying the demolition campaign, Weinstein quotes Comet-ME co-founder Noam Dotan to the effect that “Jewish settlers almost never threatened them or destroyed the installations.” Apparently “them” refers to the Comet-ME crews, because numerous other observers – including Operation Dove, the Villages Group, and UNRWA – have all documented routine settler harassment of Umm al-Kheer’s residents.

    The author does note that “six local communities received demolition orders from the Israeli Civil Administration specifically for the wind turbines, solar panels and electricity rooms they had built” – a development previously mentioned on Mondoweiss here (by Phil) and here – but somehow Weinstein doesn’t let that news mar his happy tale.

    All in all, I don’t think this post effectively communicates what’s really going on in the South Hebron hills.

    Back in December, Living on Earth, Public Radio International’s environment show, also did a puff piece about the good Israelis of Comet-ME trying to make life better for the West Bank village of Tha’le. But last week, in the wake of Israel ordering the demolition of the solar panels there, LOE returned to the story, and to my ear the update had a tone distinctly critical of Israel, particularly by public-radio standards. In fact, it’s considerably more hard-hitting than Weinstein’s post – except that at the end the host quotes a spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs making the laughable assertion that “had the West Bank villagers applied for the permits [for the solar panels], they probably would have gotten them.”

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