After years of delays, Israel transferred control over three power substations to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank over the past month, the country’s military liaison to the Palestinians announced on Tuesday.
Ramallah praised the new substations as a step towards solving the West Bank’s long-running electricity crisis. Almost totally dependent on Israel for electricity and possessing only a feeble grid, rolling blackouts are a familiar feature of life in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
All three substations were built by the state-owned Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) and financed by the European Investment Bank. They join another substation in Jenin, which was officially transferred with great fanfare to PA control in 2017.
According to a 2017 World Bank report, Palestinians receive around 99 percent of their power from the IEC. Jordan also provides a small amount of electricity in areas close to its border with the West Bank.
The new substations do not themselves generate electricity for the Palestinians. Rather, they aim to solve a separate problem: The Palestinian power grid has long lacked the infrastructure needed to efficiently bring electricity to its constituents.
Substations transform electricity from high voltage to low voltage and back again, depending on which way the power needs to flow. Higher voltage is better for transmission in the high-wires across long distances, while lower voltage is used for distribution to residents’ homes.
According to the IEC, more substations mean that it can circulate more and higher-quality electricity into the homes of West Bank Palestinians.
In a statement, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz claimed that Jewish settlements in the West Bank would also benefit from the new substations, which would ease the burden on the power grid.
As the PA still does not officially coordinate with Israel, in protest of Israel’s previously declared intentions to annex parts of the West Bank (plans which are now paused), there was no grandiose joint opening of the sort the Jenin substation saw in 2017. Palestinian officials who discussed the arrangements did not mention Israel, instead preferring to articulate an appreciation for “all sides.”
“We salute the spirit of partnership and cooperation between all sides to ensure the success of this critical step towards a comprehensive solution to the electricity crisis,” PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said in a cabinet meeting on Monday night.
Two of the stations — one close to Hebron and the other in a town outside Nablus — will be managed by the state-owned Palestinian Electricity Transmission Company (PETL), while a third near Qalandiya will be managed by the Jerusalem District Electricity Company, or JDECo.
When the Jenin substation was officially launched in 2017, it had been expected that the next three would be up and running shortly. Instead, progress took years to arrive.
“Not all of the technical issues were completed in 2017. Only a declaration of principles was signed in general terms. Additionally, the commercial-operational agreement took longer, due to the diplomatic situation and the lack of contact between the Israeli and Palestinian sides,” said a spokesperson for the state-owned Israel Electric Corporation, declining to elaborate on how a breakthrough had been achieved recently.
Both the Palestinian Energy and National Resources Authority and PETL did not respond to requests for comment.
“The establishment and operation of the three substations in Judea and Samaria will dramatically improve the supply of electricity to both Jewish and Arab communities,” Steinitz said, using the biblical name for the West Bank area. “This is an important and meaningful step in equalizing the quality of infrastructure in Judea and Samaria to that in the rest of the Land of Israel.”
The improvements in electricity may be especially felt in East Jerusalem, whose Palestinian residents mostly get their power from JDECo rather than the IEC. East Jerusalem Palestinians regularly experience electrical cuts, especially during summer heatwaves and in winter.
The new station at Qalandiya — just past the security fence which winds around the capital — has a capacity of 100 megavolts, according to Israeli officials. As JDECo also provides power to areas in Bethlehem and Ramallah, those areas are also expected to see pressure on the grid ease.
“Switching on the substation in Qalandiya means there will be no return to the irritating cut-outs,” JDECo executive Hisham al-Omari pledged in a statement.
Poor infrastructure, however, is far from JDECo’s only concern. The IEC has cut power to JDECo several times over the years, usually for enormous accumulated debts ranging into the hundreds of millions of dollars. The new substations will not necessarily ease those cuts, which have at times caused tens of thousands of Palestinians to experience rolling blackouts.
In January, JDECo reached a deal with the IEC to pay off around $220 million of its debt with a loan from a consortium of Palestinian and Arab banks. But with the Palestinian Authority in the grip of a major fiscal crisis and many struggling to pay their bills, JDECo could face financial difficulties as well — leading to further clashes with the IEC.
A Palestinian power grid not reliant on Israel for electricity could still be years away. A proposed power plant in Jenin which would satisfy about 50% of Palestinians’ electricity needs has yet to materialize. Once projected to begin powering the West Bank in 2020, its main sponsors now predict an operational date of 2023.