Anatomy of a power vacuum: How sewage and import rules stoke West Bank conflict

Part of the story of escalating violence is as boring as it is devastating: Bureaucratic ineptitude, driven by the lack of democracy in areas under its control

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

A Palestinian man looks out the window as smoke billows following an Israeli drone strike in the West Bank city of Jenin, on July 3, 2023. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)
A Palestinian man looks out the window as smoke billows following an Israeli drone strike in the West Bank city of Jenin, on July 3, 2023. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces spokesperson was adamant.

“We didn’t come to conquer the refugee camp [in Jenin],” he said Monday. “This isn’t an operation against the Palestinian Authority, it’s an operation against terror organizations in Jenin that are making the lives of the civilian population in Jenin miserable.”

The IDF had swept through the city the previous night, the start of a two-day operation that showed remarkable intelligence penetration of the new terror cells sprouting up throughout the northern West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus in recent weeks.

Covert bomb-storage apartments were raided by IDF commandos. A container of IEDs was destroyed. A secretive command center was struck.

The northern West Bank, everyone now understands, has disintegrated into a power vacuum. The Palestinian Authority no longer rules there. Israeli security forces rarely enter (at least until recently) and entire areas and neighborhoods in both of its major cities have come under the control of newborn militias. These militias are sometimes affiliated with Hamas or funded by Iran, but they’re mostly defined by their locality. They are local responses to a vacuum of power.

This lawlessness and the new threat of terrorism that has grown with it have quickly become the new normal, especially in the lived experience of Palestinian residents. The IDF spokesman hinted as much when he clarified on Monday that the operation will continue indefinitely: “This will be a continuum of operations that aren’t necessarily limited in time throughout northern Samaria, as intelligence and operational timing dictate.”

He wasn’t talking about the specific IDF incursion that ended Wednesday but about the ongoing effort in recent weeks to disrupt the new terror networks that rule whole sections of Jenin and Nablus. That larger mission is expected to continue for some time.

A convoy of army vehicles is seen during an Israeli military raid in Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, July 3, 2023. (AP Photo/ Majdi Mohammed)

This duality in the IDF’s rhetoric is striking: the incredible competence and tactical efficacy of the operation itself — “The enemy was surprised by the air strike that hit terrorists and sites he thought we didn’t know about,” boasted the spokesman — combined with the implicit admission of helplessness in facing the larger, open-ended problem of lawlessness and vacuum of administration and power.

The West Bank isn’t simply collapsing into a miasma of nationalist rage, as many observers fear. It is imploding in the vacuum created by a far more insidious and persistent force: bureaucratic neglect.

There is an occupation in the West Bank. The term has long ago become laden with layers of politics and ideology and been subsumed into larger arguments about nationalism and self-determination. But there is a simple and incontestable meaning to the statement that does not depend on one’s political views: The national bureaucracy of one people sets the rules for the national bureaucracy of the other.

And it is very bad at it.

This bureaucratic view sounds like an unexciting framing for the great troubles that afflict the area as it teeters on the edge of new rounds of open-ended conflict. But it is the heart of the problem, the part that remains a problem irrespective of one’s politics or sympathies. It is the Palestinian claim on Israel that survives deconstructions of Palestinian nationalist narratives, and an Israeli responsibility that remains even if Israel is deemed entirely right on other questions.

It is the part of the conflict in which most Palestinians actually live, and where they experience Israeli military rule most viscerally and persistently. It is the reason many ordinary Palestinians unaffiliated with any ideological movement are willing to risk new rounds of conflict and a key reason (though not the only one) why a new Palestinian generation hungers for war.

The West Bank city of Jenin during an Israeli counter-terror operation, July 3, 2023. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Yet perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is that it’s also the part of the conflict most easily and immediately solved. It amounts to suffering inflicted through neglect and indecision. No Israeli interests are served by it, and in fact, Israelis are its immediate second-degree victims after the Palestinians.

