Israel’s state-owned electric company reached a temporary agreement with the Palestinian Authority Wednesday morning to put an end to recent power cuts in exchange for paying off a small chunk of a nearly NIS 2 billion debt
The past week has seen the Israeli Electric Corporation cut power temporarily to Jericho, Hebron and Bethlehem with more cuts expected today in Bethlehem and in Ramallah on Thursday to pressure Palestinians into paying off the debt.
The IEC says the Palestinian authorities have racked up a debt of NIS 1.74 billion ($460 million), which the company can no longer absorb. Of that sum, the IEC says NIS 300,000 ($79,350) is owed by the Palestinian Authority and the rest by Palestinian power distributors.
The deal struck Wednesday morning will see the PA pay off NIS 20 million of that debt and give negotiators one week to reach an understanding over settling the rest of the money owed.
If no deal is reached in time, according to a report by Channel 10, then the power cuts will resume.
The Palestinian-run Jerusalem District Electricity Company, which according to the IEC is responsible for NIS 1.4 billion ($371 million) of the debt, claimed in the High Court Tuesday that the IEC’s behavior constituted “collective and disproportionate punishment” and showed “blatant and harmful disregard for a public that pays its electricity bills regularly.”
It further argued that the IEC’s move compromises basic consumer rights to access an essential resource.
The cuts were all the worse given the current, sensitive political situation in Jerusalem and the West Bank, the petition said, and the action was being taken despite disagreements over the size of the debt, and despite a pending lawsuit against the IEC in the Jerusalem Municipal Court.
Palestinian officials say the Israelis gave them no prior warning of a power cut to Bethlehem on Monday. The IEC said it was halving its supply to Bethlehem after taking a similar, short-lived step in the city of Jericho last week.
“I don’t know of any company that would agree to do nothing about a NIS 1.74 billion debt owed by another company,” IEC chairman Yiftah Ron Tal said. “We weren’t left with any choice. We’re limiting electricity in a proportionate way.”
Israeli government officials said it was not informed by the IEC of the planned cuts, according to Army Radio.
The IEC also cuts power to individual Israeli homes over unpaid debts.
The Palestinian Authority is struggling financially and depends largely on foreign aid. It relies heavily for electricity supplies on Israel, which also provides electricity to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Under an economic agreement signed with the PA in 1994, Israel collects around NIS 600-700 million each month in customs duties levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through Israeli ports.
It transfers the money after deducting approximately NIS 100 million for expenses such as Palestinian hospitalizations in Israel, sewage treatment and covering part of the electricity debt, which has remained largely stable in recent months.
In January 2015, the IEC cut power to Palestinian cities for a number of hours every day over a similar debt, only to renew it a few weeks later.
Chairman of the Joint (Arab) List, MK Ayman Odeh, who helped advance the temporary settlement, said of the deal: “I am glad that after discussions with all the parties, we found a temporary compromise to resume the flow of electricity to all of the West Bank, which was a prohibited and serious collective punishment.”
“However,” added Odeh, “this issue, like all issues connected to life in the occupied territories, is only a temporary fix. There can be no permanent solutions except for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.”