The Israel Electric Corporation cut off the electricity to Jenin and Nablus on Monday. The power outage indeed lasted “only” 45 minutes, but the aggressive message was clear: The Palestinian Authority and the Jerusalem District Electricity Company had better pay their debts, or else.
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Ostensibly the Electric Corp. acted as it does toward any customer who doesn’t pay his bills. One could even argue that it had showed considerable patience given the huge debt, around 2 billion shekels ($506.3 million), that had accumulated over two years. Indeed, the Electric Corp. issued several warnings over this period. It also filed suit against the East Jerusalem power company and won, but has been unable to collect the debt.
Requests from the government to deduct the Palestinian debt from the tax money the government collects on the PA’s behalf had received a positive response in the past, but this time the government refused. Nor did the PA do enough to pay its debts, in part because of its inefficient collection of electricity bills from Palestinian customers.
But cutting off the electricity to Palestinian cities cannot be addressed as if it were a pure business issue between debtor and creditor. The PA and parts of East Jerusalem are totally dependent on Israeli power, and cutting off a city means, among other things, directly harming essential services like hospitals, bakeries and manufacturing plants. In a situation where some 500 million shekels in tax revenues that the PA is entitled to has been frozen by Israel as punishment for the PA’s taking steps toward potentially bringing Israel to The Hague on war crimes charges, and when Israel is not prepared to supply water to the new Palestinian city of Rawabi, the electricity cutoff is perceived as another diplomatic punishment, rather than a means to collect a debt.
The defense minister, the coordinator of government activity in the territories, and the national security adviser had all opposed the cutoff, understanding the diplomatic and humanitarian implications of such a step. But such recognition without taking action won’t resolve the problem. On the contrary; government indifference allows the Electric Corp. to conduct an independent policy with regard to the PA, one whose results are liable to be paid by Israelis and Palestinians alike.
The government must find a reasonable solution to the PA’s arrears, hand over the frozen tax revenues so it can fulfill at least some of its obligations to the Electric Corp., and examine the possibility of restructuring the debts. Responsibility for maintaining normal life in the territories rests with Israel, as the sovereign, not with the Electric Corp.