Much of what follows comes from reports produced by the Shrinking the Conflict Initiative, an NGO founded in the wake of philosopher Micah Goodman’s book Catch-67, which seeks to pave new paths to future solutions by solving problems like those described below. (Full disclosure: This writer was an adviser to the group.)

Keeping the lights on in Jenin

Palestinian cities in the West Bank, with the exception of Jericho, draw virtually all their electricity supply from Israel. It’s a dependence that drives a great deal of frustration whenever the supply is cut or limited, which happens occasionally when power bills go unpaid by Palestinian authorities. Palestinian debts to the Israel Electric Corporation have reached as high as NIS 2 billion ($540 million) over the years.

For ordinary people far from the limelight of war or advocacy campaigns, such outages drive home Israeli military rule in visceral ways. They also turn the population against the PA, whose inability to manage and collect taxes and payments is a big part of the problem.

A view of the West Bank city of Nablus in 2013. (Creative Commons/Muataz Towfiq Agbaria)

The solution to this chronic difficulty is simple: diversification. Palestinian officials are desperate to find new energy supplies to reduce dependence on Israel and serve growing demand.

In 2020, the PA signed an energy agreement with Jordan. But outside of a limited supply of Jordanian electricity to Jericho, the power isn’t flowing. The problem: Some of the delivery infrastructure must pass through Israeli-administered Area C in the West Bank, and so depends on Israeli bureaucratic approval through the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration. That approval is stuck.

In a similar vein, a new power station is set to be opened near the epicenter of the latest fighting, the northern city of Jenin. It has the potential to supply as much as 50 percent of Palestinian consumption and to give Palestinians much more control over their supply.

Everyone wants it to happen, including foreign government backers and Israeli officials excited that it will run on Israeli natural gas. Israel will profit from direct gas sales. Palestinians should see their electricity bills reduced because the production itself will become local. And both Israel and the PA will benefit politically and economically by making outages less likely and less onerous.

It’s a win all round. But it’s stuck. A tiny part of the infrastructure, some 300 meters of pipeline must pass through an Israeli-administered strip of land in Area C. Civil Administration approval for the site is being held up, frustrating Palestinian officials, foreign backers and — this is vital to understand — senior Israeli government officials. There’s no reason for the delay, no fight over the relevant strip, no archaeological dig or holy site, no nearby settlement or military base. The delay costs Israel money and slows gas sales. It is pure bureaucratic incompetence.

Power company workers seen at a new power plant near Jenin, July 10, 2017. (Dov Lieber for The Times of Israel)


An estimated 82% of Palestinian sewage in the West Bank is treated insufficiently or not at all. It flows out of Palestinian cities and villages into the riverbeds of the West Bank, then passes across the Green Line into Israeli towns and cities.

In some places such as the Yad Hana plant on the Alexander River, Israeli treatment plants wait for the contaminated water on the Israeli side of the Green Line and treat it before it passes into Israeli towns. Israel sometimes sends the bill to the Palestinian Authority. It’s an incredibly ineffective and roundabout stopgap, and the costs to the PA are a special kind of folly: They don’t actually cover the full expense for Israel, most of the sewage continues to flow untreated, including into the Green Line, and the costs eat up budgets the PA needs in order to invest in cheaper treatment facilities at the source.

Palestinian incompetence and corruption are a big part of the problem. International donors, including the German government, have funded sewage treatment projects in Palestinian towns over the years that struggled for internal Palestinian reasons.

But Israeli bureaucratic failure has also been a factor. Controlling and cleaning wastewater is a regional task. Cities and governments must build comprehensive sewer systems and think in terms of the broader geography if they are to avoid polluting each other’s water supplies. The only efficient and effective way to treat the sewage problem of the West Bank is to build treatment infrastructures that cover regions, not specific populations or narrow municipalities. That means placing plants in Israeli-administered Area C, a prospect Palestinians have balked at since it means paying Israelis, including the municipal governments of Israeli settlements, to treat Palestinian wastewater.

