Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Trading Protests for Sustainable Energy in Middle East

• October 10, 2011 • 4:00 AM

In the hamlet of Susya, a joint effort by Israelis and Palestinians is lighting a single candle (lit by biogas) rather than cursing the darkness.

We were traveling by car to Palestinian Susya, deep in the dry, patchy terrain of the South Hebron hills, to observe low-tech sustainable energy projects to help villagers meet their basic needs.

The road petered out — we’d gone too far — so we turned back toward another Susya, an Israeli settlement of about 100 families. Israeli Susya — established in 1983 about 40 road miles south of Jerusalem — has paved roads, tall pines and two-story homes with skylights and red roofs, running water, and phone and electric lines.

Just off the road we saw a car and a scattering of tents sprawled across a stubbly rise: this was the place we were looking for.

We maneuvered between two utility poles and up a dirt path to park in the shadow of overhead wires — wires that provide light and power to the Israeli settlement but to which the Palestinians are forbidden access. The village, where a few dozen families eke out a living on small farm holdings, wasn’t so much off the grid as snubbed by it.

While Susya village is desolate and remote, a small speck in West Bank Area C (as the area under Israeli civil and military control was so designated under the Oslo Accords), its plight has not gone unnoticed: activists and nongovernmental organizations have been working with the community to introduce alternate energy sources. Two alumni of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies had brought “biodigesters” to two families in Susya, and that, in turn, had brought us here.

On a cold and raw late winter day, we headed north from the desert with Elinor Marboe, 24, an American studying at the Arava Institute. Her focus was the biodigesters’ water component; mine was to visit Yair Teller, the Israeli alum running the project.

A biodigester combines water and organic waste to facilitate anaerobic processing, or “digestion,” yielding methane for fuel and a high-quality liquid fertilizer by-product known as “compost tea.”

Teller, in his early 30s, dark, slim, and athletic-looking, wearing dreadlocks and sandals, said he saw biodigesters used in rural areas in India, Mexico, and South America. “One day I said, ‘What am I doing in Oaxaca? Israel has the same problems. We have not just Third World conditions but 15th-world conditions.’ I realized, my country needs these, and I know how to build them.”

At first, says Marboe, they used potable water to mix with the waste. “Then we asked ourselves, ‘Why are we putting perfectly fresh water into the biodigester?’ It only has to be good enough to mix with the slurry from the manure and not to kill the bacteria.”

Potable water is not something to take lightly here. Susya villagers, Marboe says, pay 50 shekels (roughly $15 U.S. dollars) per cubic meter. In Israel’s Negev Desert, by comparison, it runs 4 shekels per cubic meter.

The compost tea is used to water olive saplings, which require 20 liters of water (a 50th of a cubic meter) a week.

Upon arriving at the village, we were ushered into the tent of the Nawaje family. Teller and Yusef Nawaje crouched on the uneven cement floor, fiddling with a small metal stove, trying to get it to light. A shipment of stoves that run on methane had just arrived from China, the only country that makes them. A few flickers and flares led to the steady blue blaze that signals clean combustion; Teller and Nawaje smiled at each other, sharing this small triumph.

Teller led us outside so we could see the biodigester, a large squishy plastic envelope with tubes protruding in and out. “It’s very simple,” he said. “Manure is broken down and moves through the system. After 15 days, it produces gas; gas comes up the tube, rising like a piston.”

Biogas, he continued, offers many advantages: not only does it generate fuel and fertilizer and reuse water, it also addresses indoor air pollution. In an area like Susya, the default fuel is brush gathered from the scrubby trees that grow in rocky, arid soil and burned in an open flame. Many women and children suffer from chronic and acute respiratory ailments, headaches, burns, and damage to the eyes from the smoke. Meanwhile, putting animal manure to use in the biodigester keeps that commodity from piling up and possibly contaminating water sources.

As running a biodigester involves constant tending and adjusting, Teller works closely with the two families and has, inevitably, shared in their frustrations. While it may be surprising for a former Israeli Defense Forces soldier to work hand-in-hand with struggling Palestinians, this reflects Israelis’ complex relationship with the land and its people. “To me it’s not a matter of [whether land is called] Israel or Palestine but providing basic needs of water and electricity,” Teller said. “If Israel is not going to do it, give it to someone who will. This is not about politics but about basic human rights.”

As the providers of said manure — sheep and goats — wandered about baaing and bleating, Teller explained that in recent years the village grazing lands have contracted due to pressure from the settlement. Three weeks before our visit, he said, Yusef’s 12-year-old daughter took the goats down the hill and was beaten up by IDF soldiers.

We were asked into the tent for lunch and the group of us, now joined by another Arava Institute alum, Abeer Abu Sara, a Palestinian who lives near Hebron, and Yusef, our host, sat on a rug on the floor. Yusef’s wife, Rabicha, brought out platters of taboon, a flatbread, and roasted eggplant, along with goat’s milk yogurt and cheese. Rabicha returned to the cooking area, where three children sat on the floor, eating. The tent was spotless.

Yusef said he and his family are under constant stress. “Israel doesn’t want to give us [this land],” he said, through Teller and Abu Sara’s translation. “There is attacking all the time.” He showed us a clip from a Swedish newspaper with a photograph of him being assaulted by settlers, their faces covered with bandanas. Many of Susya’s Palestinians have been displaced several times. In the mid-1980s, a dozen families were moved to make room for the Susya Archaeological Park. Ten caves used for dwellings were blown up by the IDF in 1996. Tents and water cisterns are regularly destroyed. Yusef said that a tent just meters from us has been burned down four times. Despite these events, Yusef said, “the important thing is not to teach the children to hate. The most dangerous thing is if children learn at school or home to hate.”

We went outside to find lots of activity around the dwelling belonging to the Newaja’ah family area. Three days before, the tent belonging to Hajja Sara, Rabicha’s mother and a widow, burned down in the middle of the night, and volunteers with NGOs The Villages Group and Ta’ayush were helping to rebuild the structure. I noticed that several men were setting a cement foundation. Villages Group volunteer Ophir Munz, a professor of history and Judaic studies at Israel’s Open University, said the building would be covered with tent canvas. “It will be illegal, but less illegal,” he said, referencing the fact that the villagers are repeatedly denied building permits.

Hajja Sara and two younger women served food to volunteers while others, including a small local boy, worked on the reconstruction. The mood was congenial, even festive, yet Hajja Sara confided to me that she’s too afraid to sleep; her brother, Haj Khalil, had been beaten by settlers two weeks before. (Villagers said settlers had torched the tent, but investigations by the General Security Service and a nearby fire department concluded it was accidental.)

We’d planned a long, backtracking route back to Tel Aviv to avoid the Hebron road, but were assured it was safe to go north through Hebron (that’s Area A, under full control of the Palestinian Authority) and Jerusalem. We drove Abu Sara and Munz. Abu Sara, who lives on the outskirts of Hebron, was particularly happy to have a ride since she’d ordinarily need to take several buses so as not to contend with Israeli checkpoints. As we pulled into Jerusalem, where Munz lives, he said that while the work is grueling and progress slow, he is committed to work in places like Susya.

“I can only accomplish so much by going to protests,” he said.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Judith D. Schwartz
Judith D. Schwartz is a Southern Vermont author and journalist with wide-ranging interests and credits. Her latest book is The Therapist's New Clothes. See her blog at

More From Judith D. Schwartz

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.