By Charlotte Alfred

MASAFER YATTA (Ma’an) — There is an underground bunker in the South Hebron Hills, camouflaged by bracken and heavy sacks, where a tiny Palestinian village is sheltering a secret.

Building quietly at night and securing backing from foreign governments, experts are working to share this secret with communities across the area.

The illicit activity? Renewable energy.

Hundreds of Palestinians living in these rolling hills, known locally as Masafer Yatta, cannot connect to a electricity grid. Now, a green power revolution is under threat by a spate of demolition warnings.

Masafer Yatta lies almost entirely in Area C, the 62 percent of the West Bank under full Israel civil and security jurisdiction since the 1993 Oslo Accords.

On Tuesday, Israeli forces delivered stop work orders — the first step towards demolition — to wind and solar power systems in four villages in Masafer Yatta.

These threats follow several months of demolitions and official warnings targeting villagers’ efforts to power their communities.

Since mid-June 2011, the army has demolished electricity pylons in two villages, threatened to knock down solar power systems in six others, and cut the electricity wires in another, citing a lack of legal permits.

Only one village in Masafer Yatta has ever been able to connect to the Palestinian electricity grid, after a decade of wrangling with the military.

Masafer Yatta has an electricity network, connecting the four Israeli government-sanctioned settlements and six unauthorized outposts built there since 1981 to Israeli supplied electricity.

Palestinian villages have been refused access to these power lines that criss-cross their land, and the army has torn down at least three attempts to connect to the Palestinian Authority supply.

COGAT, the Israeli military of defense department in charge of civilian life in the West Bank, insists that Israeli authorities do approve electricity construction “based on population’s needs in order to enable a decent fabric of life,” according to spokesman Guy Inbar.

But “safety and hygiene” issues are paramount, he says, adding “no infrastructure should be bounded to illegal constructions and the ones built against the laws of planning and constructing.”

A web of legal regulations enforced by the Israeli military, including Jordanian planning laws dating back to before Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, require that Palestinians in Area C apply to Israeli authorities to build on their land.

PA officials, development organizations and village residents agree building permits are almost impossible to obtain. The UN humanitarian affairs office says that permits are only possible on the one percent of Area C that has an Israeli-approved zoning plan, most of which is already built-up.

Just as with water and road networks, Israeli military regulations thus render the Palestinian Authority power grid almost off-limits to the 150,000 Palestinian residents of Area C.

A quiet campaign to power the rural communities in Masafer Yatta using wind and solar power had hoped to avoid the permit problem besetting these infrastructure projects, keeping systems low-key and nestled inside villages.

Solar panels in South Hebron Hills village Susiya. (MaanImages/Charlotte Alfred)

“The sun comes from God, not from the Israeli authorities,” reasons Jad Isaac, director of the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem, one of the groups that has installed renewable energy in Area C villages.

“Our life here makes a pressure to invent something new,” says one village activist.

But villagers fear the recent upsurge in Israeli orders to demolish renewable energy systems are the start of a clamp-down on their self-sufficiency.

“Electricity is a big problem; it causes a headache for the Israelis,” Hebron Governor Kamel Hemaid tells Ma’an. “I don’t know why, maybe they like the dark.”

Army demolitions doubled across the West Bank in 2011, the UN says. Gov. Hemaid says Israel is sending a message to the PA that it will hold on to these areas, after negotiators conditioned a return to talks on Israel freezing settlement building.

The demolitions are part of a campaign to “put pressure on the Palestinian Authority,” he says.

“Last year every type of demolition was doubled … showing this is a new policy, which has a political reason. It is not about being illegal or not getting legal permissions,” Hemaid says.

A recently leaked EU report says the escalation of demolitions in Area C results in the “forced transfer of the native population,” and is closing off the possibility of a two-state solution to the conflict.

Several village elders told Ma’an that the curbs on their development are part of a decades-old campaign to move local residents from this southern border zone, populated by an estimated 2,000 Israeli settlers.

“If we put down one stone, it is forbidden, because they want us to leave,” says Muhammad Ahmed Nawaja, council head of Susiya village in Masafer Yatta.

Legality, politics and negligence

Israeli authorities say they have to demolish buildings that are constructed without a permit according to the applicable law, but for villages facing a demolition order on every single structure in their community, law has nothing to do with it.

Just next to the planned route of Israel’s separation wall in the south, the village of Dkaika has 74 demolition orders pending.

“Not one building has ever received a permit in my memory,” says school principal Moussa Najada. “There is no building, no sewage, no water, no electricity.”

He adds: “From the 1980s the Israelis have been trying to get us to move, they are not bothered where we go. They try to frustrate us, and they will follow us to the next place.”

Dkaika school principal Moussa Najada. (MaanImages/Charlotte Alfred)

Nearby hamlet Amniyr was completely leveled three times in 2011, with residents moving into caves or forced to stay with relatives in Yatta.

Every villager Ma’an spoke to had no doubt the demolitions and restrictions on development were a continuation of a story beginning in 1948, and unfolding further in the early 1980s and late 1990s.

The villages are a mixture of pre-1948 communities squeezed by their proximity to the ceasefire line with the new Israeli state, agricultural lands farmed by Yatta residents who moved out to live on their fields, and Bedouin encampments set up by those displaced from the Negev desert in the war to establish Israel.

When Israel began building settlements in the area in the early 1980s, villagers say the army started putting pressure on them to move from Masafer Yatta.

In 1999, the entire population south of Tuwani was evacuated by the Israeli army. After a battle in Israel’s High Court, residents were granted ‘temporary’ permission to return.

“The court agreed this is our land, but they will not give us permission to build on it,” says Susiya council chief Muhammad Ahmed Nawaja.

Dkaika school children return home after classes finish. (MaanImages/Charlotte Alfred)

International law experts say that under the Fourth Geneva Convention Israel must provide for the needs of the occupied Palestinian population, and are prohibited from demolishing any structure that has a civilian purpose.

Hebron Gov. Kamel Hemaid believes the demolitions are a political tool to allow Israeli authorities to prevent people from living near the border with Israel and Israeli settlements, but also to sow social discord to harm the PA.

When Bedouin and other rural communities in Area C talk to the press and international organizations, they create the impression that the PA discriminates between people, he says.

“When they come to Hebron (city), they can clearly see the difference between areas A, B and C,” Hemaid reflects.

“We are talking about the peace process, building a state, borders and independence, and at the same time we cannot help any Palestinian who has lost his house, his car, his tree or his farm. You see the difference.”

“The Israelis want Abu Mazen (President Mahmoud Abbas) to be weak, to be under the occupation, not to refuse, to obey orders and all the policies of Israel … and they also want to strengthen the other segments who are against the PA, like Hamas and the others.”

But for Bir al-Idd village elder Moussa Jibreen Rabai, struggles between Fatah, Hamas, and Israel do not change the fact that Masafer Yatta has been let down.

“The government can’t and won’t do anything. The media comes and no one does anything. No one does anything at all for us here.”