RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Jerusalem District Electricity Company (JDECO) announced Sept. 16 that it received the third and final warning from the Israel Electricity Corporation (IEC) to settle its debt within three months. This means that due to the company’s failure to pay its accumulated debts, areas that JDECO supplies electricity to will start witnessing two hours of electricity cuts starting Sept. 22 based on a schedule.
Following the first warning Aug. 19, JDECO took out a bank loan and paid 100 million Israeli shekels ($28.3 million), of the 1.3 billion shekels ($368 million) outstanding. However, the IEC continued issuing threats.
JDECO is the largest electricity provider in the West Bank, covering Ramallah, al-Bireh, Bethlehem, Jericho, the Jordan Valley and some neighborhood in Jerusalem; 90% of its energy needs come from the IEC.
Ali Hamouda, assistant director general for planning at JDECO, told Al-Monitor that this is not the first time that JDECO has received such a threat, but it looks like the IEC is more determined this time around. “This time we feel it’s really serious, and we don’t want the West Bank to become like the Gaza Strip,” he said.
The electricity crisis has been ongoing in Gaza for years, with the electricity supply severely limited during some periods.
JDECO fears that it will not be able to pay the full amount of $368 million to the IEC within the three-month period it has been granted.
Hamouda said that the cuts will include all of the areas that JDECO provides electricity to, and that the company has received a schedule of which areas would be affected and at what times.
Asked about the reason behind the accumulation of these debts, he said that in areas not controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) — such as the village of Kafr Aqab and Anata in the West Bank — people have been illegally tapping into power lines.
Hamouda noted that the company is trying its best to stop the theft of electricity, but the lack of Palestinian control over the areas classified as Areas B (under the PA’s administrative control and Israel’s security control) and Area C (under Israeli administrative and security control) and the powerlessness of the judiciary have prevented JDECO from achieving tangible results in this regard.
“We have 14,000 legal cases related to electricity theft and unpaid bills, but legal procedures are lengthy and the provisions of the law are non-deterrent,” he said.
This non-deterrence led the company to resort to the religious establishment. On Sept. 8, JDECO Director General Hisham al-Omari met with Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammed Hussein, who subsequently issued a statement in which he talked about the seriousness of electricity theft and the damage it inflicts upon the company.
Another problem, according to Hamouda, is the electricity supply in the refugee camps run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which is a political issue that the Palestinian government has undertaken to solve. When Salam Fayyad served as prime minister in 2013, as the IEC threatened not to provide the PA areas with power, the government pledged to pay the electricity bill of the camps. Rami Hamdallah’s government subsequently honored this commitment for one year only, which led to the accumulation of debt owed by the government to the IEC from 2014 until the beginning of 2019.
Hamouda said that in 2016, the government and the electricity company concluded an agreement whereby the government would settle the debt owed to the Israeli company up to Sept. 12, 2016. But when JDECO received the last ultimatum, it was surprised that the government had yet to pay the old debt to the IEC, which amounted to 420 million shekels ($119 million) up until July 2018.
Although 85% of its customers pay their bills, the high consumption of the other 15% who do not pay their bills and steal electricity has strained JDCEO and raised its deficit to 250 million shekels ($71 million) per year.
The Palestinian government is the only one able to solve the problem JDECO and its customers are facing, and so the company has suggested the government takes over its management in return for helping out with the crisis.
“We asked the government to partner with us, but it unfortunately chose to place additional pressure on us,” Hamouda said.
The Palestinian government asked the company to reduce the salaries of its employees to get rid of the deficit.
Hamouda added, “60% of our employees are from Jerusalem, and we are forced to pay high salaries to them and provide them with risk allowances. These, by law, cannot be overlooked.”
Zafer Melhem, acting chairman of the Palestinian Energy Authority, believes that this crisis has political dimensions, especially as it erupted in the run-up to the Sept. 17 Israeli elections and the ongoing clearing funds’ crisis between the Palestinian and Israeli sides.
The pressure placed on the Palestinian side was used as a trump card in the Israeli elections that took place earlier this week, especially on the part of the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Melhem said that due to the intransigence of the Israeli side with regard to both the electricity price and the issue of discrimination against Palestinian consumers, negotiations that were taking place between the two parties have failed. This dealt a blow to attempts aimed at reaching a balanced agreement on the purchase of electricity.
In the event of any electricity shortage in the Israeli company, the electricity supply to the Palestinian areas would be reduced instead of the supply to the Israeli areas, and this is deemed discrimination.
Melhem added that there are plans to break the Israeli monopoly of electricity and achieve energy security through the establishment of a first-of-its-kind power plant that is expected to be completed in 2023 and that will cover 40% of the West Bank's electricity needs. Until the implementation of this power plant, the Palestinians’ dependence on energy from Israel will remain a pressure card that the Israeli political side uses against the PA whenever a political dispute arises.
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