Tareq Abu Hamad is the first Jerusalem Palestinian to reach a senior position in an Israeli government ministry. Now, as director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, he describes what it’s like to function as a Palestinian within the Israeli system, and the effort to promote renewable energy infrastructures in Gaza

Abu Hamad. “In our region, it’s clear that cooperation is essential, because our water and energy sources won’t be sufficient for everyone. There’s no other way.”
Abu Hamad. “In our region, it’s clear that cooperation is essential, because our water and energy sources won’t be sufficient for everyone. There’s no other way.” Credit: Ilan Assayag

Nir Hasson May. 12, 2022

When Tareq Abu Hamad held the post of acting chief scientist of the State of Israel, he was scheduled to take part in a meeting at the Soreq Nuclear Research Center, south of Tel Aviv. “I got to the reactor and they said that we would actually meet outside instead of inside. It was obvious to me that it was only because I was there,” he says, but quickly makes it clear that “in the end I went in. I think I may be the first Arab to ever enter” the center, whose work is related to civilian, not military, purposes.

For Dr. Abu Hamad, it was a formative experience. He is the first Jerusalem Palestinian to reach a senior position in an Israeli government ministry, the first Palestinian to attend cabinet meetings without being an Israeli citizen, and last year he became the first Jerusalem Palestinian to head an Israeli academic institution.

The first time I met Abu Hamad was at his home in the heart of the village of Sur Baher, in East Jerusalem. Like all the Palestinian locales in East Jerusalem, Sur Baher, situated between Kibbutz Ramat Rachel and the Judean Desert, is a maze-like, steep-sloped area of dense construction, of roads with no sidewalks, and with no playgrounds or green areas at all. His home is located opposite the village’s oldest mosque, on a street that’s been newly paved but that still lacks a sidewalk.

The venue for our second meeting could not have been more different from Sur Baher – an office designed on ecological principles, with walls of mud and straw, at Kibbutz Ketura in the southern Arava desert. Surrounding the office is a small experimental farm where research is carried out in the areas of renewable energy, water purification and the production of cooking gas from refuse. In an adjacent vegetable patch, which is irrigated with purified waste water, stands one of the country’s most famous trees. Dubbed “Methuselah,” it’s the first date palm tree to be grown from a 2,000-year-old seed found in a 1960s archaeological dig. Five similar trees are growing in a nearby, separate plot.

We’re at the Arava Institute, which Abu Hamad has headed since last August. Established in 1996, the institute, situated at this kibbutz north of Eilat, trains students from Israel and Jordan, as well as Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and international students, in the fields of sustainability and the environment, in cooperation with Ben-Gurion University. Its goal is to create a regional environmental leadership.

Arriving at the beginning of Ramadan (early April), we were greeted by unbearable heat. Despite the fast, Abu Hamad joined us for a tour of the experimental fields. “The first time I was here was in August 2008,” he related. “I’d been invited to give a talk. I drove through the gate, got out of the car, felt the heat, and thought: No way I can stay here. But then I said to myself: They invited you, so show your respect, give a talk and go back home. Afterward, David Lehrer, the previous director, took me to a meeting with students. After a quarter of an hour with them, I thought, I’m staying here. I looked at them and I understood that unless you asked them their names, you wouldn’t know whether someone was Jewish, Arab or American. I realized that this is what I wanted to do: science and research in surroundings that create connections between people of different backgrounds. That’s what grabbed me.”

In the wake of that decision, he and his family moved to the kibbutz. After a five-year stint teaching and doing research at the institute, Abu Hamad took up a post in the Ministry of Science, becoming the deputy chief scientist and also the State of Israel’s acting chief scientist for a few months, a position responsible for allocation of large budgets in the advancement of technology. He returned to the institute in 2016, and was appointed its executive director in 2021. His family remained in Sur Baher – a large part of his time is spent on Highway 90, traveling between Jerusalem and the Arava. He’s a smiling person, speaks quietly and without pathos, whether it’s about the climate crisis or the problems of the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. It becomes clear that those in his immediate circle are more emotional about his exceptional story than he is.

