Middle East: Violence flares in Golan Heights

Protests against Energix's 110MW Golan Heights project show that wind farms in the region are becoming more controversial. We look at the reasons behind the violence and whether resolution is possible.

  • Energix's 110MW Golan Heights project is facing local protests
  • The firm said its project would benefit the local Druze community
  • Critics claim wind farms in the region are an overreach by Israel

Energix Renewable Energies is not the first company to develop a wind farm in the disputed Golan Heights region between Israel and Syria.

Mei Golan Wind Energy completed the region’s first wind farm in 1992, with headline capacity of 6MW; and, last month, Enlight Renewable Energy started to commission the 207MW Genesis Wind project, which is due to be fully operational by September.

However, Energix’s 41-turbine 110MW Golan Heights wind farm has sparked bigger protests than either of those previous projects. Last month, hundreds of people from Druze Arab villages in the region were involved in violent clashes with Israeli police, which responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. 

The result was that dozens of protestors and police were injured, and that tensions remain inflamed. Land is always political, but nowhere more so than Golan Heights.

Heightened tensions

It is impossible to separate the protests against the Energix project from the troubled history of the region where it is based. The Golan Heights were part of Syria until the region was captured by Israel in 1967, and annexed by Israel in 1981.

Between 40,000 and 50,000 people now live in the region, split equally between the Israeli and Syrian Druze populations. Tensions also increased in 2019 when the US, under President Trump, became the first country to formally recognise Israel’s claim to sovereignty of the region. Relations between the Israeli state and Druze Arabs are usually calm, but wind projects in the region have become a focal point for tensions.

This is not a new phenomenon. We are aware of protests by the Druze population of Golan Heights about wind farms stretching back to 2010. The violence around these protests may now be more intense, but many of the arguments are the same.

First, the Druze population see wind farms as an infringement on their rights to use their land and expand their villages. This is an argument we have seen with similar protests by indigenous peoples in countries including Kenya, Mexico and Norway. The Druze have accused Israel of using wind farms to encroach on their land.

Second, they argue that these projects are unfair because Israel and Israeli firms are gaining all the financial benefits from the use of the land. For example, Israel wants wind development in the Golan Heights to contribute to its goal of achieving 30% of renewables in electricity generate by 2030. In their most strident language, the Druze accuse Israel of using wind farms to ‘greenwash’ their occupation of Golan Heights.

Third, they have raised concerns about the impacts of wind farms on birds, which is a longstanding complaint about wind projects in many parts of the world; and fourth, they have claimed wind is less reliable than fossil fuels, which is another common complaint.

The Energix project may not look much different than the other wind farms that have been built in the Golan Heights, but the anger that the developer is facing is a culmination of tension that has increased over the last decade. It is also happening in spite of the ways that Energix said the scheme would benefit the Druze people, such as the clearance of mines from the 1967 conflict from 42.5 acres of land; the restoration of land for agricultural use; and payment of rent to local landowners.

Energix in Golan Heights

Energix subsidiary ARAN started work on this development in the mid-2000s. Back then, it faced its biggest opposition from the Israeli Ministry of Defence, which was concerned about its impact on military operations in the region. The ministry finally approved the project in 2021 and said that backing renewable energy would help it “strengthen security… through the strengthening of the economy and society”.

This is an important step for the project, but it has also fuelled a perception among the Druze population that their concerns about wind projects are being ignored while Israeli military concerns have been taken into account.

Separately, Energix has been fighting a legal battle with Al-Marsad, an Arab human rights organisation in Golan Heights that has criticised both Energix and the project. 

And finally, it faced court action from the Druze community who claimed the project should not go ahead because Energix had not dealt with the true owners of the land when it was assembling the site for its wind farm. However, a court earlier this year ruled that Energix did not need to stop work on the project.

Some members of Israel’s government have expressed sympathy for the arguments of the Druze population. In 2022, environmental protection minister Tamar Zandberg called for a five-year moratorium on wind projects in Golan Heights to better assess their impacts on bats and birds. But, as of last week, the official policy of the Israeli government is that construction of the wind farm should continue despite rioting.

With so much rancour over wind in the Golan Heights, this is far from a resolution.

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