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Middle East

Israelis, Palestinians unite on energy project

The NGO Comet ME's new center is to serve as a permanent base of operations to provide clean energy to Palestinian communites who are off-grid in the West Bank. The project was partly funded by the German government.

Elad Orain and Ala Qawasmi squint up at a still 12-meter tall wind turbine, willing the wind to gust through the Masafer Yatta region of South Mount Hebron.

Orian, an Israeli physicist, and Qawasmi, a Palestinian mechanical engineer, work for Comet ME - Community Energy Middle East - an NGO that provides clean energy such as wind turbines and solar panels to off-grid Palestinian communities in Area C of the West Bank.

They have just completed a system upgrade for the village of Hreibat El Nabi, home to seven families totalling about 60 people. Now, with the assistance of the wind and the sun, villagers can run basic appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines.

"There is always - and we've been doing it for quite some years now - but, this feeling at the end of a project when you flick the switch and there is actually electricity. It is still moving," said Orian.

Comet ME has worked in the Masafer Yatta region of South Mount Hebron since 2006. The area is home to a series of run-down Palestinian shanty-villages compiled of huts, tents and caves located on rocky terrain just a few kilometers away from the unforgiving Judean Desert.

Giant pylons cross the landscape, carrying electricity across what is technically Area C of the West Bank, under the control of Israel's Civil Administration since the Oslo Peace Accords were signed almost 20 years ago.

Yet ironically, given their proximity to power supply, most of these Palestinian villages aren't connected to the grid.

"These are small clumps of population which were illegally built over the years without an outline plan," said the Civil Administration's spokesman. "Some of the clumps are even built in archaeological and military training areas, so that their stay puts their residents in danger."

The administration wants to move the residents to approved areas and connect them to infrastructure there.

Comet ME staff - Elad and Ala. Foto: Vanessa O'Brien, DW freie Mitarbeiterin, South Mount Hebron, Nov. 2012 Comet Middle East: Comet-ME is an Israeli-Palestinian non-profit organization providing renewable energy services to off-grid Palestinian communities using sustainable methods.

Elad Orian and Ala Qawasmi have joined forces

Comet ME, the brainchild of Israeli physicists and activists Elad Orian and Noam Dotan, decided to find alternative ways to bring the villages electricity instead.

"I love what my partner Noam says," said Elad. "He always says, 'I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.'"

"I've been a political activist the better part of the last 10 years and I do it on the big political level because that's my way, my little contribution toward a better future for this place."

Orian and Dotan work hands-on with the organization, designing and installing systems, conducting maintenance, and running the NGO.

From humble beginnings, Comet ME has grown into a fully functioning clean energy supplier, providing basic services to 1,300 people. This week it will open a permanent base - the Comet ME Center for Renewable Energy - in South Mount Hebron.

The premises is based on land rented from a local Palestinian farmer. That alone, Orian said, indicated the successful partnership that Comet had built with the community.

The German government donated 20,000 euros ($26,000) to enable the center's development. The premises provides storage for tools, space to construct energy systems, volunteer accommodation, and is a community drop-in.

It's also a living example of clean energy. Electricity is generated by the sun and wind; rain water is collected for drinking; the toilet is a compost toilet; heating is through good insulation and firewood.

Comet has nine people on staff - five Israelis and four Palestinians. Some Israelis donned keffiyehs, the traditional Arab headdress, and some Palestinians spoke fluent Hebrew. Orian said a focus on practical ways to help local communities was what unified the team.

Comet ME staff - Elad works on an electrical system. Foto: Vanessa O'Brien, DW freie Mitarbeiterin, South Mount Hebron, Nov. 2012 Comet Middle East: Comet-ME is an Israeli-Palestinian non-profit organization providing renewable energy services to off-grid Palestinian communities using sustainable methods.

Elad Orian works on an electrical system

"I think that there's something very powerful and empowering about actually building stuff. We're very strong on the ethos of actually building stuff with our own hands. Be it systems, the centre, whatever it is, it's very concrete. At the end of the day you switch on the light and there is light, unlike many other projects where you sit in the room and you talk about this, you talk about that and it's not so clear what happened."

Comet project manager Ala Qawasmi said the team focused on shared values, not differences.

"I think what defines the team is not being Israeli or Palestinian; it's people who join many things, many views, together."

Comet ME's service is neither free nor unlimited. It charges the same as the Palestinian national supplier in order the cover the cost of battery replacement, and installs metres to ensure equal distribution of the available power supply. But what it created, said Elad, was options.

Imad Rashid in Hreibat El Nabi. Foto: Vanessa O'Brien, DW freie Mitarbeiterin, South Mount Hebron, Nov. 2012 Comet Middle East: Comet-ME is an Israeli-Palestinian non-profit organization providing renewable energy services to off-grid Palestinian communities using sustainable methods.

Imad Rashid says electricity has changed his life

Two years ago, a noisy diesel generator was the only source of electricity available in Hreibat El Nabi. Twenty-four-year-old school caretaker Imad Rashid used to drive to the nearby town of Yatta just to charge his cell phone. Electricity had changed life in the village, he said.

"Before, to make butter, we used to do it traditionally. We put the milk in a manual butter churner made from animal skins, and then we would shake it. The process takes three or four hours. Now we use the electric butter churner, which saves a lot of effort."

Now that Comet ME has a permanent base and a significant stake in the clean energy field, it's looking to turn its talents to help Palestinians villages in Area C gain increased access to clean water.

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