Describe for me how an East Jerusalem Palestinian ends up at the Arava Institute.

“It goes back to when I was a teenager of 16. I began working at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, in the cherry orchards. I was curious; I wanted to learn English from the volunteers there and get to know the culture. It was challenging, because it was during the first intifada [in the late 1980s]. Our house, which is in the middle of the village, was a focal point. They would wake us up at 2 in the morning to clean the stones from the streets, force us to erase graffiti from the walls. They would beat us. There were nights when we would escape from our place to my uncle’s house, so that the soldiers wouldn’t bother us. That was life.

A solar-powered water purifier at the Arava Institute.
A solar-powered water purifier at the Arava Institute. Credit: Ilan Assayag

“So at night, I would be pummeled by policemen, and in the morning, I would go to Ramat Rachel and meet regular people. And then you ask yourself, ‘Where am I?’ I’m a Palestinian, an Arab, but I have friends in the kibbutz, where people treat me well. I had no answers. I completed high school while the intifada was still going on, and I told myself that there was nothing to keep me here. I liked chemistry, so I went to Turkey to do a degree in chemical engineering. I went on to a master’s and a PhD [both in Turkey]. My doctoral thesis was on the use of bacteria to clean up oil spills.”

On his return to Israel, Abu Hamad did a postdoc at the Weizmann Institute of Science, where he began working in the field of solar energy. It was after a second postdoc in the United States, and following that initial, 2008 lecture at the Arava Institute, that he was invited to establish a center for renewable energy there. “That suited me, because I was thinking that I wanted my daughters to have the same sort of experience I had at Ramat Rachel – for them to meet Jews first-hand. My older daughter was then 5, the second one not yet 2. [Since then, another daughter and two sons have joined the family.] Kibbutz is a paradise for children, and the girls fit in easily. They had friends there, and that is very important for me.”

Nonetheless, Abu Hamad’s wife, Sukina, an Arabic teacher, had a hard time finding work in the area, so the family decided to return to Jerusalem in 2013. Also in the background was an episode of murder and a blood feud between the Abu Hamad clan and another family in Sur Baher. Abu Hamad maintains that those events, which jolted the village and the extended family, did not play a part in his decision to return to Jerusalem.

Be that as it may, he received a job offer from the Science Ministry, where he founded the unit for engineering studies. “We saw that Israel was in a significant decline in the realm of engineering – in the number of students and the number of publications – and we were able to persuade the Finance Ministry to set up a fund for studies in applied engineering.

“We started with a budget of 2 million shekels [at the time, about $520,000], and we got to 50 million,” he relates with pride. He moved up in the ministry, becoming the deputy chief scientist, and in the end, for a few months, served as the acting chief scientist.

After a quarter of an hour with [Arava Institute students], I thought, I’m staying here. I looked at them and I understood that unless you asked them their names, you wouldn’t know whether someone was Jewish, Arab or American.Tareq Abu Hamad

Like the absolute majority of East Jerusalem’s inhabitants, you weren’t born or raised as an Israeli citizen, but with the status of “temporary resident.” How do you function as a senior official in an Israeli government ministry with that status?

“On the first day, someone from the Shin Bet [security service] showed up to do a security check. We began at 8 A.M. and finished at 5. After that, I was sent to do a polygraph test every three months. I was asked about connections, about how I spend my time. I treated it like a routine you have to go through. I know that the chief scientist also goes through that [because of position’s exposure to classified documents], but before me, not the deputy.”

How were your relations with the ministers who headed the office during that period?

“There were five ministers during my period. [Benjamin] Netanyahu, who was acting minister, left no impression. I also didn’t see Minister Tzipi Hotovely even once at the ministry. Jacob Perry was nice and helped me obtain citizenship. I submitted an application, and a month later, I was contacted by the Interior Ministry. I’ll never forget the moment when I heard on the car radio that Danny Danon [a Likud politician] had been appointed science minister. I was at the ‘banks intersection’ [on Hebron Road, in Jerusalem], and when they said ‘Danny Danon,’ a black curtain descended on me. But he actually turned out to be the most intelligent person I ever met. He has emotional intelligence. He never went to a meeting with members of the Arab community without insisting that I sit next to him.

“Afterward there was Ofir Akunis. That was during the period of the ‘intifada of knives’ [2015-2016], and one day he said to me, ‘Tell your friends to stop the stabbings.’ I replied, ‘Mr. Minister, they are not my friends.’ I don’t understand how he couldn’t distinguish between a person who stabs people in the street and the deputy chief scientist.

The Arava Institute.
The Arava Institute.Credit: Ilan Assayag

“Once a Palestinian, you’re a Palestinian for life,” Abu Hamad says about the attitude he regularly encountered. As always, the worst of it would take place at Ben-Gurion airport. “I was Israel’s representative to the Joint Research Center of the European Union. That’s like seven Weizmann Institutes in one, and their whole purpose is to undertake studies for the countries of the EU. One day I had to fly there [to Europe]. I’m the deputy chief scientist, with a certificate and with a letter from the ministry stating that I’m going in order to represent the State of Israel. But the security people at the airport didn’t care. The check was strict almost down to underwear. When I got back I told the ministry’s director general that I would never go again.”

But the ministry came up with a solution: There is a kind of VIP certificate intended for Arabs at the airport. “It testifies to your being a ‘good Arab.’ When I go to the airport, I show it to security and it’s as if I’m a Jew, it works well,” he says. “But it makes you wonder how an Israeli Arab can feel like he belongs to this country when he has to go through things like that. It’s humiliating. It’s like you have schizophrenia. There was also a period when the police set up roadblocks between East and West Jerusalem. I would leave the house at 6 A.M. in order to get through the checkpoint, you stand there and suffer, and a few minutes later you’re sitting in a distinguished government ministry.”

What were the reactions on the street in Sur Baher to your job?

“Some people said I was a ‘normalizer,’ meaning that I was making the occupation normal, cosmeticizing it. But there are two sides to that. The Israeli side was also aware of my story. Today, Israelis don’t have contact with Palestinians, and that disconnect is the hardest problem of all. People don’t know one another. There are still people who say I’m a collaborator. But if I look at what happened last May [Operation Guardian of the Walls in the Gaza Strip, accompanied by disturbances in Israel’s mixed cities], then we, the silent majority, didn’t talk or shout enough about the importance of coexistence and we left the stage to the fanatics. They succeeded big-time, unfortunately, which should be a lesson to all of us. We need to talk about the importance of the encounter, to insist on the importance of coexistence.”

No fear of floods

In the meantime, Sur Baher has caught the science bug from Abu Hamad. Recently he and the journalist Eliezer Yaari, who wrote a book about the village in 2015 (“Beyond the Mountains of Darkness,” also published in English) and in 2018 made a film, “The Optimists,” about Abu Hamad and Ketura, successfully raised funds to set up three science laboratories for the girls’ high school. Thanks to Abu Hamad’s connections in the Weizmann Institute, a tradition was also established in which students from the village pay an annual visit to the institute and meet with scientists.

What made you decide to leave the ministry and return to the Arava Institute?

“At the end of the day, I was a bureaucrat and I had to execute the work plan of the elected official. I had to promote science in the settlements – things that didn’t speak to me. People who work in the public sector need to have a knack for that, to be able to put their ideology aside. I enjoyed it very much, but up to a certain point. As much as I want peace [between our two peoples], being in a government ministry was heavy. Too heavy.”

