Encountering Peace: Don’t shut the switch

One of the items not transferred to the Palestinian Authority with its creation in 1994 was electricity generation.

Gaza Strip's power plant 370 (R) (photo credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters)
Gaza Strip's power plant 370 (R)
(photo credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters)
One of the items not transferred to the Palestinian Authority with its creation in 1994 was electricity generation.
With the exception of the Jericho area, the PA is not permitted to generate any of its own electricity. In fact, even the PA’s creation of distribution companies in the West Bank is not in accord with the agreement. In terms of electricity for the Palestinians, the Israeli Civil Administration is fully in charge.
The situation in the Gaza Strip is different because there is an independent power generation plant there, but at the beginning of operation “Summer Rains” after Gilad Schalit was abducted, the IDF bombed the facility and since then it has never returned to full capacity. Throughout the past years, Gaza has been able to provide for less than fifty percent of the electricity needs of the 1.6 million people living there. Over the past weeks, a conflict between the Hamas government and Egypt over the price of fuel, and the transfer of fuel necessary for running the electricity plant in Gaza, ceased, and since then Gazans have had electricity for about six hours a day. I wonder how many of us can even imagine living like that? We so often forget what it means to live without electricity. It is so natural for us to flip on the switch, or plug in our telephones, computers, televisions, ovens, air conditions and heaters – we don’t even think about it. With the constantly rising price of electricity, we might remember to shut off a burning lamp or to shut down our computers from time to time to save some money, but still our lives are completely dependent on electricity and we hardly seem to notice it.
There are about 70 Palestinian communities in the West Bank, mostly in the southern Hebron hills, that are not connected to any electric grid. I have visited many of these communities. The most amazing thing is that most of them are very near settlements or checkpoints which are completely lit up. I visited a community near Sussiya where an Israeli NGO, Comet-ME, assisted by IPCRI – the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, with small amounts of donor funds from New Zealand, constructed a small electricity generation plant consisting of a wind turbine and some solar PV panels. Enough electricity is generated to enable them to plug in a phone, a laptop computer, a refrigerator and a couple of small lamps.
However, the most major leap into the 21st century is the electric butter churn they use to supplement their income and make the lives of the women much easier. But in this community, as in others, the Civil Administration has issued demolition orders against the turbine and solar panels. Israel continues to hold full control over 62% of the West Bank and that authority enables the Civil Administration to do virtually whatever it wishes.
There are plans in the PA to launch a solar power initiative. In fact, the plans have been developed and presented to the public.
Palestine wants to develop clean energy and perhaps more importantly, Palestine wants to develop independent energy. Today, 95% of the West Bank’s electricity is purchased from the Israel Electric Company (IEC) and 5% from Jordan.
The IEC has the best deal any utility company in the world could dream of. The PA pays 100% of their monthly electricity bill on time because it is deducted automatically from the monthly VAT and customs clearances that Israel collects (with a 3% fee) on their behalf. There isn’t an electricity utility in the world that has a 100% payment rate. There are always defaults, as well as significant costs for collection from consumers who do not pay regularly.
Palestine has been confronting the payment challenges very effectively. The Palestinian distribution companies have moved to a system of pre-paid meters. Consumers purchase a set amount of electricity in advance and refill it as they need. The main challenge for the PA has been to get people living in refugee camps to pay their own bills. There have not been separate meters in homes in the refugee camps of the West Bank and in the past UNRWA – the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, had to pay the bills.
But UNRWA’s economic situation is far from good and more and more there is a growing awareness that the people living in the camps should pay their own bills. This is, of course, not a popular move and is very difficult to implement.
The PA has the potential to make huge strides with renewable energy. There is enough land to have large solar fields in the West Bank, particularly if the Civil Administration will allow for these projects to be developed in area “C” which is under their full control.
Palestine is blessed with a large amount of sunshine, just like Israel, perfect for solar energy. It is essential for the development of the Palestinian economy and towards independence that the unfinished part of the agreements whereby the PA would receive the authority to generate electricity be completed as well.
If the Israeli monopoly – the IEC – would not pleased by the development of independent, renewable energy in the West Bank is completely understandable – they would be losing their most dependable consumer. However, Israel’s continued energy stranglehold must be released for Palestine to become green and develop its own energy needs.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu always speaks about economic peace and the development of Palestinian capacity to govern effectively. Energy independence, as Minister of Energy and Water Uzi Landau (Israel Beitenu) will certainly testify, is essential for economic development, growth and stability. If it is good for Israel, I am quite sure that it is good for Palestine.
The writer is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, a radio host on All for Peace Radio and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit.