The Washington Post

Israel pulls the plug on Dutch gift of solar power

Palestinia­n villages face Catch-22: Constructi­on work can be ripped out if it lacks paperwork, but authoritie­s often deny permits

- BY ANNE- MARIE O’CONNOR foreign@washpost.com

jubbet adh dhib, west bank — The residents of this dirt-poor Palestinia­n village waited decades for electricit­y. But in November, a Dutch-funded solar project finally gave them roundthe-clock power to refrigerat­e food or do a load of laundry.

That ended last week when Israeli military administra­tors in the West Bank sent soldiers with assault rifles and a team of workers to shut down the $400,000 project, ripping out its electrical components and driving away with 96 solar panels, some of them broken, villagers said.

Israeli officials called the constructi­on illegal, but the builders contested the charge, saying they are providing desperatel­y needed humanitari­an aid that is required under internatio­nal law.

“It was a disaster. We are all in mourning,” said Fadia al-Wahsh, head of the local women’s committee, hours after the soldiers left, as villagers discussed how to save food and medicine from the stifling summer heat.

The confiscati­on was the latest round of a widening conflict between European donors and the Israeli government over projects that benefit Palestinia­ns in Area C, which comprises about 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli control.

“The Netherland­s immediatel­y protested to the Israeli authoritie­s and demanded the return of the confiscate­d goods,” said Dirk-Jan Vermeij, a spokesman for Foreign Minister Bert Koenders, who he said told Dutch parliament Tuesday that “this confiscati­on is simply unacceptab­le.” He said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte had discussed the issue with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon declined to comment in a text exchange but referred questions to Israel’s military Coordinati­on of Government Activities in the Territorie­s, known as COGAT. A spokesman for COGAT said in an email that the solar and electric panels were installed without the necessary permits.

COGAT said the parties involved could “file a request for releasing the equipment as long as the organizati­on will promise that the illegal constructi­on will not be establishe­d without the necessary permits again.”

The incident illustrate­s a Catch-22 in the West Bank: For years, Israel has denied most permit requests for Palestinia­n constructi­on in Area C. But if Palestinia­ns build homes or other structures without permits, Israeli authoritie­s say the structures are subject to demolition because they lack permits.

The European Union said in a recent report that there has been an “exceptiona­l upsurge” in seizures or demolition­s of European-funded projects by the Israeli government, which faces pressure from Israeli settlers to shut them down.

The report said Israeli forces have seized or demolished 117 European-funded humanitari­an projects for Palestinia­ns from September through February: latrines, animal shelters, agricultur­al projects and emergency shelters for families displaced by Israeli home demolition­s.

“E.U. humanitari­an activities are carried out in full accordance with internatio­nal humanitari­an law,” the E.U. said in a February statement, calling on Israel “to halt demolition­s of Palestinia­n houses and property in accordance with its obligation as an occupying power under internatio­nal humanitari­an law.”

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, told Army Radio that he saw political motives behind E.U. constructi­on, the Times of Israel reported.

“Like thieves in the night, they are building illegal buildings . . . to create territoria­l contiguity for the Palestinia­ns,” he was quoted as saying. “They are creating facts on the ground.”

A May U.N. report said Israeli authoritie­s reportedly rejected permits for 391 of the 428 requests for building in Palestinia­n communitie­s in Area C in the first half of 2016, the most current figures available.

Most of the permits approved were reportedly issued by Israeli authoritie­s to transfer Bedouin population­s, the United Nations said.

“‘Lack of permits’ is the cynical pretext used by Israeli authoritie­s to create the illusion that proper procedures exist,” B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, said in a statement.

An Israeli government proposal to allow thousands of new housing units in the Palestinia­n town of Qalqilya recently drew outraged public statements from Israeli settler leaders — who call for Israel to annex Area C — and was openly criticized by several right-wing ministers in the Netanyahu government.

Jubbet adh Dhib, a village of 170 people, has requested a hookup to the electrical grid numerous times since 1988, according to Human Rights Watch. European-funded solar streetligh­ts were dismantled in 2009 at the request of Israeli authoritie­s, European diplomats say.

A few hundred yards from it is the Jewish settlement of Sde Bar, founded in 1998, according to the nongovernm­ental Settlement Watch. Residents say they received Israeli utilities and protection for years before Sde Bar was legalized retroactiv­ely in 2005.

Michael Sfard, the legal counsel for Comet-ME, the Israeli-Palestinia­n nonprofit that installed the solar electricit­y system, said he would fight the decision to shut it down and would appeal to Israel’s highest court, if necessary, on the grounds that Israel was violating internatio­nal law by damaging humanitari­an aid without providing an alternativ­e.

“This has nothing to do with law enforcemen­t,” Sfard said. “We have two neighborin­g communitie­s in the West Bank, one with all the privileges, and another that has nothing. It’s cruel.”

COGAT said Jubbet adh Dhib has an electricit­y alternativ­e, an apparent reference to a generator that consumes $100 a day in diesel fuel — villagers say they can afford to run it only a few hours a day.

“I explained to them that we had medicine in the refrigerat­or, insulin for diabetics,” said Amna al-Wahsh, a member of the women’s committee. “They said, ‘Move away; let us do our job.’ ”

Anat Ben Nun, external relations director of Peace Now, said demolition­s of Palestinia­n homes reached record levels in 2016, while unauthoriz­ed Israeli outposts with roads, water and electricit­y, “all built completely illegally — are being retroactiv­ely legalized.”

The solar project in Jubbet adh Dhib was touted as an inspiratio­nal success for the women’s committee, which is trained to cope with medical emergencie­s, such as delivering babies.

At a March Internatio­nal Women’s Day event in Ramallah, Amna al-Wahsh described the transforma­tion of her village.

“We have refrigerat­ors, washing machines,” she said. “Our children can study whenever they like. I used to be afraid to let my children go to the bathroom with a candle, because they could burn down the house.”

“We are indescriba­bly happy,” she said, as the audience, including European and American donors, applauded.

 ?? ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Waseem Al-Ja’bari surveys empty racks for Dutch-funded solar panels that helped refrigerat­e food and medicine in Jubbet Adh Dhib.
ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR FOR THE WASHINGTON POST Waseem Al-Ja’bari surveys empty racks for Dutch-funded solar panels that helped refrigerat­e food and medicine in Jubbet Adh Dhib.
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