In the meantime, Abu Hamad’s field of specialization – renewable energy – had become the hottest thing in the new climate economy. He took part in the recent climate conference in Glasgow and is promoting a regional vision for an energy transition.

The institute has “green” structures that derive their lighting from solar power and can produce cooking gas from organic waste.
The institute has “green” structures that derive their lighting from solar power and can produce cooking gas from organic waste. Credit: Ilan Assayag

To a certain degree, the Arava Institute is the progenitor of Israel’s solar industry. The first experimental solar panels were installed there, and the first commercial solar field in the country was established by Ketura adjacent to the institute. Today, the area next to Abu Hamad’s office serves as something of an open-air laboratory, where a variety of different solar panels intended to generate electricity are tested. Next to them is another test facility, developed by Abu Hamad, for heating the air by means of solar panels, which will reduce the use of fossil fuels even in cold countries.

There are also a few other structures and devices in the yard that demonstrate off-grid environmental technologies – meaning, facilities that can be installed in communities that are not connected to the power, water or gas infrastructures in, for example, the West Bank, Jordan or Africa. For example, there are a few mud structures that derive their lighting from solar power and have stove-top cooking heaters that use a “home biogas” system that produces cooking gas from organic waste.

Still, the institute’s most significant operations are the cross-border environmental projects it facilitates between Israel and the Palestinians. All the parties – Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan and even Hamas – apparently find it convenient to use the institute as an unofficial go-between. The fact that it’s an Israeli institute headed by a Palestinian is helpful in this regard. “I know that it’s easier for the Palestinians to say that they’re working with Tareq and not with the Arava Institute,” Abu Hamad notes.

Most of this activity takes place under the auspices of the institute’s Forum for Applied Environmental Diplomacy. For example, the forum assisted in the purchase and installation for municipalities in the Gaza Strip of systems that extract potable water from the air using solar-generated electric power. Each such system is capable of producing 800 cubic meters of drinking water a year.

There exists a kind of VIP certificate intended for Arabs at the airport. “It testifies to your being a ‘good Arab.’ When I go to the airport, I show it to security and it’s as if I’m a Jew,” says Abu Hamad.

“In the last round of fighting [in May 2021], we called to find out what had happened to the systems. We were told that people hadn’t been able to go outside [where the devices were installed]. But, on Saturday morning, after the hostilities ended, we were sent photos of people waiting in line to get water. On Monday we received requests from five municipalities for additional systems. We obtained approval and installed them,” Abu Hamad says, indicating that the facilities were undamaged during the fighting.

Indeed, the Gaza Strip is a world power in the use of renewable energy. According to estimates, Gaza produces nearly 50 percent of its electricity from solar panels. But that success has a price. The systems are usually supplemented by large batteries that supply electric power when the sun has set or is hidden by clouds. The problem is that these are generally low-quality, short-life batteries that end up in pirate garbage dumps across the Gaza Strip. The problem is further aggravated by the fact that unauthorized workshops have sprung up in Gaza to separate the silver and other metals from the old batteries, leaving the other parts strewn outside. As a result, ground and water are contaminated with toxic, carcinogenic materials. Abu Hamad and personnel from the institute forged a connection between a Gaza Company that collects the batteries and an Israeli firm that will make them available to a firm for repurposing.

Another cross-border environmental project in which the institute is participating is the laying of a pipeline to carry purified waste water directly from a Palestinian treatment plant in El Bireh, adjacent to Ramallah in the West Bank, to the village of Ouja in the Jordan Valley, in coordination with Israel’s Civil Administration.

“I am like the curtain that separates between the two sides: I see them both and assist them,” Abu Hamad says. “I try to find a sustainable solution for a significant environmental problem. Obviously, if there were no occupation, the Palestinians would do it themselves. The occupation is the reason that the Palestinians are not developing the West Bank. But until the occupation ends, I am doing those things. These are not directives I get from above, but solutions of a kind the Palestinians want. However, in order to actualize them, I need to be in contact with the Civil Administration. When Palestinians have an environmental problem and don’t want to talk to the Israeli side, they will talk to us.”

