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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.

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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

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