Palestian power issues: The night that the lights went out?

The Palestinian Authority (PA) owes more than $170 million to the Israel Electric Company, and Israel is threatening to cut off the flow unless the debt is paid. Palestinian officials say that could cause widespread blackouts throughout the West Bank.

“A week ago they gave us a warning that if we don’t pay they will start to cut off the electricity,” Hisham Omari, the general director of the East Jerusalem Electricity Company told The Media Line. “They told us that it’s not a political issue, but an economic one. We understand that the Israeli electricity company needs their money. Most of our problem is with the Palestinian Authority.”

Iris Ben Shahal, a spokeswoman for the utility confirmed the numbers.

“The East Jerusalem Development Company owes $106 million dollars and the Palestinian Authority owes the rest,” she told The Media Line. Ben Shahal would not comment on what steps the Electric Company plans to take.

Officials at the Israeli company say this is not a new problem. As part of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, they supply electricity to the east Jerusalem power company, which does not have its own infrastructure.

“There are always debts and they repay part but then the debt grows again,” an official at the electricity company told The Media Line. “We’re just asking for what they owe us. We’re having our own financial problems because the price of gas has gone up dramatically. Before we go to take out loans at high interest, we want the debts paid.”

The issue arises as Israel’s electricity consumption is at an all-time high due to record-breaking summer heat and the disruption in natural gas supplies from Egypt. The company is urging Israelis not to use washing machines and dryers between noon and 5 p.m. when demand is at its peak.

The east Jerusalem company supplies electricity to Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jericho as well as twelve refugee camps. Hisham Omari says only about five percent of the refugees pay for electricity. In Gaza, he says, most refugees are not billed for electricity. Under an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, Israel deducts the electricity costs for Gaza from the customs taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority for exports from Gaza.

“We send bills but they just throw them away,” Omari said. “They say that since the refugees in Gaza don’t pay, they don’t want to pay either. We need the Palestinian Authority to help us with this issue.”

Of the total $106 million the east Jerusalem company owes Israel, more than $60 million represents unpaid bills from refugees. Omari is also calling for harsher penalties for those found stealing electricity.

“Right now even if we catch them and take them to court, they get a fine of $50,” he said. “We want to put them in jail for three months, but the bill is waiting on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s desk.”

He says cutting off the electricity could virtually shut down the Palestinian economy in the West Bank including hospitals, water pumps (all electrically-operated) and communications. Omari said he has appealed to the Israeli company to delay action for two weeks in recognition of the three-day holiday of Id Al-Fitr which is set to begin this weekend. Soon after that, Palestinian schools reopen. During that time, he says, the Jerusalem electricity company will try to work out a payment schedule and the Palestinian Authority will pay part of the debt.

Omari also worries that the dispute, while economic, could have political consequences.

“If electricity is cut off, there could be a new intifada,” he said, referring to the Palestinian uprising in 2000. “People will go into the streets and they will be angry at both Israel and the PA. Once this starts, nobody will be able to stop it.”