A conversation with Abu Hamad oscillates between enthusiastic optimism about the projects that are moving ahead based on a vision of using solar power to electrify the region, and pessimism about the overall situation in Israel-Palestine. “One of our interns from Gaza told me that this is the first time in his life that he had seen a mountain. It’s like removing someone from prison: You see that they’re looking at everything as though for the first time. No one takes responsibility for what’s going on there. There is no horizon, either in the Gaza Strip or in the West Bank, and the whole region is on the verge of an explosion. I live in East Jerusalem, and even though I have Israeli citizenship, I feel like a second-class person; and they live under far greater pressure.”

Tareq Abu Hamad.
Tareq Abu Hamad.
Tareq Abu Hamad.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Environmental issues can act as a catalyst for cooperation, but also the opposite, to radicalize conflicts because of competition over resources. Where do we stand?

“That’s true – the environment can be a catalyst for war or a catalyst for cooperation. In our region, it’s clear to everyone that cooperation is essential, because our sources of water and energy won’t be sufficient for everyone. There is no other way. The answer to the dangers of climate change lies in our behavior. We have to change how we live, industry, food, water, transportation – everything has to change. We are a laboratory for solutions. I want to see the whole region become like the Arava Institute – for everyone to behave like us – and we want to prove that it’s possible.”

What climated-related issues should Israel be especially worried about?

“I am not afraid of a heat wave and I am not afraid of floods. They are scary, but not as much as the fact that Israel is an energy island. Already today, in the recent heat waves, we reached the peak of [power] consumption. If, heaven forbid, there were to be a breakdown or a cyberattack during a heat wave, thousands of people would die in Israel.”

What’s the solution?

“We need to connect with our neighbors. Jordan has a large area in the northeast of the kingdom that is very suitable for solar energy production, and the power can be transmitted to Israel and the Palestinians. The problem is that by hooking up to the Jordanian grid, Israel would also be hooking up to the general Arab grid, and Arab states won’t agree to that. Israel needs to hook up with other countries via Cyprus and Turkey, because to be an energy island is a disaster.”

It’s not by chance that the Arava Institute sprang up in Ketura or that the Abu Hamad family found its place there for a time. The kibbutz, which was founded in 1973 by a group of American Jews from the Young Judea Zionist youth movement, is apparently one of the country’s more idealistic communities. Eliezer Yaari’s film, for example, traces an initiative by veteran kibbutzniks to establish an Arab community adjacent to the kibbutz, in order to promote coexistence and equality. The project ran into resistance from the younger generation of the kibbutz, and is on hold for the time being.

One day Akunis said to me, “Tell your friends to stop the stabbings.” I replied, “Mr. Minister, they are not my friends.” I don’t understand how he couldn’t distinguish between a person who stabs people in the street and the deputy chief scientist.Tareq Abu Hamad

Can we say that you fled to the farthest place possible, a bubble that’s disconnected from the conflict, that what you and the others are doing is possible because it’s remote from everything?

“When I engage in cooperative ventures with Palestinians, they don’t check to see where the institute is located, they know we’re an Israeli organization, and they don’t say that we are disconnected from reality. The fact that our students continue to be active after leaving the institute shows that it’s not just a honeymoon that comes to an end, after which they return to regular life.”

How are relations between students?

“For the most part they’re proper. But when a Palestinian student comes to the kibbutz and there’s a terrorist attack, or someone from their village is killed, they ask themselves what they’re doing there. It’s not easy,” Abu Hamad adds, “but at the same time we don’t have the option of giving up.”

A  branch of the Palestine Islamic Bank branch in Khan Yunis, Gaza. Today, nearly half the Strip’s electricity is solar-generated.
A branch of the Palestine Islamic Bank branch in Khan Yunis, Gaza. Today, nearly half the Strip’s electricity is solar-generated. Credit: Ahmad Salem/Bloomberg

How the Gaza Strip became a solar superpower

Since 2007, Israelis have been able to observe the Gaza Strip only from afar, or examine it via satellite images. But even from these distant vantage points it’s impossible to ignore the revolution that is taking place in Gaza: rows upon rows of black solar panels fill the landscape there. Recent years have seen the appearance of increasing numbers of systems to produce energy from the sun in private homes, public institutions and greenhouses. In contrast to the frustratingly slow progress of the energy revolution in the more well-off countries – as a way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and cope with the climate crisis – in Gaza the transformation is proceeding rapidly, driven by an immediate existential need.

Using remote sensing, Prof. Itay Fischhendler, head of the Hebrew University’s geography department (full disclosure: I am a student in the department), together with the researchers Lior Herman and Lioz David, examined the deployment of solar panels in Gaza. According to the last survey they conducted, in 2020, there were enough panels on roofs there to supply about 25 percent of the area’s electricity needs. Since then, Fischhendler estimates, their number has grown exponentially, to a point where almost half the electric power in the Strip comes from the sun. In Israel, by comparison, only about 8 percent of the electric power derives from renewable energy.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that the basis for comparison is naturally different: Gaza’s electricity consumption is dramatically lower than those of Israel. Last year, Gazans enjoyed 13 hours of electricity a day on average – a figure down to 12 hours since the beginning of 2022. 

Several factors have contributed to Gaza’s success. To begin with, the ongoing failure of its electricity system prompted residents to seek autonomous solutions. Second, the technological and economic revolution in the energy field enabled the installation of small, efficient power-supply systems in individual buildings. Solar technology began becoming much cheaper starting about a decade ago – the price of panels and batteries plunged by about 85 percent over that period. 

Third, the two political powers that control the lives of the Gazans – Israel and Hamas – are encouraging the phenomena, if only by their inaction on the subject. Israel allows solar panels and the other elements of the system to enter the Strip through the border crossings, while Hamas, for its part, turns a blind eye to the phenomenon and implements a policy of under-regulation. The Hamas authorities, for example, do not require that the systems to be connected to the power grid.

“The quiet from both sides is creating a revolution from the bottom,” notes Fischhendler. “In contrast to Area C in the West Bank [which is under full Israeli civilian and security control], and where the installation of solar systems on the ground is perceived as part of the land conflict, in Gaza there is no land conflict [with Israel]. On the other hand, it’s precisely the anarchy and lack of regulation by Hamas that are encouraging the phenomenon.”

The energy transition in the Strip is being supported by foreign states and by international bodies. Last month, for example, the German government and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement for the establishment of two new solar farms in the Gaza Strip at a total cost of 16 million euros. Another agreement was signed at the beginning of this month between the PA and the World Bank, within whose framework the bank is to subsidize the improvement of electricity infrastructures in both Gaza and the West Bank, so as to allow enable the PA to receive more solar-based electricity. 

Two years ago, the World Health Organization and the government of Japan completed installation of a large solar system on the roof of Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis. Last year, the University of Birmingham, in the United Kingdom, announced a project to install a large solar energy system on the roof of the Women’s Health Center in the Jabalya refugee camp in the Strip.

The energy revolution in Gaza challenges the accepted wisdom about the spread of solar technologies in poor, underdeveloped regions of confrontation such as Gaza, Syria and Yemen. “The assumption was that the richer you are and the more of a polluter you are, the more likely you will be to turn to these technologies – but in the case of Gaza the exact opposite happened,” Fischhendler says. 

But he too makes it clear that not everything is rosy in this green revolution. “Anyone who has a roof and a few tens of thousands of shekels to install the system, gains. It creates a situation in which the strong grow stronger and the weak remain behind, and that likely increases the inequality.”