Off the Grid in the South Hebron Hills

Bedouin villages in the South Hebron Hills are poised to skip the industrial age and take a leap from primitive to sustainable. They will never have to worry about reducing their carbon footprint– unlike those of us from affluent societies in the US or Israel. Renewable energy systems– wind turbines and solar panels are being built for the poorest and most marginalized communities in the occupied West Bank. This help is a matter of life-support. Environmental studies reveal their cisterns are toxic and they have been denied access to the electricity grid servicing nearby settlements. The project is a joint initiative of Israelis and Palestinian community workers who believe borders of fear and racism are best overcome by neighbors working together.

I am traveling on Highway 60 with Ilan, cofounder of Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers who insist on telling their fellow citizens the price of occupation. Historically this road connected seven major cities: Nablus/Shchem, Genin, Tul-Karem, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Hebron/Halil and Be’ersheva. In 95-6 during the Oslo agreements, the road was shifted to lead ‘around’ the Bethlehem area. The tunnels near Beit Jallah were dug, establishing the first “Israeli only roads”, marking the beginning of “separate roads.” Check Points were set up, not quite on the Green Line, shaving land away from Palestinians (as usual). Internationals are supposed to go through Bethlehem near Rachel’s Tomb Checkpoint, turning the Beit Jallah “tunnels” into a de-facto apartheid checkpoint. To pass through, one must have either a Blue ID- Israeli citizenship, or ‘the Right of Return’. Neither of which I have, but Ilan does not seem worried. West Bank Palestinians are not aloud into Jerusalem without permits and green license plates are not aloud within Israeli ’67 lines. They are however allowed on Highway 60 if it is within the Occupied Territory. Jerusalem is effectively off from the the road as is historical continuity, the traditional economy and of course the people.

Ilan is excited to share projects he has been working on in the southern villages. I have brought children’s books for the library in Susya, a village with a bullet proof school bus to protect their children from angry settlers. We are driving on a super fast road that tunnels through the earth, cutting travel time and making it easy to ignore the fact that we are passing beneath Palestinian towns and villages. In a color coded world– white water tanks on Jewish rooftops denote solar, black water tanks on Palestinian rooftops, mergency reserves. Green license plates are for Palestinian cars and yellow for Israeli but the only license plates on Highway 60 are yellow. This road, built on Palestinian land, is exclusively for settlers and Israelis.

Huge settlements blocks (Givat Zev, Maale Adumim, Gush Etzion) built on surrounding hilltops were annexed to Israel decades ago and are now part of greater Jerusalem. Many residents have no idea they are settled on the Jordanian side of the ’48 Armistice Line aka the Green Line. Ilan explains how Palestinian land is legally confiscated– two words with opposite meanings; Many farmers are cut off from their land by checkpoints and the Separation wall. If their land is not planted for three consecutive years it can be taken over by the Israeli state. Citing “security concerns, Palestinian homes can be demolished if they are too close to a settlement. By the time Ilan points to the village of al-Samou to the east, we have already passed Hebron. Weeks before the ’67 War, I had lived for a short time in this village and am disappointed there is no time to stop. It’s obvious, even from this distance that the sleepy village of memory has become a small city.

We briefly turn onto a secondary road, blocked by huge boulders that prevent cars from entering a nearby Palestinian village. It must be humiliating for Palestinians to dodge cars speeding along the highway while they carry burdens on heads and backs, the lucky ones using donkey carts. Palestinians have been thrust to an age before motorized transportation. Ilan proudly shares that he and other Israelis moved the huge boulders several times, in the middle of the night, attempting to open the road– a noble but stopgap measure.

The grinding poverty I witnessed in the South Hebron Hills has been confirmed in an official report put out by Save the Children. “Palestinians in the West Bank are thought to enjoy a higher standard of living than families in Gaza but tragically many Bedouin and herder communities actually suffer significantly higher levels of malnutrition and poverty.” In Um el Khair, the villagers live in ramshackle tents and huts. They are not allowed to build permanent structures. A flock of goats, sheep and donkeys wander aimlessly on the hot afternoon, seeking the comfort of precious shade like their human caretakers. The scrawny chickens running around would hardly be worth eating. A group of curious children and their mother come to meet us. I am surprised when Ilan speaks Arabic with them. The mother tells us that she travels two kilometers with a donkey to get water. When their home was demolished, so was hope for the future of her three children. The villagers are harassed by settlers who complain whenever the taboun is fired up to bake bread. Fueled by donkey dung, the acrid smell probably wafts over to the brand new settlement a few hundred yards away.

The settlement is close enough for me to photo the gun toting private security guard watching me watch him. Ilan points to the expansive arid landscape and tells me further development has been planned. Settlements in Hebron Hills and the Jordan Valley are multiplying as if they are on fertility drugs. Some start with a few trailers and grow into cities that look quite permanent. Law in the wild West Bank is determined by armed Jewish settlers, hoping to escape the congestion, traffic and overcrowding of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Others are there to do God’s bidding. Settlers are attracted here as much for the views as for the real estate deals offered by their government. The settlements are subsidized by the US in the form of three billion dollars annually to Israel. Accountability is not necessarily part of the deal. Every time concrete is poured on the dessert floor to build another illegal settlement, the possibility of ever creating a viable Palestinians state grows increasingly dim.

Later that afternoon, Ilan quietly told me that the family he helps in Susya is a family he evicted from their home in 2001, as part of the Israeli army. His work is his penance. A good man with a conscience and determination to change past wrongs can accomplish miracles. But Israeli peace activists alone, cannot change the militaristic mindset of a country that lives in perpetual fear and victimhood. Amidst the ongoing destruction of Palestinian life, land and culture, these claims ring hollow. The strongest army in the Middle East, with nuclear capabilities, Israel’s real danger is increased isolation from their neighbors– add Turkey– at a time when US foreign policy is entertaining the idea that unconditional support for Israel may be endangering our country.

For a country as technologically advanced as Israel, it was surprising to learn about Israel’s largest power plant, located on the Mediterranean near the tourist town of Cesaria. Three 200-meter chimneys can be seen for miles, burning 18,000 tons of coal every 24 hours and 320,000 tons of sea water every hour. The station can also operate using crude oil. Water used for cooling the plant ends up in the Hadera River endangering wildlife. The day I walked the nearby beaches, the bottoms of my feet were left covered with tar. It’s time Israelis worried about the impact of their carbon footprint as well as the illegal occupation. Perhaps they have something to learn from the sustainable movement happening in the Bedouin villages of the South Hebron Hills.

For more information: www.comet-me.org/

IRIS KELTZ can be reached at: irisk13@earthlink.net





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