RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Jerusalem District Electricity Company (JDECO), the largest electricity distribution company in the West Bank, is in an ever-increasing crisis due to the Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) cut-off of its concession areas — which it supplies with electricity, namely Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jericho — due to accumulated debts, with the first phase of the cut-off ending on Oct. 24.
On Oct. 16, JDECO received the first warning for the second phase of power cuts from IEC, during which it will cut off three to four lines (areas) for over two hours a day, depriving some 40,000 Palestinians of electricity for that period of time.
On Oct. 20, JDECO’s employees organized sit-ins in front of the company's offices in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jericho against the Israeli collective punishment policy to cut electricity, in addition to new rationing and power-cut warnings in cities, towns and villages located within the company's concession areas.
Ali Hammouda, JDECO’s assistant general manager of development and strategic planning, told Al-Monitor the details of the second phase of power cuts, which will begin Nov. 17 and last until Dec. 5. He said, “The implementation of this program will make the company unable to activate lines and provide electricity to city centers, government headquarters and health centers.”
Hammouda said a breakthrough in the crisis is possible as a meeting was held on Oct. 27 between JDECO, the Palestinian Ministry of Finance and the Palestinian Authority (PA), to agree on all controversial financial issues and attempt to end the crisis.
JDECO Director General Hisham al-Omari told Al-Monitor that the meeting tackled several issues including the debts of Palestinian refugee camps and the outstanding financial issues between JDECO and the Ministry of Finance. He explained that no decisions were made, rather, the meeting was limited to debates and conceptualizations to solve these dossiers, which need high-level government decisions.
JDECO was founded in 1914 under the Ottoman rule. In 1956, the municipalities of Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Beit Sahour registered the company as a limited joint stock company.
Today, the company faces a major dilemma. According to Omari, JDECO has been unable to collect electricity fees from citizens in Area C and the refugee camps, which amounted to nearly 800 million Israeli shekels ($227 million) by Oct. 2. The IEC, he noted, is demanding JDECO to pay approximately 1.3 billion shekels ($369 million) in debts within three months.
Omari said that consumers in the 13 Palestinian refugee camps located in JDECO’s concession areas owe the company 500 million shekels ($142 million), and consumers outside the camps owe 300 million shekels ($85 million), of which 100 million is due by large consumers, such as factory owners.
He noted that some factories moved inside the camps in order not to have to pay for electricity, because the camp residents are exempted under a decision issued by late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in 2000, and the PA is still committed to it.
Omari noted that the PA has not paid anything on behalf of the camps since Jan. 1, 2014, and that the debt has accumulated since then, although as per the exemption decision, the PA said it will pay the camps' electricity fees.
He said, “The theft of electricity is exhausting the company, especially in areas that the security services cannot reach such as Area C around Jerusalem. The company has several times cut off power for those stealing electricity, but they manage to get urgent decisions from Palestinian courts to reconnect the lines. Some of them even put guards on transformers to prevent company employees from cutting electricity, or lock the panels with iron chains so we can't open them.”
To overcome this crisis, Omari believes that the PA should play an important role by intervening to find solutions for communities that do not want to pay for electricity, as well as applying the law and activating the judiciary to fight theft. “We do not want the PA to pay us money and help us; we want it to apply the law on everyone and find solutions.”
Omari stressed that the judicial procedures against electricity thieves are not a deterrent, referring to the failure of the courts to apply the provisions of the General Electricity Law of 2009. The third and fourth sections of Article 32 of said law stipulate that “anyone who has unlawfully connected to the electrical system or attempted to do so or helped to steal electrical power shall be punished by interrupting the power supply. It is only after the estimated value of the stolen electrical power and the cut-off and reconnection fees are paid that electricity can be supplied again. Anyone who has helped, vandalized, demolished or disabled electrical installations or damaged them shall be punished by imprisonment from three months to three years or shall pay a fine ranging between 1,000 Jordanian dinars [$1,410] and 5,000 Jordanian dinars [$7,000], or both.”
Zafer Melhem, acting chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Authority, told Al-Monitor that the solution to JDECO’s problem would be “enforcing the law, enforcing judicial orders, collecting electricity fees from citizens and addressing the theft of electricity.”
The debts JDECO owes to IEC amount to 650 million shekels ($186 million), in addition to 636 million shekels ($184 million) that had been frozen under a memorandum of understanding between the PA and Israel in September 2016, to be paid over 48 installments, Melhem said. He noted that the agreement has not yet been implemented due to differences between the parties on some of its terms.
Speaking about paying the camps’ dues, Melhem stressed that Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh is studying this dossier and a set of ideas will be developed and submitted to the government in order to overcome the crisis, without setting a date.
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