Friday, March 26, 1999


Sharing the sun

This month the isolated West Bank Palestinian village of Arab-Ka'abneh began receiving electricity for the first time. The day after nine photovoltaic solar panels were installed on the roof of the elementary school, villagers cheered as lights went on in the school and health clinic.

Byline: Patti Golan

Perched on the most eastern ridge of the Hebron mountain range, Arab-Ka'abneh is a remote, isolated West Bank village Arab-Ka'abneh entered the modern era on March 13 when an American foundation set up a solar-power energy plant in the village. The village - which has no running water, electricity or phone lines - will soon have its own Web site to promote and sell its rugs and cheeses on the international market.

This month the isolated West Bank Palestinian village of Arab-Ka'abneh began receiving electricity for the first time. The day after nine photovoltaic solar panels were installed on the roof of the elementary school, villagers cheered as lights went on in the school and health clinic.

Later in the week, a dozen men gathered in one of the schoolrooms, gazing raptly as a brand-new computer was plugged into a just-installed outlet. The screen lit up with the Microsoft logo. 'Some people have reached the moon - we're reaching the sun,' exclaimed one of the villagers.

Arab-Ka'abneh is one of four villages - Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian - which form part of a unique solar energy project called 'A Solar Bridge for Peace Building' sponsored by Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME). The concept is to turn the villages in this shared solar zone into a model of sustainable communities relying on the energy of the sun to power their needs.

Friends of the Earth Middle East (formerly Ecopeace) represents Egyptian, Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian environmental NGOs that promote cooperative efforts to protect the countries' shared environmental heritage. FoEME's aim, in brief, is peace through joint environmental activism.

'We thought that the solar villages project would be a wonderful demonstration of both sustainable living and peace building for the Middle East,' explained Gideon Bromberg, director of the Israeli branch of FoEME.

'We had local experts from each country identify which village would be the most appropriate, given some basic criteria.'

Following a two-year feasibility study carried out by local scientists in each country, the villages were chosen: Arab-Ka'abneh near Hebron, Kibbutz Samar in the Arava near Eilat, Qatar village near Aqaba in the south of Jordan and New Basaisa village in the western Sinai. Three other remote Palestinian villages may also be included in the demonstration scheme, which is supported by the World Solar Commission and UNESCO.

The EU has also expressed interest in funding the multi-million-dollar project. In the meantime, there's already been some progress in solar energy in three of the designated villages.


Perched on the most eastern ridge of the Hebron mountain range, Arab-Ka'abneh is less remote than it once was. The new Hebron bypass road takes you to the beginning of the winding five-kilometer gravel road that eventually reaches the village. But once there, the surrounding barren, dun-colored hills and valleys give the visitor a sense of desolate isolation.

There are 2,000 residents in this Beduin village. Like some 75 other Palestinian villages in the West Bank, Arab- Ka'abneh has no running water, no electricity and no telephone lines. Medical care consists of a one-hour doctor's visit twice a week. The school is a run-down row of cement-block rooms; the crumbling walls are covered with grime and graffiti both inside and out.

But Arab-Ka'abneh entered the modern era on March 13 when the American foundation Greenstar set up a solar-power energy plant in the village.

Greenstar is a non-profit organization committed to bringing solar power to developing countries and places where a centralized electrical power grid is not available. Michael North, one of Greenstar's founders, supervised the installation and set up the computer in the schoolroom lit by newly installed track lighting in the ceiling.

'Lightning in a bottle,' joked North, as the men stared in wonderment.

As one of the schoolteachers begins composing an English lesson plan on the computer, North explained that he also intends to put Arab-Ka'abneh on the Internet. The village will have its own web site to promote and sell its local products - rugs and cheeses - on the international market.

(Greenstar is currently evaluating the use of a spread-spectrum digital radio connection to the Internet. Alternatively, they would use a satellite connection, which might be supplied by the Israeli company Gilat.)

'Developing economies need to be connected to the world of e-commerce,' stated North, 'so that they can be part of the global economy. This is by far the most efficient way, and solar power is the means by which that is achieved. It produces an engine of economic independence for people in remote developing areas.'

The photovoltaic cells will also generate pure water using an ultra-violet water purification system and will power a cooled vaccine unit for the clinic.