A solution to the political problem may lie in the example of the Al-Bireh plant that handles Ramallah’s sewage. It is under full Palestinian control but also treats the wastewater of nearby Israeli settlements. The Israelis pay for the service, and the PA agreed to the arrangement only because the plant is wholly controlled by Palestinians.

The Nablus Stream, a tributary of the Alexander River, entering the Israeli side of the separation barrier with the West Bank. The color comes from stonedust mixed with other toxins. (Courtesy: Dr. Ron Farhi)

The West Bank needs a shared, Palestinian-controlled network of regional treatment plants, many of which will have to be placed in Area C.

For that to happen, Israel’s West Bank bureaucracy will need to approve and support the plan. There is as yet no Israeli plan to advance such a project, even as the far more capable bureaucracies of the Israeli state within the Green Line treat the dirty water at what, in sewage treatment terms, must be counted as the de facto Israeli border.

The vast, invisible bottleneck of the Palestinian economy

But all these problems pale next to the albatross of the Israeli import-export regime, which may be the single most onerous burden Israel places on Palestinians. (It is, too, a vast burden on the Israeli economy and a chief source of the extremely high cost of living for Israelis within the Green Line.)

When Palestinian businesses import products from abroad, those products must pass through Israeli ports or border crossings. At these crossing points, they are subjected to Israeli customs, standards and security checks, just like Israeli-bought goods. But unlike the goods destined for Israelis, the Palestinian-bought products must then travel by Israeli truck to a West Bank checkpoint where they must undergo these checks again before being loaded onto a Palestinian truck headed into Palestinian-ruled areas.

The result of this two-layer system, of a Palestinian economy operating within but not a part of the Israeli one, is a Palestinian economy whose trade with the outside world flows through a literal doubling of the already arduous Israeli import-export bureaucracy.

An illustrative view from Mount Carmel of the Haifa port and the Mediterranean Sea, January 2021. (Svarshik via iStock by Getty Images)

Palestinian exports, too, must flow through this double-port system, passing the checks required to enter Israel, then passing the same checks at the Israeli ports to leave Israel, all just to get on that shipping container at the Haifa or Ashdod ports.

The result is a huge price tag for Palestinian exports that makes them less attractive to global consumers.

This system hurts Israelis. Israeli ports are already notoriously inefficient, a chokepoint that leaves goods stuck for weeks at a time in warehouses while officials carry out laborious customs and standards checks. Those chronically overfull warehouses charge a premium for storage — supply is short, bureaucracy-induced demand is high — further raising the costs of imports to the Israeli market.

And alongside those Israeli-ordered products pass the Palestinian-ordered ones, making up some 7% of the total workload of Israeli ports and increasing the transaction costs at the port for everyone.

A recent World Bank assessment of the total transaction costs of Palestinian imports and exports makes for a sobering read, and a significant part of the disparity revealed in the economic data is due to this double-port problem. The average trade cost per export transaction for a Palestinian company is $1,750, almost three times the $620 cost for an Israeli company. For imports, the Palestinian business loses $1,425 per transaction, the Israeli $565.

The transaction costs of Palestinian businesses aren’t just higher than those of their Israeli counterparts, they’re higher than the Middle East generally — some 50% higher than the Middle Eastern average for exports and 10% higher for imports.

File: The Jalama, or Gilboa checkpoint near the West Bank city of Jenin, January 18, 2018. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

And they’re slow. It takes 10 days to carry out the “trade process” for an Israeli export or import, according to the report. It takes 23 days for a Palestinian product to be exported and fully 38 for one to be imported.

Consider a Palestinian furniture business or date farmer or anyone who deals in real goods rather than online services who tries to turn a profit under such a massive regulatory burden.

The direct cost to Palestinian businesses of this vast bureaucratic load has been estimated at some NIS 700 million ($189 million) per year, with indirect costs reaching into the billions.

