Encountering Peace: The sun will come up tomorrow, maybe

For more than four years I have been working on one small sector that has a potentially huge impact on the economy. Energy, more specifically, independent energy for an independent Palestine.

August 8, 2019 17:35
Encountering Peace: The sun will come up tomorrow, maybe

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold up a proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights at the White House in March.. (photo credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)

Let’s talk about economic peace. This is what US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been claiming to advance. Their proposal is based on economic benefits that can be realized, and will help the common people among our neighbors that will lead to a better life for them, and with that will come political moderation. Trump and Netanyahu believe that if the lives of our neighbors are improved and they can see the chances for prosperity and a better future, they will be more inclined to make concessions in negotiations on the core issues, and that would increase the chances of reaching a genuine peace agreement. That’s the basic idea.

The Palestinians, having years of experiences with false Israeli promises of prosperity, peace pays, a new horizon, etc. have mainly seen the continual decline of their economy, its subjugation to Israeli interests, and the deepening of the Israeli occupation over their lands and their lives. Thus the Palestinians have demanded to put the political issues first for independence and statehood with defined borders, and only afterward the economic benefits of peace would come. The Palestinians maintain the position, supported by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and many other international organizations that the primary obstacles to real economic growth in Palestine are those placed by the occupation (meaning Israel).

For more than four years I have been working on one small sector that has a potentially huge impact on the economy. Energy, more specifically, independent energy for an independent Palestine. I have been trying to advance relatively large-scale (in Palestinian terms) solar energy projects in the West Bank. Until now, most of those efforts have been blocked mainly by the occupation (meaning Israel).

Energy independence is a central element in political independence. Israel is the main electricity supplier for the Palestinians in the West Bank via medium-voltage lines through more than 235 medium-voltage connection points supplied from main Israeli transmission stations. Electricity is distributed to Palestinians through Palestinian local distribution companies such as JDECO, the Jerusalem Electricity Distribution Co; NEDCO, the North Electricity Distribution Co; SELCO, the Southern Electricity Distribution Company; TEDCO, the Tubas Electricity Distribution Company; HEPCO, the Hebron Electricity Power Company; and some 150 municipal councils which also distribute electricity. The monthly electricity bill for Israeli electricity ranges from NIS 170 million [$47m.] to NIS 200m. [$55.5m.] per month.

The Palestinian economy depends on the electricity and fuel imported from Israel, which Israel limits and thereby prevents its natural growth based on real needs. The complex political economy of Mediterranean gas has so far prevented the imports of gas to the Palestinian market or the development of the Palestinian owned gas field off-shore of Gaza. There are advanced negotiations to build a 340-MW gas-fired combined cycle power plant in Jenin, in the north of the West Bank with an expected commercial operation date in 2021 (that is highly optimistic and probably will take many more years to materialize). Palestinian over-dependence on gas-fired power plants is dangerous because the gas is coming from Israel over land and could easily be shut down by Israel, should political conflicts erupt. The only source that can provide energy independence, increase energy security and contribute to alleviate the recurrent energy crisis affecting the population is locally generated renewable energy.

There are several key obstacles to significant renewable energy development in the West Bank. These are: land issues, grid control, grid availability, payment guarantees and the lack of bureaucratic clarity. The most significant obstacles are land issues and grid control. These two issues are entirely in the hands of the occupation (meaning Israel).

THE OSLO peace process segmented the land in the West Bank into three zones of various forms of government oversight and control. The divisions of the land in the West Bank were intended to have validity for an interim period of five years, initially scheduled to end in 1999. By 1999, Palestinians were expected to have control over more than 90% of the West Bank. Those division are still valid today. Area A lands are the main Palestinian cities in the West Bank and consist of about 20% of the area (Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, Tulkarm, Jenin and Jericho). Area A is under the civil and security control of the Palestinian Authority. These are the primary urban areas of the West Bank. Land is not available for ground-mounted solar energy projects, and if available it is too expensive and too valuable to be used for renewable energy projects.

Area B lands are the rural villages and account for about 20% of the West Bank land. Area B lands are under the civil control of the PA, but under the security control of Israel. Very limited land is available in parts of area B for ground-mounted solar energy projects; it is often very costly to lease and expensive to buy and in very short supply.

Area C lands are under full Israeli civil and security control and account for about 62% of the West Bank land areas. Area C lands are the primary development areas of the West Bank for housing, economic development and the best lands for ground mounted solar energy projects. Area C land-based projects must receive the approval of Israeli military authorities. Area C is where 100% of the Israeli settlements are located and only 1%-2% of the Palestinian population. Most of the land is privately owned Palestinian land or lands designated by Israel as “state lands.” Israel blocks Palestinian development in Area C and prevents Palestinian residents from building homes and infrastructure in that area “by designating large swaths of land as “state land,” “firing zones” or “nature reserves” and by allocating land to Israeli settlements.

The so-called Israeli “Civil Administration” is the statutory body that has the legal right to approve or to deny building and development in Area C. The Civil Administration is the main arm of Israel’s military government in the West Bank. Its military and civil ranks are filled with Israeli settlers. This co-called Civil Administration together with the regular army runs the occupation and implements decisions of the Israeli government. The Israeli government has no interest in the economic development of the Palestinian economy. If it wanted to, it doesn’t need any approval from Trump of any “Deal of the Century.”

I have submitted requests to the Civil Administration for Israeli agreement for three solar fields in Area C lands privately owned by Palestinians, and all three were rejected on made-up security grounds. I submitted another three requests some six months ago and am still waiting to receive even an acknowledgment that the requests were submitted, even though I personally handed them to the Israeli officers in charge and also sent the requests by email. I will be very surprised if I receive Israeli approval.

Many projects like these around the developing world get stuck because there is no financing available. In the Palestinian case, financing is the easiest obstacle to overcome. The occupation (meaning Israel) is the main obstacle. Without land being made available, there can be no significant solar energy projects.

The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine (Vanderbilt University Press), and is now available in Israel and Palestine.

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