As a small Middle Eastern country with no oil of its own, Israel's long-held dream of energy independence has been just that, a dream. And as for the Palestinians, not having a state of their own has also put energy independence out of reach.
But one thing Israel and the Palestinian territories do have in abundance is sunshine. So, why not go solar?
Sunday, Israel unveiled its first commercial solar field at Kibbutz Ketura. The facility consists of a few dozen rows of 15 foot-high solar panels in the southern desert. When it goes online, the five mega-watt field will supply electricity to three nearby kibbutzim.
The Israeli company behind the project — Arava Power Company — says this is just the beginning. Executives say they are planning to sink $2 billion of investment capital into 40 more solar projects in Israel.
It is early days still for Israel's commercial solar industry. But this one facility is already seen as a model for an interesting new partnership.
Gershon Baskin, an American-born Israeli activist and a senior advisor to Palestine Power, which is getting help from the multinational parent company of Arava Power.
Baskin says it is high time for Israelis and Palestinians to get serious about alternative energy.
"Israel has been the cutting edge in the development of green technologies, but most of it is exported," Baskin said. "Israel is pretty backwards in terms of its own care of its own environment. And Palestine is even worse."
Baskin added, that "for two peoples who are fighting over land that they claim that they love, they've done a tremendous job of polluting this place, of destroying the land, destroying the environment, destroying the water resources we have, polluting the air, you name it. This country is an environmental mess."
Beyond the aim of saving the environment, there are strategic reasons for Israelis and Palestinians to help each other go solar. Israelis, for example, are living with an electrical power deficit and the government plans to make up for it with coal.
At the same time, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza buy almost all of their power from Israel. Gershon Baskin says every kilowatt hour produced by Palestinian solar power would end up helping Israel.
"We'll save the environment in Israel," Baskin said. "We'll save the environment in Palestine by having renewable energy. It all goes together: it fits economically, it fits environmentally and it fits in terms of building models for peaceful coexistence."
The politics of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, of course, are problematic, to say the least. One example: Baskin's Palestinian partner did not attend the ceremony this weekend at Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel.
Hanna Siniora says the event fell on the same day that major Palestinian protests were planned to mark the anniversary of the 1967 war with Israel.
"I could not feel myself able to go and celebrate something which I support renewable energy during such a difficult period historically," Siniora said from his office in Jerusalem. "Our people were actually trying to tell the Israeli public and Israeli government, enough of occupation, we want to be also free and independent like you."
Siniora says building up the economic infrastructure of the Palestinian territories is equally as important as opposing the Israeli occupation. Electrical power is one part of that, he said. It's pricey, but there ¹s one big advantage to solar energy.
"Even if it is more expensive," Siniora said. Israel "cannot prevent the rays of the sun."
Siniora and Baskin said they are laying the groundwork to build solar fields in the West Bank. And that means finding investors, finding land to build on and navigating the Palestinian bureaucracy.
Then, there is the nagging issue of politics, again.
Nothing scares off investors like the unkown and right now, it's very difficult to see a clear path ahead for bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict closer to a resolution.
The inauguration of Israel's first solar field, at a kibbutz in the Negev desert, on June 5, 2011. (photo: Matthew Bell)
Gershon Baskin is an Israeli activist trying to help start alternative energy projects in the Palesitnian territories. (photo: Matthew Bell)
Hanna Siniora is former editor of an Arabic language daily newspaper. Now, he is working to bring alternative energy - like solar - to the Palestinian territories. (photo: Matthew Bell)
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