Solar Power Is Great, Unless You Are a Bedouin in the West Bank

Israel encourages using solar panels for electricity, but West Bank Bedouin who try to join the bandwagon are deemed to be building illegal structures.

Bedouin lying on mattresses in the unrecognized West Bank village of Khan al-Ahmar.
Amira Hass

Environmental defense organizations have invested enormous resources in recent years to promote solar power usage in Israel. They would do well to make a small effort to help the West Bank Bedouin community, which wanted to exploit this type of energy but have been blocked by the Civil Administration, which has deemed their efforts illegal.

The residents of the village of Khan al-Ahmar, adjacent to Kfar Adumim, petitioned the High Court of Justice a few weeks ago to oblige the state to explain why it does not rescind the order it made to confiscate 20 solar panels that were donated to them. About 200 people live in the village, according to the petition. The Civil Administration rejects their right to live at the location and has issued dozens of demolition orders against structures in the village. Still, the state six months ago informed the High Court during a hearing on the village's fate that it did not intend to carry out the demolition orders at that stage.

In practice, the state's announcement meant that the dozens of family would be residing in Khan al-Ahmar without being connected to the water or electricity infrastructures. The homes of the village are located nearby high power lines that bring electricity to the adjacent Jewish settlements.

Last year, 25 solar panels were donated to the families. Unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev make widespread use of similar panels. The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies demonstrated their importance with its project for off-grid communities.

The panels in Khan al-Ahmar were installed at the beginning of last year, providing electricity for light, refrigerators, computers used for school studies, washing machines and fans. According to the petition, the Civil Administration's inspection unit confiscated the panels a number of weeks after they were installed. The state has yet to respond to the petition, but in response to a Haaretz inquiry made a few months ago, the Civil Administration commented: "The solar panels were put in Khan al-Ahmar illegally and without coordination with the Civil Administration, and were thus confiscated. Some of the panels were returned, in light of resident appeals, according to regulation."

Shlomo Lecker, the attorney who submitted the petition on behalf of the residents, remarked in the petition that 20 of the 25 panels were returned, but the inspectors returned and confiscated most of them. The remaining ones were covered and are not being used out of fear they will be confiscated as soon as they are installed. Without the panels, village residents are forced to use generators that consume diesel fuel. These structures generate noise and pollution, and the cost of maintaining them is very high for the residents.

The Civil Administration noted in the original order that it was taking the panels because of suspicions of illegal construction. Lecker asserts in the petition that the confiscation was illegal because installing the panels did not require any building activity. The panels were laid on the ground and not supported by any part of a building. He asserts that no building permit was needed for this action, so there was no justification for confiscating the panels. The petitioners argue the Civil Administration's real goal is to be cruel to the residents and to wear them out until they leave their place of residence.

Meanwhile, the Civil Administration and other state organs are helping the settlements financially and otherwise to make widespread use of solar energy. The issue is particularly prominent in the Jordan Valley, where there is a significant rise in the use of solar panels. In practice, a situation has been created by which the settlements, which are illegal in the eyes of the international community, enjoy support in every regard concerning the establishment of energy devices, and in contrast the Bedouin community, which is prevented from legalizing their residences, are forced to give up on electricity from a clean, cheaper source on the basis that they are engaging in illegal activity.

Regretfully, environmental activists in Israel, who are making great efforts to make it easier for homeowners to put solar panels on their homes, are not showing interest in the small struggle of Khan al-Ahmar. Perhaps the time has come for them to promote a declaration regarding the right of every person to use solar energy, as long as he does not break the law or prevent someone else from enjoying the exact same rights.

For the average Israeli, using solar energy is another way to save on the electricity bill and a way to feel he is contributing to the environment. The case is even more so for someone living off the electricity grid.