Electricity returns to Palestinian village, three months after Israel confiscates power system

Each family in Jubbet Adh-Dhib village is allotted only three kilowatt hours per day as Israeli-Palestinian group reinstalls hybrid solar power system taken by Israel

Electricity has been restored to the modest stone and cement houses of the Palestinian village Jubbet Adh-Dhib, southeast of Bethlehem. In late June, the Civil Administration confiscated the hybrid (solar and diesel) electrical system that had been in operation there for eight months.

The reason, as told to Haaretz by a spokesperson for the Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories (COGAT) on the day of confiscation, is that the solar panels were installed without the required permits. At the end of September, the confiscated panels were returned. The reason, as written by Civil Administration head Brig. Gen. Ahvat Ben Hur to the lawyers who filed a High Court petition in August against the confiscation: “Given the circumstances of the matter – for one, the period of time that passed from when they were installed until they were taken – I have decided to immediately release the seized objects.” The decision rendered the petition unnecessary.

On October 3, a team from Comet-ME, which had built the hybrid system, reinstalled the panels and reconnected them to the rest of the system, after they were released unconditionally from the Civil Administration warehouses in Gush Etzion. The circumstances of the matter, i.e., the reason the village even needed this hybrid system to begin with, is that for decades the Civil Administration has been turning down its requests to connect to the electricity grid. In 2009, the Civil Administration even insisted that eight solar-powered street lamps installed around the mosque by the village council with the aid of the United Nations Development Program be taken down.

On Wednesday, Ahmed al-Masri of Comet-ME was working to connect another house to the village electrical system. The house had stood empty for a long time. One of the family members, who is getting married Friday, plans to return there. The hardships of life without electricity, for even the most basic needs, took a toll on all the residents. Some left.

“Mainly it was the young men who left,” Fatma Wahsh, known to all as Umm Zaid, said Wednesday. “They wanted to marry girls from outside the village and the girls’ families were against it – they didn’t want them to live in such hard conditions.”

Also, says Umm Zaid, “These days, to be illiterate doesn’t mean someone who can’t read and write, but someone who doesn’t know how to use a computer. And our children didn’t learn how to work on a computer because they couldn’t use a computer” for lack of electricity. Her friend Fadya Wahsh explains: “When they went to school (in other villages), the other kids laughed at them and said they were from the Stone Age.”

The children studied in the evenings by candlelight, but a fire that broke out in one house led some parents to forbid their children to study this way, said Fadya. “We want our sons and daughters to go to university, to do what we missed out on. But they can’t study and do research like others without electricity,” she said. The hardest day of her life, said Umm Zaid, “was when the administration inspectors came and confiscated the panels. The system had been working for eight months and it was harder to get used to living without electricity after we’d experienced what it’s like to live with electricity.” And Adam, a 5-year-old boy, said: “We loved to watch cartoons. Then all of a sudden, one day, the television wouldn’t go on.” The expensive diesel fuel that powered the noisy, polluting generators was sufficient for no more than three hours a day.

The village at the foot of Herodion has been around since 1929. In the 1995 negotiations over the interim Oslo agreement, its location was defined as being in Area C, under Israeli civilian control. This artificial division of the West Bank and the Palestinian localities there among Areas A, B and C was supposed to become null and void in 1999. But it wasn’t canceled, and the village is still subject to the building and development prohibitions that Israel imposes on the Palestinians. South of it lie settlements that are illegal according to international law. The main ones in this area are Tekoa and Nokdim, which were built in 1977 and 1982, respectively, and immediately hooked up to the electricity grid. Within a three-kilometer radius of the village, six unauthorized outposts have been erected in the last few years: Sde Bar, Ma’aleh Rehavam, Kfar Eldad and the Tekoa B, Tekoa C and Tekoa D outposts. With the exception of Ma’aleh Rehavam, which got into a dispute with the regional settler council, all were connected to the Israeli-controlled electricity network.

The circumstances of the matter are also that the Dutch government paid for the electrical system that was built by Comet-ME; it did not make do with a diplomatic protest over the confiscation. The Dutch parliament held two sessions on the matter, as Haaretz reported. At these sessions, the parliamentarians were informed that at the end of June, outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte voiced his dismay to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the confiscations. Responding to Dutch MPs’ queries on the matter, Dutch ministers reported that Netanyahu had promised in writing to return the panels. (The Prime Minister’s Office did not responds to a question from Haaretz on the issue.)