The solutions, meanwhile, are easy to imagine and have long been known: direct transfer of Palestinian goods from Israeli ports to West Bank warehouses, cutting warehousing costs or at least transferring the costs into the Palestinian economy; limiting Israeli port checks to security and leaving customs and standards checks to the West Bank crossings; handing large parts of the regulatory checks to Palestinian agencies rather than Israeli ones; and transporting the goods from port to West Bank and vice versa via a closed transport system that solves smuggling concerns and removes the need for a second check.

These streamlining solutions would lower import-export costs and real supermarket prices for Israelis, not just Palestinians. For Palestinians, they could potentially drive — so the World Bank suggests — an overnight expansion of the economy by double digits.

Illustrative: A Palestinian vendor displays decorations at a market ahead of Ramadan in the West Bank city of Jenin, June 28, 2014. (AP/Mohammed Ballas)


These Israeli failings are worth singling out from the larger problem of the West Bank for one reason: They directly harm Israeli interests in obvious, immediate and universally acknowledged ways, irrespective of one’s politics. They are the evidence for the immense importance of sheer bureaucratic incompetence.

In places like Jenin and Nablus, where the PA has retreated and local terrorist militias now rule, there’s almost no government at all, no safety, no planning

Economic prosperity doesn’t prevent terror or violence, nor does poverty drive them. But the problem described above goes deeper than impoverishment or bad governance. In places like Jenin and Nablus, where the PA has retreated and local terrorist militias now rule, there’s almost no government at all, no safety, no planning.

Consider the ordinary Palestinian shopkeeper or hairdresser in such a city. What does the PA do for them? When the local river reeks of sewage, the electricity drawn from the Israeli side is unreliable, and buying and selling from abroad so difficult and expensive that it becomes not worth doing — such a person doesn’t need to be an ideological supporter of any Palestinian faction or of terrorism generally to consider Israel deserving of whatever Palestinian factions can throw at it.

When life is constricted in such ways, and for no discernible security reasons — the failures listed here have no known security justification — such a person doesn’t have to be a radical or Islamist or harbor any particularly strong political feelings of any kind to find themselves backing the local faction that promises to bring order and in some vague sense oppose Israel.

Illustrative image of Palestinian police officers in the West Bank city of Nablus. (Maya Levin/Flash90)

The terror groups aren’t driven by these problems. They operate out of ideological narratives and convictions that are not weakened when such problems are solved. Indeed, they tend to grow more powerful and assertive whenever efforts are made toward cooperation and peace. But polls have shown over the years that ordinary Palestinians do tend to support terrorism or oppose it based on their own current conditions.

The PA is dying. A great deal of its death is by its own hand, by its bottomless corruption and incompetence, its refusal since Yasser Arafat’s day to turn into something more than a petty kleptocracy, and, of course, by its close cooperation with Israel in its desperate efforts to maintain stability and prevent its own ouster by more radical Palestinian forces.

But Israel also has a hand in the PA’s imminent death through a thousand petty oversights whose sum total is a real and measurable constriction of ordinary Palestinians’ lives and well-being.

This is the deeper reality behind the Israeli army’s surprising inability to stop extremist Israeli violence. Its essence isn’t ideological but bureaucratic. The Israeli rule in the West Bank isn’t just bad at reining in lawless Israelis; it’s bad at nearly everything else too.

The democracy deficit

And so it is impossible to understand the current fighting in Jenin, the army’s seeming inability to rein in Israeli extremists or the general unwillingness of Israel writ large to set down an explicit policy for the West Bank without understanding the profound Israeli institutional weakness that abides there.

This argument has so far studiously tried to avoid larger moral or political judgments, not because these are unimportant but because the point of the argument holds true for all political sides and moral outlooks.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious moral and political implications to this Israeli weakness. It is a weakness that does not exist in a vacuum. It isn’t malicious in any simple sense — too many Israeli interests are hurt by this behavior for that to be the case — but that doesn’t mean no one is at fault or responsible. It is a product of the Israeli decision to remain indecisive in the West Bank, and the vast and continuing democracy deficit that accrues from that decision.

