The Israel Electric Corporation cut off power supplies to the West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus for about 45 minutes at 2 p.m. on Monday, as a warning of further possible outages if the Palestinians fail to pay their debt of over NIS 1.9 billion.
“The IEC has for a long period of time cautioned the debtors and the relevant officials and government ministries about the immediate need to repay the debt, but thus far no solution for its reimbursement has been found,” a statement from the company said.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington, "We’re concerned about the impact on the ground of any cuts to basic services, including electricity."
The 45-minute outage marks the first time the IEC deliberately cut Palestinian electricity supplies, a spokeswoman for the company said.
The decision to do so was taken solely by the IEC, but the company notified and received support from all of the relevant government ministries and authorities, the spokeswoman said.
The Prime Minister’s Office had no response on the matter, but sources there confirmed that the upper political echelon had not ordered the brief power outage.
Palestinians immediately linked the outage to the deteriorating relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, since it became a member of the International Criminal Court with the intent of suing Israel for war crimes.
To protest the PA’s ICC membership, Israel has withheld the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars in PA tax revenue.
The PA governor of Jenin, Ibrahim Ramadan, said: “This policy [the 45-minute power outage] comes in the context of pressure on the people and their leadership, in an attempt to dissuade them from going to the international court in order to hold Israel accountable for its crimes at the expense of our people.” He made his statement to the Palestine News and Information Agency.
Nablus Mayor Ghassan Shaka’a called the blackout “collective punishments.”
He said that Israeli power cuts would do more damage to a Palestinian economy already hit by Israel’s withholding of the monthly tax revenues that it collects on behalf of the PA.
Psaki said, "We remain very concerned about the continued viability of the Palestinian Authority if they do not receive funds soon, either in terms of the resumption of monthly Israeli transfers of Palestinian tax revenues or additional donor assistance."
Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal- On blamed it on the Israeli elections.
She said it was the result of a drop in the polls for the Right, which is looking for “instant solutions to heat things up between us and the Palestinians.”
“Beyond the inhuman aspect of stopping electricity to a million people in the height of winter, there is a clear intention to create frustration and tension that will lead to conflicts,” she added.
“This isn’t the first time in this election that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu cynically endangered the welfare of Israeli citizens in order to get a few votes.”
Gal-On called Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) violent and irresponsible and expressed hope that, after Election Day, the plug will be pulled on their leadership.
But Knesset Finance Committee chairman Nissan Slomiansky (Bayit Yehudi) said he was glad that the IEC “stopped the PA’s partying on our bill.”
“Several months ago, I initiated a meeting in the Finance Committee with all of the relevant factors, in which I presented a report on the PA’s debts to Israel,” he recounted.
“This is a first step, and I hope that the electric company will continue following my demand to take steps against the PA and stop the current, absurd situation.”
Monday’s 45-minute power cut to Jenin and Nablus occurred in five electricity lines. After 45 minutes of outages in the two cities, the IEC said that the power stoppage had ended, until a future date to be determined.
The PA, as well as the Jerusalem District Electricity Company (JDECO) – the Palestinian electricity firm servicing the east Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jericho areas – collectively owe the IEC, NIS 1.9b, the Israeli company said.
The IEC is pressed for funds because its own debt to the Israeli government stands at about NIS 74b., a company spokeswoman confirmed.
The owed NIS 1.9b. therefore constitutes only about 2.6 percent of the total IEC debt.
Of the NIS 1.9b. owed to the IEC, about NIS 1.2b. comes from areas serviced by JDECO, while the remaining NIS 700 million is owed directly by the PA, covering areas in the Gaza Strip and the northern and southern West Bank, the IEC spokeswoman said.
The NIS 1.2b. debt comes only from areas within the PA and not from east Jerusalem, JDECO’s CEO, Hisham Omari, said.
Although neither Jenin nor Nablus are within JDECO’s service areas, Omari criticized the IEC’s decision to briefly turn off the electricity supplies as “a punishment to the people.”
“Many people were stuck,” Omari said, referring to incidents in which people were trapped in high-rise buildings. “For me, it is inhuman.”
Shaka’a, also heads the North Electricity Company, which is responsible for the electricity of both Nablus and Jenin, Omari explained.
With the bulk of the Palestinian debt hailing from JDECO regions, however, Omari attributed the ongoing financial crisis to three main problems.
The first, he said, is the failure of the PA to take enforcement measures against those who steal electricity from the JDECO grid.
“Up until this moment, we have not seen any progress from the PA to punish people who are stealing electricity, even though they [passed] a law,” Omari told The Jerusalem Post.
“Till this moment, there wasn’t any implementation.”
The second problem, according to Omari, is the fact that many Palestinian government offices do not properly pay their JDECO electricity bills.
The third problem he identified is the grave situation impacting the 12 refugee camps within his jurisdiction, in which residents fail to pay for their electricity at all.
“The 12 refugee camps can destroy the company, if the situation continues,” Omari said, noting that the people living in the camps are very poor. “The situation is not clear for the people inside the refugee camps.”
Acknowledging the urgency of finding a solution to the Palestinian electricity debt, Omari stressed that harming the people is not the right answer and could even exacerbate the problem.
“The people who don’t pay – they will continue,” he said. “The people who paid will stop paying because they are punished.”
Omari argued that instead of shutting the lights off on select cities, the crisis must be solved at a “high political level.”
“Don’t leave it to the companies to fight each other,” he said.Tovah Lazaroff and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.