Palestinians say Israel is using power cuts to apply pressure in the West Bank

Electricity Authority in Yaabad provides electricity to 19 towns and villages in the Jenin area, with a population of nearly 55,000 Palestinians (AFP)

Akram al-Waara

Middle East Eye  /  July 9, 2020

Officials vehemently reject Israel’s claims that the cuts were due to unpaid electricity bills, saying issue is political.

It was noon on a hot summer’s day when the power went out in the small village of Nazlet Zeid, part of the Jenin governorate in the northern occupied West Bank.

Emad Omar, 32, was at his parents’ house for lunch when the power went out. Omar and his brothers got up to check the home’s circuit breaker.

Upon realising that the problem wasn’t coming from inside the house, the brothers went outside and found that the entire neighbourhood was without power.

“We called the local council in Yaabad, the next-door town where the electricity is supplied from, and they said the Israelis had cut our power because of ‘debts owed to the Israeli electrical company’,” Omar told Middle East Eye.

The Omar family and their neighbours were without electricity for three hours.

“It was horrible. It was the middle of the afternoon, on an extremely hot day,” Omar said, adding that the climate in Jenin tends to be significantly hotter than other parts of the West Bank.

“This time period, from noon to 3pm, is usually when people go home for a break from work to take a nap, rest, and have lunch with their families in order to escape the heat,” he said. “But we were trapped in it, there was nothing to do.”

Once the one-hour mark had passed, Omar and other residents of the village began to worry.

“All of the meat, dairy, and other produce in our refrigerators and freezers started to melt,” he said.

“All the kids started to get cranky because they were overheating, and my mother and father, who are both very old and have chronic health issues, started to get really tired.”

By the time the power came on just after 3pm, the Omar family was exhausted. It was only one day, though. Then, they heard the blackouts would take place every day for the foreseeable future.

“We are scared for this to continue,” Omar told MEE. “Our parents and children can’t continue like this. We can’t live like this.”

‘Collective punishment’

That Wednesday afternoon, the power was cut off from the main Yaabad Electricity Authority (YEA), which provides electricity to 19 towns and villages in the Jenin area, with a population of nearly 55,000 Palestinians.

Yaabad’s mayor Amjad Atatra, 40, told MEE that while he had heard rumours circulating that Israel was planning on cutting electricity to Yaabad and the surrounding areas, the local authorities had received no formal warning from Israel ahead of time.

“We were shocked when the power was cut, because we typically don’t have these types of problems in Yaabad,” Atatra said, adding that residents are very diligent about paying their bills on time.

The head of the Yaabad Electricity Authority, Mohammed Abu Baker, 39, vehemently denied Israel’s claims that the cuts were made due to financial debts owed by his company.

“The Israeli authorities told us that the rolling blackouts were being enforced because we didn’t pay our bills, but we have all the proof right here,” he said, referring to wire transfers and payment receipts to and from the main electricity company in Israel, which YEA sources its electricity from.

Like other Palestinian-owned electricity companies operating in the West Bank, YEA is owned in part by the Palestinian government. While these district companies administer the electricity to their respective Palestinian towns and villages, Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) controls all the power supply in the West Bank, which means that all payments go back to Israel.

“Typically, what we would do is collect payments from the residents, transfer it to the Palestinian Ministry of Local Government, who would then transfers the money to Israel,” Abu Baker said.

But since the Palestinian government ended all coordination with Israel in May over Israel’s annexation plans, Yaabad Electricity Authority has had to pay the IEC directly through bank transfers.

“We have diligently kept up with all our payments, so to say that these blackouts are because of debts owed by the company is a flat out lie,” Abu Baker said, adding that most of Yaabad’s residents and those of the surrounding areas pay their electricity bills using prepaid electricity meters.

“People are very upset. They already paid their bills in full, but are still having to suffer without electricity,” Atatra said.

“Today they cut the power for three hours, but who’s to say they won’t cut it for even longer tomorrow?” he asked. “This is nothing more than collective punishment.”

It all comes back to annexation

A short while after the power went out on Wednesday, Atatra received a call from an unknown number. When he answered, he was shocked to hear an Israeli intelligence officer on the other line.

“He said he was with the Shin Bet”, the mayor said, referring to Israel’s internal security agency.

“He was very friendly to me, saying that if I had any issues in the village, I should reach out to him instead of the Palestinian government.”

According to Atatra, he was not the only mayor in the Jenin area to receive such a phone call.

“It was clear that he was trying to send us a message that Israel is in charge of these areas now and not the Palestinian government,” he said.

The phone call from the Shin Bet officer confirmed the mayor’s suspicions that the power cuts were not about financial debts, but about politics.

“The Israelis are doing everything they can to achieve annexation and control the land. And the best way to do that is to control the resources,” he said.

Atatra pointed out that while Israel has controlled Palestinian water and electricity supplies for decades, incidents like Wednesday’s are meant to make life more difficult for Palestinians living in the West Bank.

Israel is planning to illegally annex the Palestinian Jordan Valley, northern Dead Sea and illegal settlement blocs, which, together, make up around a third of the Palestinian territory.

“They are using these shadowy tactics to put pressure on us and our leaders to accept any decision put forward by the Israeli government, especially in regard to annexation,” he said.

Like Atatra, Abu Baker expressed concern over the timing of the blackouts, saying it was not a coincidence.

“As Palestinians, we don’t have any power or autonomy,” he said, before adding that Israel is using the fact that it controls Palestinian resources to their advantage.

By cutting electricity, water and other essential resources, Abu Baker said, Israeli authorities are piling up pressure on the Palestinian Authority to cave on issues like annexation and the resumption of security coordination between the two.

“These are basic necessities that everyone should have a right to,” Atatra said.

“But this is all they need to do to force our leaders into a decision that we have been fighting against for the past 70 years.”

Akram al-Waara is a Palestinian freelance video journalist based out of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank