For the second time this week, the Israel Electric Corporation cut power supplies in Nablus and Jenin on Wednesday, in response to the Palestinian Authority’s escalating NIS 1.9 billion in unpaid bills.
“After countless warnings and attempts to reach an arrangement, the IEC board of directors instructed the company’s CEO to reduce the rising debt,” a statement from the company said. “Therefore, and because the IEC, by virtue of the law, is committed to business considerations, the company is forced from time to time to enforce limitations in electricity supply for defined time periods, with the goal, as stated, of reducing the soaring debt.”
Wednesday afternoon’s hourlong outage marked only the second time the IEC has cut Palestinian supplies, with the first occurring on Monday, for 45 minutes in the same two cities.
If no solution is found to the ongoing problem, more outages could happen from time to time again in the future, an IEC spokeswoman told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
Earlier this week, Palestinians condemned the move as a form of collective punishment and charged that it was a response to their decision to join the International Criminal Court to sue Israel for war crimes.
Israel has already refused to hand over hundreds of millions in tax revenues it has collected for the PA. Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office, however, said the power outages were solely an IEC decision.
The move has diplomatic implications.
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On Monday, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters, “We’re concerned about the impact on the ground of any cuts to basic services, including electricity.”
About 63 percent of the Palestinian debt hails from the Jerusalem District Electricity Company (JDECO) – the Palestinian electricity firm servicing the east Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jericho areas – while the remainder is owed to the IEC by the PA directly, according to the IEC – whose own debt to the government stands at about NIS 74b.
The Electric Corporation’s debt is growing at a rate of NIS 70 million per month, an IEC spokeswoman told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
“The goal is that the debt won’t grow,” she said.
Of the NIS 1.9b. owed, about NIS 1.2b. comes from areas serviced by JDECO, while the remaining NIS 700 million is owed directly by the PA for the Gaza Strip and the northern and southern West Bank, according to IEC data.
The NIS 1.2b. JDECO debt comes only from areas within PA territory and not from east Jerusalem, JDECO’s CEO, Hisham Omari, explained.
While Nablus and Jenin are not within Omari’s jurisdiction, he slammed the IEC’s decision on Monday as “inhuman” and called the company “irresponsible” following the second incident on Wednesday.
“It is clear to everybody that it is a political step,” Omari told the Post on Wednesday afternoon.
“I know they want this money from the Palestinian customers. But it’s not like any customer, where you can cut their electricity and get their money. Here you have hospitals and many other issues that are related to human life.”
The Nablus and Jenin electricity networks fall under the authority of Nablus Mayor Ghassan Shaka’a, who is in charge of the PA’s North Electricity Company. When asked why Nablus and Jenin were chosen in particular as the sites for the planned power outages, the IEC provided no comment.
“I hope these municipalities will take the IEC to the court,” Omari said.
The power cuts may have fallen in Nablus and Jenin, but the bulk of the Palestinian debt hails from the JDECO regions.
Omari attributes his company’s ongoing financial crisis to three main problems.
First, he told the Post, is the PA’s failure to take action against those who steal electricity from the JDECO grid. Although the PA has passed a law enabling enforcement against such activity, no progress in translating the legislation into action has occurred, Omari explained.
Second, he said, is the fact that many Palestinian government offices do not pay their electricity bills because Israel is withholding tax revenues, he said. Israel is withholding these revenues in response to the PA’s decision to file war crime charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court.
Third is the fact that most residents of the 12 refugee camps within his jurisdiction fail to pay for their electricity at all.
He went so far as to say that these 12 camps would be able to “destroy the company” if the prevailing situation persists.
Many Palestinian residents do not have high enough salaries that allow them to pay their electricity bills, Omari explained. Also problematic is the fact that the PA can buy electricity from no country other than Israel, he added.
“We don’t have any other place to buy electricity,” Omari said. “We cannot buy electricity from Jordan and Egypt. We are under occupation, so the occupation is responsible for the people’s lives.”
Although he acknowledged the urgency of finding a solution to the Palestinian electricity debt, Omari stressed that harming the people is not the right answer and could only exacerbate the problem.
The PA and Israeli government must find a solution to the ongoing crisis, Omari said.
There is an enormous difference between cutting the power of an individual consumer who fails to pay a bill than turning the lights off an entire city, he stressed.
“This is a human issue,” Omari added. “They must sit down and solve this immediately.”Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.
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