North and the other three co-founders of Greenstar all have backgrounds in the field of natural renewable energy. They'd been kicking around the idea of mounting the demonstration solar energy unit in a Palestinian village, but, says North, the visit of US President Bill Clinton to the area in December was the catalyst that actually got the project moving. To date, the foundation has spent $100,000 for the Arab-Ka'abneh unit.

The US Department of Energy provided technical assistance and advice. The solar unit is not enough to power all the energy needs of the village, or to pump underground water, but it's a start.

KIBBUTZ Samar in the Arava has even more of a head start on the 'Solar Bridges' project. The kibbutz, the only project participant to be hooked up to a normal electricity grid, also has a small solar plant which is already producing some energy. Samar's ambition is not only to have the entire kibbutz running on solar energy, but to produce enough electricity to sell to the Israel Electric Company.

The 'godfather' of Kibbutz Samar's solar energy plan is Brian Medwed.

Speaking about the solar-energy villages project at a symposium this month in Ramallah, Medwed said that while he was pushing the idea of a solar-energy pilot scheme for the kibbutz, he became aware of the international possibilities of such a project. 'So it seemed natural to start working cooperatively, especially when it's so important to build peace.'

The symposium, held under the auspices of the Palestinian Ministry of Environmental Affairs, brought together Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian scientists, environmentalists and representatives from the four villages to discuss the feasibility study of the pilot project.

Kibbutz Samar and the designated Jordanian village of Qatar face each other across the Arava desert border. Although the two are only two kilometers apart, no one from Samar has ever visited Qatar, and no one from Qatar has ever visited Samar. And while Samar is experimenting with selling excess power to the Israeli national grid, Qatar is not even connected to the Jordanian electrical grid.

Though no one from Qatar came to the conference, several Jordanian officials did. Ahmed Abu Hishmeh, head of the Environmental Unit of the Jordanian Royal Society of the Conservation of Nature described Qatar's isolation.

'It has no electricity or water. We want to use the solar power to pump water from underground and desalinate it. This is an excellent chance for us to work together within four countries.'

Following the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai in 1982, a group of Egyptian scientists in Cairo moved to the desert to try to reclaim the land. Their idea was to construct and develop new desert eco-communities in the Sinai, with the village they founded, New Besaisa, as a model. One of the founders of New Besaisa, Salah Arafa, carried out the local feasibility study for the solar villages project.

Speaking at the Ramallah symposium, Arafa said that 'in Egypt we were hoping that 20 million people would be moving out to the desert from the Nile Delta within 20 years. But we can't accomplish this with the type of societies that we now know. We need to design a new type of society based on renewable cooperatives.

'Industry can't absorb all of the young generation, but perhaps the desert could provide jobs,' said Arafa. 'Our model is really based on an integrated approach where you can have agriculture and small-scale industries and so on.'

Only about 30 people live in New Besaisa today, but there are plans to expand this to 600. And that's where the Friends of the Earth Middle East scheme enters the picture. There is a solar-electricity plant in the village now, explains Arafa, but 'we want to put up service and production units and provide solar energy units for houses to be built in the next two years. Everyone should have a solar house.

'In Egypt, as in so many countries in the region, we have so many desert areas and I think that sustainable development and a sustainable society in the desert is the real future of this region.'

It's no secret that the Egyptian government has cut off almost all cooperative projects that involve Israel. Arafa was one of only two Egyptian scientists attending the symposium. He conceded that he was able to attend because the conference was being held in Ramallah, which is under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.

'The current political situation is not an encouraging atmosphere for cooperation,' he said. 'But we support cooperative projects that will benefit both sides and the whole region.'

But in what way is the Solar Energy Villages project really a cooperative effort? What do Arab-Ka'abneh, Kibbutz Samar, Qatar and New Basaisa have in common? In what way does this project build peace?

'We're bringing together four communities that will have something very strong in common to build upon and from which to act as a model,' said FoEME's Gideon Bromberg. 'I think that's the strength of this project. It sends a very powerful message: We share the sun, we share the energy of the sun. Let's turn that energy into something tremendously positive for our environment and for peace in our region.'

Copyright © The Jerusalem Post