In early 2009, an unusual Israeli initiative helped fulfill a basic humanitarian need in the impoverished Palestinian village of Susya - access to electricity. For years, residents of the hills south of Hebron had lived in darkness, cut off from the power grid and reliable energy supplies.
Using funds provided by the German foreign ministry, the Israeli organization Comet-ME (Community, Energy and Technology in the Middle East) installed solar panels and wind turbines in the area, helping make life bearable for farmers and shepherds in Susya. Many of them live in mountain caves, tents or tin huts and are considered some of the poorest residents of the West Bank.
Developing basic infrastructure has clearly not been high on the agenda of Israeli authorities who control the area. Schools, roads, electricity and drinking water are all in short supply. They're available in the next bigger Palestinian city of Yatta which involves a long trek on unpaved dirt roads.
"1,300 people have benefited from our initiative which brings small but elementary improvements to daily life," Aya Shoshan, who's in charge of organization at Comet-ME, said.
But in early 2012, the group founded by two Israeli physicians faced a major setback when Israeli authorities issued orders to halt construction of the solar and wind facilities. The project was threatened with demolition.
"The legal status is unclear. Of course, we've been providing reports to our financial backers," Shoshan said.
Germany, which has provided the most funds for the project, has already expressed concern over the Israeli move to block the solar initiative. Earlier this year, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Development Minister Dirk Niebel addressed the issue in closed-door talks during a visit to Israel as well as during Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's trip to Berlin in March.
A spokeswoman from the German foreign ministry told DW that the German embassy too was in close contact with Israeli authorities over the issue.
In the wake of the diplomatic pressure, the renewable energy facilities were left untouched by Israeli authorities. But a few huts and tents of residents in the area that were meant to benefit from the solar project were reportedly torn down.
The incident demonstrates the challenges that aid workers face in the so-called Area C, which covers 60 percent of the West Bank and is administered by Israel.
Israeli authorities first need to give permission before construction projects can commence and permits are almost never issued for infrastructure projects meant to serve Palestinians.
In sharp contrast, Israeli settlements in Area C are well equipped with all the basic amenities that their Palestinian neighbors are missing.
"In the region that we're active in, there are 18 settlements, some of which are considered illegal even by the Israeli government," Aya Shoshan said. "And they're all linked up to electricity and water supplies," she added.
"Since the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, not one new Palestinian town has been built," Shoshan said. However, the population in the Palestinian areas including the Gaza Strip has soared by 25 percent in the last decade.
Challenges for development work
The West Bank is further divided into Area B where the Palestinian Authority is in charge of administration while the Israelis control security. In Area A, the Palestinian Authority has complete control.
"In accordance with the development plan of the Palestinian Authoritiy, we're focusing on our large infrastructure projects in Area A," Jan van der Ploeg, a consultant for large projects with the European Commission in Ramallah, said. That includes a new government building in Nablus at a cost of 17 million euros ($21 million) and in Jenin for around 20 million euros.
Van der Ploeg pointed out that the development work faces its own share of challenges.
"The difficulties that we encounter here have more to do with the punctual completion of construction," van der Ploeg said. He added that Area A constituted an island in the midst of other administrative units that were often subject to spontaneous Israeli checkpoints and controls. That often means that the transport of construction material or the presence of Palestinian laborers on the sites cannot be guaranteed, he added.
In the past five years, the European Union has provided yearly financial aid of around 40 to 50 million euros to help develop projects in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The latter, in particular, is an especially difficult area in which to carry out development work.
"In the Gaza Strip, we encounter completely different problems because there's a lack of everything due to the Israeli blockade," van der Ploeg said. "But import restrictions have been loosened for building infrastructure under international leadership," he added.
Important projects include the construction of a water treatment plant and the expansion of the border check point "Kerem Shalom" which in future is to process about 700 trucks a day in order to secure supplies for the 1.6 million residents of Gaza.
Author: Florian Mebes / sp
Editor: Rob Mudge