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Out of the Stone Age: Empowering a West Bank village

As the Americans embark on a new peace mission, Donald Macintyre reports from a West Bank village trapped by its history but now lit up with help from across the divide

To the visitor it may seem picturesque. But when you've spent several hours a day for 20 years vigorously shaking a dead goat's stomach filled with milk to make butter, the novelty has long worn off. In the village of Susiya, not having electricity keeps them in their own dark age.

So for Samia Shineran, 30, who has been making goat's butter by hand since she was 10, the installation of a powered churn in the family tent this spring was an unalloyed delight, giving her that much more time for the many other tasks which fall to this Palestinian mother of 10.

"This is better," she says, beaming. It is easy work now. Women clean the dishes, deal with the sheep and goats, take care of the children. "I can do more things every day now and have social contact with other women." Her horizons now widened, she would ideally like an electric pump to ease the back-breaking task – mainly allotted to women – of bringing buckets up from the cistern holes that are her extended family's only water supply in a community without any of the utilities the Jewish settlers a few hundred metres away take for granted.

Mrs Shineran's wish may yet be fulfilled because Susiya, a beleaguered community in the arid, windswept South Hebron hills, now has electricity thanks to a unique renewable energy project. Pioneered by two physicists who have a strong interest in environmentalism and a close relationship with the villagers, the changes, in the words of 32-year-old farmer Hassan Shineran "have brought us from the Stone Age to modern life". Both Noam Dotan and Elad Orian, who came to help the Palestinian Arabs in this impoverished, conflict-scarred tract of the southern West Bank, happen to be Israeli Jews.

Although Palestinian shepherds and farmers first subsisted here in caves at least 200 years ago, the 14 extended families of Susiya came here as refugees, expelled from their Negev village in the war of 1948. While the 1967 Six-Day War brought their adopted home under Israeli military control, the real troubles of the Susiya families, like many others in the South Hebron hills, really began in the 1980s. That was when Jewish settlers – some notably hard-line – began to establish communities across the area.

Because the new settlements were surrounded by closed military "security buffer zones" – often including Palestinian grazing land and key water sources – the settlers were able to exploit the old Ottoman law that land not worked for three years passed automatically from its previous owners. The problems were compounded by the discovery of the remains of an ancient Jewish town; today it is squeezed between an Israeli settlement, an archaeological park and a military base.

Susiya is in the heart of what the early 1990s Oslo accords classified as "Area C" – the large area of the West Bank under direct Israeli military control. The talks George Mitchell will hold today with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a settlement freeze are the first stage of a process which Mr Mitchell and his boss President Obama hope will lead to a Palestinian state, in which, among much else, Area C would pass to Palestinian control.

That would be a big relief for Susiya. For so far, with no rights acknowledged by the Israeli military to build here, the village has been demolished four times in the last 25 years in the apparent hope that its residents would decamp to the nearest town of Yatta, the southernmost – and probably poorest – city in the West Bank. And the lively threat of another demolition has long been reinforced by road closures, what they say are frequent attacks on their property and livestock by the settlers – and what Mr Dotan calls the "cruel sanction" of keeping them "off-grid". Powerless in every sense.

Susiya, bordering the desert and with minimal rainfall, is a far cry from the Scottish highland community of Scoraig, on a rainy peninsula jutting between two sea lochs south of Ullapool. But it was on a course in Scoraig that former hi-tech professional Mr Dotan learned from the inspirational pioneer Hugh Pigott how to build a "home brew" wind turbine of exactly the sort now helping to make Susiya viable.

The one thing Susiya has plenty of is wind and sun. So the hybrid system Mr Dotan and Mr Orian designed of two wind turbines – delivering 350 watts and 1 kilowatt of power aided by solar panel sources – is tailor-made to meet their electricity needs. It is also vastly safer and less pollutant than the kerosene that was their only source of energy before.

"Now the children can read books in the evening, and the women can sew," says local farmer and community leader Nasser Nawaja, 28. "We used to have to go to Yatta to charge our mobile phones," he adds. "Now we can do it here and we have the radio. We are part of modern life. When the war in Gaza was happening we followed everything. Before we didn't know what was happening unless people called on us."

Mr Nawaja smiles as he thinks back to the day in 2001 when as concerned activists Mr Dotan and Mr Orian first turned up to offer practical help. It was the first full year of the Intifada, when the Army and the settlers variously destroyed buildings, uprooted olive trees, and even poisoned wells after a settler was killed by Palestinians. "They came at the worst time," Mr Nawaja explained. "People thought they must be from intelligence."

But then, he says, the two men helped them to find an Israeli lawyer Shlomo Lecker to take their case to the Supreme Court. (The court initially ruled against expulsion but has still left the villagers applying, in vain, for permits for their structures while the threat of further demolition hangs over them.) In identifying with the villagers, says Mr Nawaja, Mr Dotan and Mr Orian risked arrest and "endangered their lives. That created a strong bond between us. There is an Arab saying that you don't know someone until you sit and eat with him. They raised our morale. We didn't have any support even from the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian in Yatta or the Israeli in Tel Aviv doesn't know how strong is the relationship between us."

Because the two wind turbines are essentially "illegal structures", the Israeli-Palestinian team assembled the larger one under cover of darkness, and erected it at dawn. It is, apparently, bureaucratically more complex for the authorities to destroy an installation than to prevent it being erected. More importantly, they have ensured the villagers themselves take "ownership" of the project.

With sponsors ranging from several private Israeli donors, to the German Consulate in Ramallah and the Swiss Olive Oil Foundation, Comet-ME ( www.comet-me.org), the organisation that the two Israelis founded with software expert Assaf Landschaft, spent around $40,000 (£24,000) on the new system. But the villagers will now do their own maintenance thanks to a workshop Comet-ME held last summer for 10 Palestinians (including Nasser Nawaja and two others from Susiya). Meanwhile, Comet is contemplating joining other organisations on a longer-term water filtration project for the village.

Soon, six more solar panels will be installed for relatively isolated householders. One cave-dweller, Jazi Nawaja, 40, can't wait. For her nine children – two of whom are Al Quds Open University students – currently stay with relatives in Yatta because they have no light to study in the evenings. "We need a refrigerator, but the light is the most important," she explains.

For the extended Shineran family, dependent for income on the butter they sell, the electric churn and the large energy-efficient refrigerator they now run off the new system, have together raised sales income from £850 per month to £1,450. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Susiya energy system is a finalist in this year's BBC-Newsweek "World challenge" for projects across the planet "showing enterprise and innovation at grass-roots level".

The Shinerans, for their part, say the electricity has helped to reinforce their steadfastness in the face of attempts to make them leave the land. "This is for sure," says Hassan Shineran. "If we have water and electricity our life is easier. Of course we feel safer."