Charlotte Alfred
Ma'an News Agency
February 10, 2012 - 1:00am

MASAFER YATTA (Ma'an) -- Pylons tower over South Hebron Hills village Um al-Kher, hoisting electricity cables that bisect the agricultural community.

But like hundreds of their Palestinian neighbors, this tiny hamlet has no access to the power grid.

The cables running above the heads of the 150 Um al-Kher residents supply a chicken farm set up a decade ago by the adjacent Karmel settlement, wedging the village on both sides.

"They give electricity to the chickens but not to us," says Aziz Muhammad Hadhalin, 26, an engineer and community activist.

"The settlement has always had electricity, water, and new buildings, but here it is forbidden."

South Hebron Hills, known locally as Masafer Yatta, lies almost entirely in Area C, the 62 percent of the West Bank under full Israel civil and security control since the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Palestinians must apply to Israel to build on their land, and permits are granted to just 1 percent of this area that has an Israeli-approved plan, most of which is already built up.

During one month in 2011, Israeli forces tore down two attempts to connect to the PA electricity grid in Masafer Yatta.

Under the night sky, the unequal tapestry of the West Bank is laid bare.

Lights shine from the four Israeli government-sanctioned settlements and six unauthorized outposts built in Masafer Yatta since 1981, which are connected to Israeli supplied electricity. The fringes of the Palestinian Authority power grid stop short at the boundaries of Area C.

A lonely success

The Oslo Accords that divided the West Bank into zones of PA and Israeli control were planned as a temporary measure, pending full Palestinian authority over an independent state.

But nearly two decades on, Middle East Quartet negotiators are pressing Israel to allow increased PA presence outside its sole area of full control, Area A, as an incentive to return to negotiations.

Set up in 2002 to encourage parties to negotiate, the Quartet -- Russia, the EU, UN and US -- is tasked with improving conditions for Palestinians in Area C.

It can claim one success story in Masafer Yatta. After a decade-long struggle, the only village there ever to connect to the PA power grid credits a visit by Quartet representative Tony Blair as turning Israeli authorities around.

"The demolitions are a game," Hafeth Hurani, coordinator of the South Hebron Hills popular committee says. "The occupation system only gives the appearance of having law."

In 2003, al-Tuwani village applied to Israel’s military authorities to connect to the grid of neighboring settlement Maon. "They said 'Fine, that will be one million shekels connection fee,'" Hurani says. "It was a kind of joke to dissuade us."

Tuwani then applied in 2006 to link to the PA grid, and after years of delays and equivocation, Blair’s visit in March 2009 sealed the deal, according to Hurani.

Blair assured the village that Israeli authorities had given verbal permission for them to connect to Yatta’s grid. The PA provided materials and the villagers started to build.

Two months later forces ordered them to stop work. In October they seized a truck lift and the Palestinian worker operating it, and in November tore down the pylons at the village entrance.

Tuwani, which has attracted significant media attention for its nonviolent protests against harassment by the army and neighboring settlements, finally received verbal permission from army authorities the following year.

The Quartet office in Jerusalem says they lobbied Israel for the permit, and while they "deplore the delay in issuing the permit, we welcome the fact that the village of Al Tuwani is finally connected."

On Aug. 12, 2010 al-Tuwani celebrated the first electricity connection in Masafer Yatta. "We had a huge village party just like it was Ramadan," says Hurani.

Demolishing the grid

But in 2011, as demolitions across the West Bank doubled, work to join more villages to the power grid was torn down by Israeli forces.

Just over a kilometer south of Tuwani, the village of Um Fagarah set up electricity poles to connect to Tuwani’s grid with the popular committee’s support. The village generator, never able to supply all its 100 inhabitants, is broken, and the pylons would have been the first main power for the village.

Early on Nov. 3, the Israeli army bulldozed the six electricity pylons. Three weeks later the army returned to destroy the structure housing the generator as well as two houses, a rabbit barn, and a mosque.

"This was the first time they destroyed a mosque," Hebron Governor Kemal Hemaid says. "The situation is so bad.

