As the clock struck midday in Ramallah on Monday, November 18, the bustling city center lost power for exactly two hours. People stepped out of darkened shops to gather on the street looking at each other confused, asking neighbors if they had experienced the same power outage.
While electrical blackouts are common across the West Bank, this one represented the second phase of deliberate electricity cuts, caused by power shortages as Israel reduces supply following five years of unpaid bills from the Jerusalem District Electrical Company (JDECO), the largest power distributor in the West Bank.
With over 1.3 billion shekels ($374 million) in debts, the first phase of power cuts took place from September 22 to October 24 and included JDECO’s main concession areas in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Jericho. The outages are scheduled by Israel’s provider, the Israeli Electrical Company (IEC). JDECO does not produce any power and purchases all of the electricity distributed across the West Bank from IEC.
Zafer Melhem, Chairman of the Palestinian Energy and Natural Resources Authority, condemned the power outs, stating they constitute indiscriminate mass punishment, causing harm to the population and the economy.
According to Melhem, over 1 million Palestinians have been affected by the power cuts so far. Mondoweiss reached out to the IEC for comment. However, no response was provided by the time of publication.
“It’s the first time [Israel] approached us and imposed such severe measures on the distribution company, JDECO. And we believe this comes under collective punishment of Palestinian consumers,” Melhem told Mondoweiss.
A major concern for Melhem is maintaining power to vital services such as hospitals and health care facilities, explaining that Israel disconnects the power from the main connection point which feeds electricity to all consumers across the West Bank.
“This prevents the ability [for JDECO] to do some ‘load management’, and provide electricity to the crucial facilities such as hospitals, pharmacies and major industrial zones,” Melhem explained.
“[In the] first round of disconnection which started in October, we managed to maintain a connection to the crucial facilities such as hospitals and health care centers. But the second round which took place a few days ago, [Israel] targeted civil connection points…so more than half of Ramallah was out of electricity which had harmful consequences on industries and health care.”
The reason JDECO’s debts have reached a crisis point, according to Omar, an employee in their debt collection department who asked for his full name to be withheld from publication, comes down to people not paying their bills and power theft.
“There’s new theft every single day. We try our best to prevent it but at the same time, it just happens. You can’t keep an eye on every single Palestinian,” Omar said.
The main culprits for power theft, Omar explained, are the refugee camps and areas that security services cannot reach, such as rural parts of the West Bank in Area C, which constitute about 20 percent of the unlicensed power pulled from JDECO lines. Omar described instances where JDECO employees were attacked by camp residents for attempting to prevent theft. “Sometimes they use aggression and physical force. And in a rare situation, one of our employees was stabbed with a knife in Shu’fat camp.”
Passing through the Qadura refugee camp in Ramallah, the tangled wires crisscrossing overhead are easy to identify as spliced power lines, leading from the main voltage point into several homes and shops. “In the camps, there is no kind of military force or police force in which to help you to enforce the law. So it easier for people to just steal electricity,” Omar said. “If it looks like sloppy work, it’s definitely theft.”
The biggest portion of the debt comes from refugee camps, specifically due to a vacuum of responsibility for electricity bills. And although the camps are run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East or UNRWA, their mandate does not cover power costs.
Under a directive issued by late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in 2000, Palestinian refugees living in camps in the West Bank do not have to pay electricity bills. The PA is still committed to this policy. However, it was not until 2013 under then Prime Minister Salam Fayyad that the Palestinian government officially pledged to foot the bill, after the IEC threatened to withdraw power to PA areas following years of unpaid electrical use.
The PA began underwriting the cost for refugee camp electrical needs, but for one year only, subsequently leading to today’s total bill. Residents and business owners across the 13 Palestinian refugee camps located owe the company 570 million shekels ($164 million).
Herein lies the major dilemma, according to Kanaan King Al-Jamal, director of the PLO’s UNRWA file, that although the PA has committed to paying the camp electrical bills, they are unlikely to ever do so.
“If the government paid off the camps, Palestinians would see it as a double standard and there would be a revolution,” Al-Jamal told Mondoweiss.
“But at the same time, the PA will never make the camps pay. They know [the camps] are the problem, but no one dares to go out and say that, because it’s politics. Because people would accuse them of being against the camps.”
Another issue leading to high debt accumulation comes from business exploiting the camps’ free electricity status. “Some people transfer their business from the city to the camps, because they don’t pay anything. They don’t pay taxes, they don’t pay [for] electricity, they don’t pay [for] water,” Al-Jamal explained. “So they’re exploiting the camp. This is a problem, where there’s no solution.”
In an attempt to alleviate debt pressure, Omar said JDECO for the past four months has been cutting employee wages by 350 shekels (around $100) monthly, which he sees as an unfair and futile gesture. “Let’s say there are 2,000 employees, and you take 350 shekels from each one. That’s like one dot in a sea when it comes to the debt. The debt 1.3 billion… it’s insane, but they actually did it.”
“The money I worked hard for, part of it is taken, just because. It is so not fair,” Omar added.
Melhem added he has “some question marks about the credibility of this debt” but that the government is “doing our utmost to help in solving this issue”. However, he stressed that the Israeli side must make compromises if they are to succeed in negotiating a payment plan as JDECO has no ability to pay the entire amount on their own.
Omar warns payment negotiation cannot come soon enough. If an agreement isn’t made, the imminent blackouts next month are scheduled to increase in duration.
“The third blackout will be over three major power lines and is going to be for 3 hours,” Omar explained, saying the time will also change, cutting power from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. “So people will notice this time, as people will be going home from schools, universities and work.”
“We’re just in the middle of two rough seas and we’re trying our best to not sink in, but if everything goes the way it is right now, we are going to drown,” Omar warned. “Action has to be taken.”