In 2015, Fatma, Fadya, I’tidal – all from the extended Wahsh family to which most of the villagers belong – and Afaf Daoud formed the Women of Jubbet Adh-Dhib Association. The electrical facility was transferred to the association’s ownership and, together with Comet-ME, it is responsible for its operation and for collecting payments, which go toward maintenance and repairs.

Comet-ME is a humanitarian aid organization that is registered in Israel as a non-profit organization. It provides sustainable energy and clean water services to off-grid communities. The connection with Jubbet Adh-Dhib came about by happenstance, when one of Comet-ME’s co-founders, physicist Elad Orian, was hiking in the area and discovered a village that wasn’t hooked up to the electrical grid. The women from the association were very skeptical at first: So many previous attempts had failed, and the technical and bureaucratic process with Comet-ME also didn’t move as quickly as they’d have liked. But in May 2016, in its annual report to COGAT, Comet-ME stated that it planned to supply sustainable energy to a village in the Bethlehem area. The petition against the confiscations that was filed in August by attorneys Michael Sfard and Michal Pasovsky says that no requests for additional information or objections were received from the COGAT office.

The four founders of the women’s organization are all in their 30s with children. All the women were born in the village. Another three women have joined them in the group. They maintain the connection with Comet-ME and work to define the village’s needs given the strict restrictions imposed by the Civil Administration. They also receive the many delegations, including diplomats, that come there to learn about how Israel governs the Palestinians. “With all due respect to the men, they weren’t able to run the village and deal with all the challenges and difficulties,” said Fadya the other day. Most of the men work outside the village and are not as aware as the women of how hard it is to get along without electricity: having to launder by hand, pills that melt and go bad, how scary it is for children and the elderly to make their way to the bathroom in the pitch dark, how hard it is for the kids to do homework, the food that quickly gets spoiled and has to be thrown out. And it’s not possible to buy fresh food every day in Za’atara or Bethlehem.

A short but extremely steep road leads to Jubbet Adh-Dhib. Truck drivers transporting propane tanks refuse to go all the way to the village, for fear their trucks will overturn. Each family transports its own propane tanks. Just a week ago, says Fadya, the young man who is getting married moved furniture and other objects into the house. The pickup truck got stuck in the middle of the steep climb. Other family members unloaded the furniture and hauled it dozens of meters up the hill. A tow truck driver refused to come to get the pickup truck: “I don’t want to risk my life,” he said. In the summer, water shortages are routine, and the supply that comes from the pipeline that’s connected to Za’atara is often cut off. Water tankers can’t climb up the road either. Water tankers used to approach from another side, below Herodion, to the south. Parts of that road are very rough, but at least it’s a lot flatter. However, that path passes by the Sde Bar outpost. And for the last couple of years, the settlers there have banned the villagers from traveling on it, say the people from Jubbet Adh-Dhib. Anyone who does try to pass that way is detained for hours by settlers and soldiers.

In the summer, when there was no water in the pipeline, someone dared to bring a water tanker truck via the other access path. The security people from the outpost and the soldiers detained him for four hours and he was only released after he pledged not to come that way again. Another time in the summer, two women took that path when they went to open a water pipeline near Herodion. “But the security guy from the settlement stopped us and asked to see our ID,” said one. “We hadn’t taken our IDs with us. It was a brutally hot day. He kept us there for three hours. I suggested that my son could bring our IDs, but he said no. At last he agreed to have my son read the ID numbers over the phone and then he let us go.”

The army, Civil Administration and the settlers photograph the villagers and the hybrid electrical system, say the village women. From afar and from up close. They say they also saw a surveillance drone cruising among the houses one day. One of the women says a Civil Administration officer named Oron said to her, “Why didn’t you tell us that you want electricity?” He spoke in Arabic, she said, though he used the Hebrew word for electricity.

Each family in the village is allotted three kilowatt hours per day (the average Israeli consumption is 15 per day). The refrigerators are small. The washing machines work without heating the water. There are no electric kettles, toasters or ovens, and no air-conditioning. But this hasn’t taken away the joy. As Umm Zaid says: “It’s not a competition, as if we win and the Civil Administration loses. Everyone wins here. We’re in the 21st century and it’s only natural, just and legal that we should have electricity.”