Many people in Palestine live with extreme energy scarcity. Local communities have no sovereignty over their energy supply, due to Israeli occupation since 1967.
The Israeli control of energy is a key driver of environmental injustice, or ‘nakba’in Arabic, in addition to toxic waste-dumping, expropriation of water sources and destruction of Palestinian lands under the guise of nature conservation.
Much of the energy in Palestine is imported at high prices, placing a heavy economic burden on poor and marginalised communities which represent approximately half of the population. As supply is neither adequate nor reliable, many communities struggle with just a few hours of power per day.
Energy scarcity is felt most keenly by rural women who bear the double burden of domestic and agricultural work.
In response, in 2003 Friends of the Earth Palestine/Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network (PENGON) began implementing renewable energy projects to build the capacity of local people, especially women, to manage their own clean energy sources.
The projects provide households, small farms, businesses and non-profit institutions like schools with reliable, affordable and sustainable electricity for their basic needs - such as lights, machinery and water pumps.
Through training and advocacy, they put power back into the hands of Palestinian women, like Majida and Rasmeya. This is their story of People Power in action.
In the Gaza Strip, the situation is urgent. Since the bombardment of power plants by Israeli fighter jets in 2006, the amount of energy produced locally has decreased to just a quarter of previous capacity.
More than 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza suffer from daily electricity shortages, which usually last for at least ten hours. The amount of fuel currently brought in covers a mere 20 percent of the electricity demand - meaning that some communities have power for only three to four hours per day.
Like many other women from marginalised Bedouin communities in Gaza, Majida rears sheep to produce milk and cheese for sale. Her business depends heavily on refrigerators, to store dairy products in the hot climate.
Majida has four children, three of whom are blind. She told us how much she suffered, living in darkness, unable to adequately care for her children. Energy scarcity caused her a lot of anger and pressure.
Majida’s family was one of 270 families to directly benefit from PENGON’s solar projects in Gaza. Mains power has made a dramatic change for her family. She is now able to adequately attend to her children when they need help.
Majida said: “It was dark and I couldn’t do anything. I used to talk to myself, asking: 'Why things are like that? Why is my life this way?'
"Now with solar energy installed, I am more comfortable, things are easier for me. Whenever they ask for anything - food, drink, clothes - I can just turn the lights on and do it.”
Rasmeya and her family members have also each seen an improvement in their quality of life.
Rasmeya explained: “I suffer from pain in my chest due to asthma. I used to feel like I was suffocating in the heat and couldn’t stay home. Now I can use the fan to bring me air. My chest is better and the pain is gone."
“My daughter used to study using a battery operated light, and the mobile. It was really hard for her. At night when the batteries were empty we used to sit without lights.” Now her daughter is able to study in the evening, creating long-term positive impacts for her education.
The solar energy installed four years ago has also helped Bedouin women to improve the quality and efficiency of dairy production, by powering mechanical appliances such as shakers:
“Now we use the shaker and have time to do something else, but before we had to do it manually for more than two hours. With the energy source we can use the shaker, TV, small fridge, chargers and lights."
In the Jordan Valley area of the West Bank, around 13 percent of the population (amounting to nearly 216,000 people) either lack a reliable power supply or have no supply at all.
Israeli restrictions on construction have impeded local communities from addressing energy scarcity themselves or building basic infrastructures for farming.
In response, PENGON members, including the Ma’an Development Center and the Palestinian Hydrology Group (PHG), have supplied solar units to 650 households and small farms, and run training to build community participation and leadership in the renewable energy sector.
In a context where energy scarcity intersects with gender injustice, the network seeks to widen the space for women to build their skills and to have a voice in discussions on energy policy.
Saeed's farm used to suffer from severe water scarcity in the hot climate. Now he and fellow small farmers are able to power water pumps for irrigation: “Solar energy stimulates farmers to continue their agricultural work.
"Before the spring was flowing randomly, but now the water is pumped in to agricultural channels. More than 50farmers have benefited from it. It’s easier and saves us a lot of costs.”
At the Beit Qad Permaculture Center, impacts such as this are spread through capacity-building workshops for women, men and agricultural students.
Hassan Abu Alrob explained: “Beit Qad Farm practices sustainable agriculture, which is based on using all available natural resources.
"Part of that is using the sunlight that can provide this farm with energy. Our monthly electricity cost - which used to be on average 1500 Nis (equivalent to $415) - became zero after the installationof the solar panels.”
The farm currently uses solar to power much of their equipment: water pumps for the fish pond, a drying unit for medicinal herbs and a processing unit for dairy. They can now better care for sheep, with machines for milking and feeding, air conditioners and lighting, and they have refrigerators for storing dairy products and medication.
“We have meters linked to the municipal electricity network. Any energy surplus during summer we can provide to the municipality and then during the winter they can cover the shortage.”
This allows them to continue running training courses on sustainable farming, including workshops for women about small-scale agricultural techniques such as vertical planting, recycling boxes, barrels and pipes, and creating organic gardens with a small water source like a well or tank.
Solar power also reinforces the stability of non-profit institutions such as schools.
Cremzan, a sensitive area close to the wall in the West Bank, is home to the Lavagornya school, attended by 270 children. The solar energy systems installed by PENGON member the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (ARIJ) now provide for a large amount of the institution’s operational costs.
Mohammad Qaraka said: “Electricity costs are a burden on the school expenses - about 1500 Nis per month. The solar panels enable us to use that money to improve employee status instead. [The school] is under threat of confiscation and this project enhances their steadfastness in this area.”
Jane Hilal, Head of Water and Environment Research at ARIJ, explained: “The primary aim of our projects is to promote the Palestinian environment and create an environment that people can live in. We try to use water and environmental resources in the rightway in order to provide it for everybody.”
These real solutions for clean energy are having huge impact on peoples’ lives in Palestine, and are tackling social and climate injustice from the grassroots up, with women as protagonists.
Beyond empowering women and men to be active in the energy sector, PENGON seeks to transform energy policy by mainstreaming clean energy nationally through lobbying and advocacy. They have formed a committee that affected communities can contact for urgent environmental needs, and developed a resource guide for mainstreaming gender into energy policy.
Their impact is bolstered by relationships with local authorities and development councils.
Zahi Damakhi, a farmer in Beat Hassan, Jordan Valley, said: “The most important thing is that the ministry makes a plan to implement more clean energy projects. Speeding up the implementation of such projects will decrease the electricity bills we now have to pay to the Israeli company.”
Women and communities in Palestine are now taking their place as leaders in Palestine’s clean energy transformation.
Madeleine Race is a communications officer at Friends of the Earth International.
PENGON’s story is one of 33 initiatives featured in the 2019 Atlas of Utopias, a global gallery of inspiring community-led transformation in water, energy, food systems and housing. Find out more on the Transformative Cities website.