It is undoubtedly true that Israel, particularly in this southern region, has enormous solar potential, with incident solar irradiance at around 2,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) per square metre, according to data from the Ben Gurion University of the Negev.
The Israeli government is also beginning to focus on this opportunity. On January 8, 2012, Energy and Water Minister, Uzi Landau, signed 19 new licences for photovoltaic facilities. These are expected to add around 27 megawatts (MW) of energy to the total of 515.5 MW in a country almost entirely reliant on imported fossil fuels.
The scheme to incorporate the Bedouin into this potential has been piloted through Israel-based Arava Power Company, in whom Siemens own a 40 percent stake, and is financed with $30 million in United States funding.
As well as the express purpose of integrating the traditionally poor Bedouin villages into the Israeli and global green economy, the promise of earning money through the feed-in tariff (FIT) of 0.96 to 1.03 Israeli New Shekel (0.26 to 0.28 USD) per kw/h is designed as a carrot to encourage "unrecognized" villages to move towards gaining official recognition status by the Israeli government.
With all demographic and historical issues in the region, this could hardly be said to be a straightforward or apolitical process. The Negev Bedouin have long been the subject of attempts by the Israeli government to group them into fixed domiciles, which could be said to run counter to their traditions.
In a much-repeated quote to the leftist newspaper Haaretz in 1963, then Minister for Agriculture Moshe Dayan said, "We should transform the Bedouin into an urban proletariat – in industry, services, construction, and agriculture this will be a radical move, which means that the Bedouin would not live on his land with his herds, but would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on."
The result was a wave of attempts throughout the 1970s and early 1980s to urbanize and group the Bedouin, which resulted in seven legal, "recognized" villages. There exist a further 45, which are considered "unrecognized" according to international parlance (the Israeli term is "dispersals"), according to the Regional Council of Unrecognised Villages (RCUV).
The villages, almost irrespective of whether they are recognized or not, suffer from deep poverty, especially compared to the rest of Israel. A Guardian report dated February 27, 2003, stated that unemployment rates there number the highest within the country, partially due to restrictions on subsistence agriculture, causing high crime levels.
Musu Abu Karinat of one of the recognized villages, Abu Karinat near Dimona, told Haaretz on January 4, 2012, that "well make money from renting out the land and well benefit from the new jobs the farm will generate. The land was originally meant for agriculture, but agriculture has become very unprofitable in recent years."
According to Haaretz, Arava met with a group of Bedouin residents and community leaders at their photovoltaic plant at Kibbutz Ketura. Arava representative Hannah Schafer told pv magazine, "Our team at Arava Power has worked since 2009 to develop strong relationships with the Bedouin community. It is the trust and goodwill that we have developed with them, along with our expert regulatory and engineering teams, that will ensure that these projects succeed."
She continued, "[While] the Tarabin solar field is in the most advanced stages, Arava Power has signed agreements with five different Bedouin families and all of these projects [worth around 31 MW] are in various stages of the regulatory process."
Arava will invest US$30 million in the eight MW Tarabin project. In a statement released today, it added, "An element of the Tarabin license application involved the Obama Administration, via OPIC the Overseas Private Investment Corporation of the US government … which pledged to supply 80 percent of the financing for the solar field."
Unrecognized vs. recognized
The project to marketize the Bedouins land is heavily linked to what being unrecognized versus recognized means for those living in the villages. The majority of Bedouin villages have thus far resisted the path to becoming officially recognised by the Israeli state, with the Guardian 2003 report describing them as "living in perpetual fear of being ‘civilised,’" because of the consequences of this official recognition status.
Without it, the Bedouin are classed as squatters and their domiciles are considered illegal, but official recognition only allows the Bedouin to lease rather than own the land they live on according to the report. There are also fears that recognition provides a pathway for legal evictions and further resettlement.
Furthermore, evidence from the RCUV and Guardian suggests that problems that affect the seven recognized villages, such as a lack of sewage systems and roads, make them little better than the conditions in those that are unrecognized.
From a green energy perspective, the utilisation of sun-drenched land to generate solar energy, in order to provide desperately poor communities with an income seems like an ideal situation, and it would be wrong to be overly critical of this element of the situation.
There is no doubt that those living in the Bedouin villages are in need of a source of income, and having one that would benefit the planet does indeed seem ideal. However, it would be equally wrong to ignore the complex history, social difficulties and widespread implications that impact this project.
Green energy is not just about providing cleaner fuel, but also gives an opportunity to generate energy in a more socially responsible way, and the case of the Bedouin in the Negev is a case which could be said to wholly satisfy one of these elements while posing something of a challenge to the "green behaviours" which come with it.