Israeli troops operate in the West Bank, early on the morning of May 29, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel’s enemies tend to think of the country as a unitary whole where every mistake or crime is a function of malice or deep planning. It is a habit of prejudice to reduce the object of one’s judgment to such uniformity. The reality, of course, is never as simple or thrillingly nefarious as the bigot imagines. There are many different Israels, many different political and cultural subgroups with different visions for the country’s future all pulling in different directions. Right-wing governments have pulled out of conquered territories while left-wing ones have built settlements.

That’s not because Israeli politics are hypocritical (beyond the ways in which all politics everywhere are hypocritical), but because Israeli governments are unstable multi-party coalitions pulling in many different directions all at once.

In the last government, for example, a left-led Transportation Ministry refused to expand transportation infrastructure to settlements even as new homes were being built in those settlements by a right-controlled Housing Ministry. Such examples of ministries working at cross purposes to one another exist even in the current relatively homogenous and very right-wing government, as in the constant tensions between Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant over policy in the West Bank.

There is no obvious answer to the question of what Israel as a whole wants in the West Bank. There’s no doubt about what Smotrich wants. But Netanyahu? Or opposition leader Yair Lapid? Or current poll frontrunner Benny Gantz?

The West Bank exists in a kind of mental no man’s land in the Israeli psyche, a void of policy and institutional capacity that doesn’t exonerate Israel but helps to explain the Israeli incompetence on display there. It is a failure brought into sharpest relief in those places where Israeli action or inaction directly hurts Israelis, and so can’t be easily explained even by the keenest detractors as intentional, malicious policy.

Newly sworn-in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, December 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, Pool, File)

And it is a chaos directly rooted in the lack of democracy for Palestinians.

Why is the Israeli state so weak in the very part of the country where it has the fewest legal restrictions and limits on its actions, where military orders are enough to set policy? The reason is simple and obvious, but nevertheless bears repeating: Because most of the area’s residents do not elect the leadership to which the bureaucracy is answerable. No other mechanism has ever been found to keep bureaucracies accountable and effective except for granting those under a bureaucracy’s authority the power to choose its leaders.

This is not a new or interesting comment, but it is sometimes lost in the Israeli debate. Even amid massive clashes in Jenin, where the fighting has reached levels unseen in a generation, it bears saying: Israeli bureaucratic neglect of the Palestinians under its control carries more dire and sustained consequences for both peoples than any military incursion.

Bureaucrats don’t need to be malicious to produce the outcomes experienced by Palestinians. They merely need to lack a direct institutional interest in fulfilling the needs of those who live under their authority. They do not feel the urgency of the Jenin electric plant or the pain of the import bureaucracy for Palestinian shopkeepers because their political bosses, who don’t need to ask for those shopkeepers’ votes to stay in power, do not feel them.

Violent Israeli extremists rampaging through a Palestinian village, meanwhile, know that they will be able to cause trouble in the Knesset for any Israeli commander who challenges them effectively.

A screenshot from video of settlers firing at the West Bank village of Umm Safa on June 24, 2023. (Twitter video screenshot: Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

That gap, that inability of Palestinian needs to make themselves known to the ruling bureaucracy, is the deeper meaning of the occupation. It is a simple meaning wholly rooted in the lived experience of ordinary people and shorn of the endless layers of ideological frippery that inevitably accompany talk about the West Bank. It is the part of the story that holds true no matter where one’s ideological commitments or political views turn.

Even if the terrorism dies down again and the army is able to restore calm for another generation, it is what nevertheless makes the current situation unsustainable in hard, pragmatic ways. When one’s view is widened from occasional gun battles to the daily lived reality of ordinary people, Israeli rule in the West Bank is as much a failed state as the PA ever was.

As the PA recedes ever further from view, the archipelago of piecemeal local Palestinian control surrounded by a hollowed-out and ineffective Israeli bureaucracy will become the only reality left on the ground. Palestinians will rely more and more on an Israeli state that has already proven it isn’t up to the task.

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