"The village has rebuilt the mosque but the army warned they will demolish it again," he adds.

A 17-year-old girl and her 20-year-old cousin were detained during the operation, the younger of whom is now on trial for "assaulting a soldier," by throwing water from a bottle at him, according to her lawyer.

Tuwani activists say despite the setback at Umm Fagarah, they will keep trying to link its power to the all the surrounding villages.

Further west, the village of Khirbet Ghuwein is four kilometers from the Palestinian Authority electricity grid, which currently reaches its southern tip in the town of al-Samua.

The PA asked for Israeli security coordination to extend the grid to the 150 Ghuwein residents, but they were refused, the governor says.

But with unofficial support, the village set up electricity poles to link the village to the mains. On Sept. 8, Israeli forces tore down the budding infrastructure.

COGAT, the Israeli military of defense department in charge of civilian life in the West Bank, says the connections did not receive a building permit, nor a special electricity permit, and were thus designated an "illegally-set line," according to spokesman Guy Inbar.

Meanwhile, the Quartet office in Jerusalem says since the Tuwani success they "focus on shaping the policy context, rather than negotiating for individual cases."

But the main obstacle to its work facilitating basic services in Area C is Israel’s permit system.

"The permitting process is one which is complex and difficult to navigate… (we) continue to raise concerns about this process with the Israeli authorities at every suitable opportunity," the office says.

COGAT says there are no open requests to create or extend electricity connections in Masafer Yatta. They did not respond to Ma'an's enquiry into the number of requests that have been approved or denied.

Hebron Governor Kemal Hemad is clear on the matter. "Both the residents here and the government, we all believe Israel will not give us any kind of permission to build … and there is a political reason for that," he says.

Waiting 'forever'

Next to the well-lit chicken farm, Um al-Kher received stop work-orders to eight structures on Jan. 8, and two homes were demolished by Israeli forces on Jan. 25.

If each order leads to demolition -- and Hadhalin says the village has never received a permit -- there will be just a handful of structures remaining to house Um al-Kher’s 24 families.

The January orders came exactly four months after soldiers escorted bulldozers to tear down two buildings in the hamlet, which is still strewn with rubble.

Um al-Kher is bisected by a road and electricity lines connecting Karmel
settlement to their chicken farm (MaanImages/Charlotte Alfred)

The children have been terrified by the demolitions, Hadhalin says, prompting him and other residents to mark out a dirt football pitch and plant shrubs to give them a place to play. The pitch is a few meters from a gleaming climbing frame for the children of the Karmel settlement.

Then on Jan. 8, the football pitch fencing was also given a stop work order. Activists said the army had given verbal permission for the netting to go up in December.

Um al-Kher’s dirt football pitch under demolition order, a few meters
from the Karmel settlement playground. (MaanImages/Charlotte Alfred)

The relentless spiral of demolitions, which the Quartet office says it raises regularly with Israeli authorities, now threatens six solar and wind energy systems in Masafer Yatta, and last year cut the wires of a system in Bir al-Idd.

The community of 55 Palestinians, nestled in a hill below an Israeli outpost and a vast wind turbine supplying an Israeli settlement that straddles the Green Line, was revolutionized by the year-old solar energy project.

"We couldn’t do anything before this. We used to charge our phones on the tractor battery," village elder Moussa Jibreen Rabai, 57, says.

Bir al-Idd village elder Moussa Jibreen Rabai. (MaanImages/Charlotte Alfred)

The solar panels have been repaired since the June 20 demolition, but this small community, only a rump of the 40 families that lived in Bir Al-Idd in the 1990s, says it is fighting for its very existence.

"We never received a building permit," he says. "It takes two years to get a permit in Yatta, so how long do you think it would take here? Forever."

Hebron’s Gov. Hemaid sees the targeting of electricity structures in late 2011 as a campaign to frustrate Palestinian villagers in Area C.

"This electricity project is about ten years old, but now they discover it is illegal?" he says.

"This shows it is a political measure, because the people really need electricity."


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