Israel's Top General in West Bank Warns: Power Blackouts Will Lead to Violence

Israel Electric Corporation threatening to cut power twice a day to different parts of the West Bank, over $458 million debt.

Michal Fattal

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, recently sent a letter to National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen warning against the Israel Electric Corporation’s plan to start instituting power cuts in the West Bank and East Jerusalem because of enormous debts it’s owed by the Palestinian Authority.

In a letter sent on May 15 to Cohen, senior IEC executives, the Foreign Ministry and the defense minister, Mordechai said the question of supplying electricity to the Palestinians is not just a commercial issue for the IEC, but a strategic and diplomatic one for Israel. Mordechai claimed that limiting power supplies to the Palestinians would be viewed as a sanction by Israel against the civilian population, and this must be prevented.

The Palestinians owe the corporation about 1.6 billion shekels ($458 million) for electricity supplied but never paid for. The IEC filed a 531 million shekel lawsuit earlier this month against the Jerusalem District Electric Company (JDECO) – the Arab-owned electric company that provides power to Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – for not paying its debts.

Now the IEC is threatening to start cutting the power twice a day to different parts of the West Bank, for an hour each time. The IEC says it will provide solutions, such as generators, for the Jewish settlements in the areas to be hit by the power cuts – as well as in the case of Palestinian attacks on the electricity infrastructure.

Mordechai warned that power cuts could expose Israel to legal claims of collective punishment, and cause diplomatic damage and lead to international pressure. But, most of all, it could lead to further feelings of bitterness and frustration, which could also lead to attacks against the electricity infrastructure – or even to an outbreak of violence.

“The situation of a shortage of electricity could lead to instability and the pointing of an accusatory finger at the Palestinian Authority,” wrote Mordechai. “In a more extreme scenario, this situation could bring the accusation against Israel, to undermine the stability of the security [situation], to damage the channels of coordination and communication, and create difficulties on the part of the Palestinian security services to contain events.”

Cohen will hold a meeting on the matter today. He has invited senior IEC executives, along with representatives of COGAT, the Energy and Water Resources Ministry, and others. Cohen supports Mordechai’s position and even made clear in informal meetings over the past week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also opposes the IEC’s proposal, said a senior government official. “Blackouts are not one of our cards,” the official quoted Cohen as saying.

Both the Energy Ministry and the IEC wrote to those involved almost two weeks ago, warning of their intentions to initiate the planned blackouts. The IEC said it would cut power supplied to JDECO by half for an hour at a time, twice daily, at 1 P.M. and 7 P.M.

The IEC has warned previously that it might file suit to collect its unpaid debts, though for now the company has decided to sue only the JDECO, and only for some of the debt.

A month ago, progress was seemingly being made on the matter, and Netanyahu’s representative to the peace talks, Isaac Molho, was in charge of finding a compromise. However, the end of the negotiations seems to have also led to the end of talks over the debt payment.

Six months ago, Palestinian Finance Minister Shukri Bishara presented Israel with an offer that would have written off half of the debt and spread payment for the rest over 20 years. The offer was rejected out of hand by the Israelis. Sources say Israel agreed to the extended term of payments, but not to the write-off.

The debt is growing at a estimated 90 million shekels a month, because the Palestinians have not collected the full amount they are owed by customers for years.

Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai.
Tomer Appelbaum