Palestinian electricity theft target of morality campaign

Annual loss increases PA debt to Israel by $70 million.

July 17, 2013 20:58
4 minute read.
electricity line old

electricity line old370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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RAMALLAH – During the pre-dawn hours in the holy month of Ramadan, while many are preparing a pre-dawn breakfast in preparation of the daylong-fast, others are tapping into the electricity grid. It’s an act that costs the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority (PA) millions of dollars annually.

Again this year, authorities will treat electricity theft like other personal bad habits rather than as a crime, working to prevent it through an advertising campaign that stresses morality during Ramadan, encouraging citizens to end the costly practice voluntarily.

“Every year, [the Palestinian Authority] purchases as much as $251 million worth of electricity from Israel to the benefit of 230,000 customers amounting to 1.5 million people,” Hisham Omari, Jerusalem District Electric Company, the Palestinian counterpart to IEC, told The Media Line. “Of that, about $70 million worth of electricity is stolen by industrial companies and by individuals, many of whom live in refugee camps. We call it ‘black losses.’”

Omari said it is relatively simple to steal power by one of two ways: either connecting directly into networks before the electricity reaches the customer’s meter; or by disabling the meter altogether. Either way, the loss, which is a significant burden to the Palestinian people at a time when the PA is severely cash-strapped and reliant on donations from foreign governments, is measured by comparing the readings on the main meter to those of the local meters in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jericho.

The difference is significant. While the monthly bill to the Jerusalem District company from the Israel Electric Company, which provides 90% of the power consumed in the PA, can be around $28 million per month, the PA is typically only able to pay up to about $14 million of that debt because of the prolificacy of electricity theft. Even though most of those responsible are known to the Jerusalem District Electric Company, including offenders that are industrial companies, because they are located in refugee camps it is virtually impossible to collect what is owed.

Omari is among those who fear that at some point the Israeli company will pull the plug, plunging families, businesses and hospitals alike into darkness.

Those responsible for providing power to the PA see the holy month of Ramadan, a period of reflection and penance, as an opportunity to address the situation through moral persuasion rather than by threats, arrests and lawsuits. Kamel Husseini, the managing partner for Ellam Tam, a leading Palestinian public relations firm, told The Media Line that, “Ramadan has always proven to be a good month where you can invoke certain moral and religious high ground messaging because people tend to be more aware and more worried about certain [negative] behaviors. So advertisements urging people not to steal electricity is a very soft way to invoke the conscience of the people.”

Advertising executive Jane Masri agrees. She told The Media Line that “Ramadan in the Arab world is the Super Bowl of advertising opportunities, akin to what you see during the holiday season in the West.” According to Masri, “Advertisers in many sectors spend as much as 25% to 35% of their annual marketing budget on Ramadan campaigns.” Imad, an east Jerusalem-based taxi driver, explained that his family’s spending pattern was typical of other Palestinian families, purchasing 23 pounds of flour, rice and sugar where only 2 1/2 is the non-Ramadan norm.

Yet, the approximately $70 dollars saved each month by each family of the 3,000 identified as “power thieves” because they tap into the electricity grid or disable their meter is a significant slice of their monthly income. Although a long-shot, PA officials and the electric company hope the morality basket that includes radio jingles and public billboards will convince some of the seriousness of the situation, both in terms of the economy and public safety.

“The government has created the Palestine Energy Regulator under the Palestinian Energy and Natural Resources Authority,” explained Husseini. The regulator’s sole responsibility is to fix the tariffs Palestinian families and businesses are required to pay, taking into account social and economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” According to Husseini, “The Government is sometimes forced to supplement to certain individuals or segments of society and that creates an even larger [electricity] bill on the shoulders of the government.”

The Jerusalem District Electric Company’s Omari also worries about the potential for fatal accidents that can easily occur when people are playing with high voltage. “Not only do we as a people and we as a company lose as a result of electricity theft, but in addition to destroying the network, there is a danger to life. People get shocked and many have died,” he said. “The police are not involved strongly enough.”

In August 2012, the Palestinian Authority passed a law that authorizes four-month jail terms for those found guilty of electricity theft. “But the court today is only punishing people with a one dinar fine (a single unit of Jordanian currency today worth about $1.40) dating back to a 1967 law based on much lower salaries of the time,” explained Omari. And given the across-the-board financial hardships and high unemployment, officials are hesitant to come down too hard on offenders.

“Ramadan is a very positive time for the entire community at every level,” Masri asserts. Officials responsible for keeping the lights turned on certainly hope so.

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