The Palestinians themselves admit that rampant theft of electricity and the widespread failure of Palestinians to pay their electric bills are the main reason behind the crisis of power cuts to some Palestinian villages and cities in the West Bank. Pictured: A web of illegal electrical connections surrounds the Municipal Inspector's office in Hebron. (Image source: iStock)
For a long time now, many Palestinians have refused to pay their bills to the Arab-owned Jerusalem District Electricity Company (JDEC).
Many other Palestinians, taking a more direct line of theft, have been stealing electrical power from their company, a crime punishable by fines and/or incarceration in any country that respects law and order. The thieves do so by directly hooking to the power line ("cable hooking") or tampering with electric meters.
The JDEC purchases electricity from the Israel Electric Corporation (IEC), the largest supplier of electrical power in Israel. However, because of the electricity theft and widespread non-payment of electrical bills, the JDEC has not been able to pay its debts to the Israeli supplier, IEC.
On September 22, the IEC announced that it has begun cutting power supply to some Palestinian villages and cities in the West Bank to put pressure on the Palestinians to pay their debt of 1.7 billion shekels (about $483 million). The IEC has been trying for years to collect the debt, which over the years has continued to grow. While there has been sporadic payment of some of this debt, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has not forwarded any money to the Israeli company since January 2019, when Israel cut by about half the money it transfers to the Palestinians because of the salaries the PA pays to families of terrorists.
While the Palestinians openly admit that their company loses millions of dollars each year because of the non-payment and electricity theft, they are at the same time claiming to the world that Israel is imposing "collective punishment" on them by cutting the power supply. The Palestinians, in short, are asking the international community to condemn Israel for daring to demand that they pay their debts for the electricity they purchase from the IEC.
This Palestinian audacity ("wakaha" in Arabic) reached its peak when the chairman of the JDEC, Hisham Omari, met this week with United Nations officials in Jerusalem to complain about Israel's decision to cut off the power supply to some Palestinian areas in the West Bank. Omari was quoted as accusing Israel of imposing "collective punishment" on the Palestinians and warning that the Israeli move would have "grave repercussions."
In the eyes of the chairman of the Arab electricity company, his company's failure to pay its debts to Israel is an issue that needs to be brought before the UN. Obviously, Omari did not tell the UN officials he met with about the tens of thousands of Palestinians who have not been paying their bills or who are stealing power from the JDEC. This embarrassing detail might distract from their attempt to blame Israel for daring to demand the payment of the electricity debts.
In the context of the Palestinians' effort to exploit the controversy over their electricity debt to incite their people against Israel, Thafer Milhem, head of the Palestinian Energy and National Resources Authority, went as far as claiming that Israel's attempt to collect the debt was part of the Israeli government's "systematic policy of pressuring President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian government to comply with Israeli dictates." Milhem said that the Palestinians have contacted several international parties to complain about the Israeli company's decision to cut off power supply to some Palestinians. He, too, accused Israel of imposing "collective punishment" on the Palestinians by insisting that they pay their debt.
The Palestinian officials' attempt to internationalize the controversy over their unpaid debt to the IEC is part of a larger and ongoing effort to deceive the international community into believing that Israel is "punishing" the Palestinians for no good reason. Sadly, the attempt to hold Israel responsible for the crisis is based on lies and deception.
The Palestinians themselves admit that rampant theft of electricity and the widespread failure of Palestinians to pay their bills is the main reason behind the crisis. Yet, the Palestinians feel a bit queasy about telling the world that they are stealing electricity from their own company.
The JDEC chairman, Omari, who demanded UN intervention to force Israel to continue supplying power to the Palestinians despite their debt, was recently quoted as admitting that his company was facing a financial crisis because of its inability to force Palestinians to stop stealing electricity and start paying their bills.
Omari revealed that "large Palestinian consumers" owed his company 100 million shekels (about $28.6 million). He said that Palestinian consumers' total debts to his company were estimated at 800 million shekels (about $229 million). More than half of the debt belongs to Palestinians living in refugee camps, where consumers have long been stealing electricity and refusing to pay their bills, he said.
Attempts by the JDEC to collect money for unpaid bills in West Bank refugee camps have been met with violence. JDEC employees who entered the camps to collect debts or cut off power to consumers are often threatened and beaten. The Palestinian security forces have done almost nothing to help the company or its employees.
Omari also criticized Palestinian courts for failing to deal with Palestinians who are stealing electricity and refusing to pay their bills. "Some of the Palestinians [in the refugee camps] place private guards near electricity generators to prevent the company employees from cutting the power," he said. "Others block the panels with chains or rocks so that we cannot open them..." He warned that the continued electricity theft and refusal to pay bills "threatens the existence of the [Arab electricity] company."
Palestinian officials are using the electricity issue to incite not only the international community against Israel, but also their own people. These officials are telling Palestinians that Israel is seeking to punish Palestinians for no good reason, and that their anger should be directed against Israel, not against the electricity thieves or the Palestinian leadership.
Addressing its Palestinian customers, the Arab electricity company claimed that Israel's effort to collect the debt is part of an Israeli scheme to take control of the company and "Judaize" the Arab neighborhoods and institutions in east Jerusalem. The Arab company's message to Palestinians who are stealing electricity and refusing to pay their bills is: "If you find yourselves without electricity, you should blame only Israel."
Apparently, the Palestinians believe that they have a "right" to free electricity -- even if that leads to the collapse of their own electric company. This conviction is in keeping with the longstanding Palestinian perception that someone else -- preferably Israel and Western donors, but basically anyone else -- should pay their way in the world, particularly their electricity bills.
The controversy surrounding the unpaid electricity debts is yet another example of the Palestinians' unceasing search for ways to blame Israel for self-inflicted miseries. Instead of assuming responsibility for the electricity theft and unpaid bills and taking punitive measures against the offenders, the Palestinians are doing what they do best: trying their utmost to convince the world that it is all Israel's fault.
Bassam Tawil is a Muslim Arab based on the Middle East.