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Solar Energy as Peace Builder in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

There’s been little reason for optimism lately with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Yet, a ray of hope came this past month from a small patch of desert.

A ray of sun, that is.

On June 5, a day that marked both the anniversary of Six-Day War as well as World Environment Day, Israeli company Arava Power cut the ribbon on Israel’s first commercial solar field at Kibbutz Ketura in the southern Negev desert. Amid dozens of rows of 15-foot-high solar panels, the inauguration of the five-megawatt solar field was celebrated in front of government ministers, press, and international investors. Belizean rapper Shyne even unveiled his new song, “Solar Energy,” at the event.

While the Ketura facility will begin by providing energy for three nearby kibbutzim, Arava Power already has its sights on investing $2 billion for 40 additional solar projects in southern Israel, equaling to roughly 400 megawatts of energy.

The solar initiative is certainly a milestone for Israel, since investing in renewable programs serves a great interest for the country in dire need of energy independence. However, a renewable energy sector could also greatly serve the Palestinians, who are in dire need of the jobs and infrastructure necessary for any future country.

Despite their political differences and what they voice publicly, both Israeli and Palestinian leadership understand that any progress begins on the ground.

During his two years in office, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has often advocated an “economic peace” with the Palestinian Authority (PA) based on improving the Palestinian economy. At the same time, PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad has also stressed the importance of institution building and economic development toward Palestinian statehood.

Regardless if either government has actually succeeded, it is clear that investing in robust renewable energy sectors could mutually serve both environmental and strategic interests.

So why not start with what both share in abundance — the sun?

In 1956, Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said, “The largest and most impressive source of energy in our world ... yet a source so little used by mankind today is the sun.”

Today, while Israel is known for developing clean technology and selling innovations abroad, it has yet to prove itself at home. With no oil sources and new offshore natural gas reserves years from being tapped, the country generates almost all of its energy from imported fossil fuels.

Recognizing it faces possible energy droughts, the Israeli government is finally acting. Last week, the cabinet approved a long-range energy plan to encourage corporations and individuals to produce electricity from renewable, non-polluting sources. The plan sets a goal of 2,760 megawatts of electricity production from renewable sources by 2020, roughly 10% of the country’s electrical output.

But, who is to say something similar could not and should not occur in the Palestinian territories?

The PA in the West Bank currently receives all of its power and petroleum from Israel. With unemployment hovering near 25%, investing in renewable sources, such as solar power, could be a major step toward self-reliance.

However, the hurdle may be with the Palestinian leadership. While Palestinian people would prefer that their leaders focus on jobs and infrastructure, the PA seems to be solely aimed at achieving statehood in the UN. Yet, when asked in a poll this month what the top priority should be for PA leadership, more than 80% cited creating new jobs while only 4% identified current UN efforts.

Incentivizing and assisting the Palestinians to produce their own clean energy infrastructure would not only create thousands of new jobs and industry, but would also serve as a serious confidence-building measure for both Israel and those countries that pour billions of dollars in foreign aid to the PA each year.

Even the world’s largest oil exporters are seeing the benefits. Saudi Arabia recently announced plans for a 5500-megawatt solar program, the output of which would equal energy from its crude oil exports. Nearby, Abu Dhabi is investing $16 billion in a solar program called “Masdar City” that would be the world’s first carbon-neutral city.

For Israelis and Palestinians, moving away from fossil fuel dependence will ultimately come down to politics. But, with mutual needs, investment, and available renewable resources, it can be done.

Just as Ben-Gurion laid out the near-impossible vision of making the barren Negev desert “bloom” to build up the young Israeli state, the promotion of renewable energy in the region could serve as the first major step for achieving the dream of both energy independence and lasting partnership. 

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

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