Spark of defiance brings electricity to remote village

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Scottish expertise, Israeli idealism and German money have brought a great leap forward to more than a thousand traditional Palestinian herders in a remote corner of the West Bank.

But the gains are in danger of falling casualty to a larger struggle over the future of rural parts of the area Israel occupied during the 1967 Middle East war.

The struggle pits Israeli authorities, who critics say are preventing Palestinian growth and favouring Jewish settlers, against the European Union. The latter wants to assist Palestinians in rural areas of the West Bank, known as Area C, in order to preserve chances for a viable Palestinian state in the future.

Area C refers to territory that remained under full Israeli military control under the Palestinian self-rule agreement of 1993. It is home to about 300,000 illegal Israeli settlers and half that amount of Palestinians.

Impoverished, remote and at times inaccessible, the village of She’b El Buttum has become a major flashpoint of the struggle over Area C. Over the past few months, the tent dwellers here have been literally brought out of the dark ages by a German-funded project that gives them electricity via solar panels and wind turbines – the latter modelled upon the turbines in Scoraig, in the far north of Scotland.

For decades, Israel has refused to hook the herders up to its electricity grid because it does not recognise their legal rights to the land – though it provides electricity and water and has paved roads to unauthorised Jewish settlement outposts on neighbouring hilltops.

Defying their government, Israeli scientists and activists working with Palestinians have begun propelling the herders towards a more modern existence.

“We’re very happy with the electricity,” says Nuzha al-Najar, who used to spend five hours a day churning butter but now uses a machine that takes less than an hour. Using a washing machine instead of doing laundry by hand also saves her time.

Her family has begun watching television for the first time. “The kids watch it at night and learn from it,” she says. And residents no longer have to walk to the nearby town of Yatta to charge their telephones.

Ms Najar – whose family has lived in the area for generations – said: “I worked all my life, first with my father and now with my children. Our income is from sheep and it takes a lot of effort. I am happy to have some rest.”

Noam Dotan, an Israeli who co-directs Comet, the group installing the power in the villages, said: “This is a first step for them. Having basic needs met is the key to their development.”

Mr Dotan, a retired executive and physicist, had for years taken part in protests on behalf of local Palestinians before deciding that “I wanted to do something for and not just against”.

He constructs the wind turbines drawing on know-how he acquired by studying with Hugh Piggott, a worldwide leader in the field who is based in Scoraig.

Mr Dotan said: “We share information with Hugh and we based our design on his ideas and calculations. I call the turbines here Scoraig turbines.”

But last week, Israeli military authorities issued demolition orders against the turbines and solar panels here and in five other villages.

Major Guy Inbar, a spokesman for military authorities, said: “All the tents and buildings have been built illegally … The solar panels were also built illegally. Using the backing of international assistance does not give immunity to violations.”

He said military administrators are studying the matter.

Mr Dotan said there had been no point applying for a permit to build the turbines since Palestinian building requests in Area C are invariably turned down after a drawn-out process. Instead, he built them at night to try and escape notice of the authorities for as long as possible.

He added: “It’s not a security threat. It’s a positive project. What do they want? Do they want the people to be more poor? To be more violent?”