By Yifat Erlich
(Israel Hayon via JNS) I have driven down the long, winding road between Neve Tzuf and Ofarim in the western Binyamin region countless times. It is one of the most beautiful routes in the country. This time, however, was different. Instead of enjoying the incredible, breathtaking view of the Binyamin hills, I spent it looking at electricity poles. They carried signs that I had never noticed before: The walls of the Old City of Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock and the universal symbol for high voltage, a lightning bolt. Underneath the image, in English and Arabic, were the words “Jerusalem District Electric Company” (JDECO).
The discovery jolted me. These power lines provide electricity to Palestinian Authority villages and will soon carry power from the enormous solar farm that the Palestinian Authority has built between Neve Tzuf and Ofarim. So why does that frustrate me? Because instead of the Civil Administration penalizing JDECO for providing electricity to illegal buildings in Area C, the company has been rewarded with authorization to advance huge projects. JDECO’s growing debt to the Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) has topped a billion shekels ($292.2 million), but that has not prevented the Civil Administration from approving JDECO’s requests to upgrade the electricity line between Israel and Jordan and to purchase more electricity from Jordan.
So, what is JDECO? The company has a long and twisted history. Once a Jordanian company, it is now a legal Israeli entity that has a license from the Electricity Authority and the Energy Ministry to provide electricity to eastern Jerusalem and the Jericho, Bethlehem and Ramallah areas. In the past, the JDECO produced electricity at a power station in Shuafat in eastern Jerusalem, but 30 years ago it stopped independently producing electricity and is now a supplier of electricity purchased from the IEC and Jordan. The company’s board of directors comprises representatives of the municipalities to which it provides electricity: Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Beit Jalla, Ramallah, al-Bireh and Jericho.
Since 1967, JDECO has been a focal point of Palestinian Authority political power and a symbol of Palestinian Authority independence. Going back as far as 1981, the PLO has held a majority on the board of directors. Today, one can say that JDECO serves in practice as a tool for the Palestinian Authority as it seeks the establishment of a Palestinian state. On the one hand, it assists the Palestinian Authority, through legal means, with the authorization and encouragement of the Israeli Civil Administration, to progress toward energy independence, freeing itself from reliance on Israel. On the other hand, it provides electricity to the P.A. for illegal construction in Area C as part of the Fayyad plan, supported by the European Union, to establish a state unilaterally through facts on the ground. This is all happening far from the public eye, without any debate regarding the significance of these measures and in particular without any clear and consistent, forward-looking government policy.
From Binyamin, we headed south, to the northern entrance to Efrat. From Givat Hadagan, a rocky hilltop near the town, we looked over the outskirts of El Hadr, a Palestinian Authority village south of Bethlehem where there are dozens of illegal stone buildings, some three stories high, that spill over from Area A into state lands in Area C. From a distance, between the buildings and the vines, looms an orange crane working on what appears to be another illegal building. All this undisturbed, in full daylight.
“A road to Tekoa was planned here, but because of the massive construction along the route, the road will not be built,” said Menash Shmueli, field coordinator for Israeli NGO Regavim. “What we are seeing here is a chokehold on Efrat, in order to prevent its continued development,” he added.
Shmueli showed us an aerial photograph from 2008 proving that the 50 illegal buildings blocking our view were not there at the time. All of these buildings are connected to electricity provided by JDECO. This is electricity produced by the IEC and then “purchased” by JDECO (which, as we have already mentioned, owes a billion shekels to the IEC). This electricity helps the Palestinian Authority take over more and more of Area C. Some of the connections seem to be “legal,” while the rest are hooked up in a chaotic, snarled and very dangerous tangle.
Regavim has issued a petition to the courts to demolish electrical infrastructure on the grounds that it is illegal. The state answered that the infrastructure would be demolished “in accordance with security considerations,” and the petition was dismissed. What are these security considerations? Are they just an excuse for negligence, or are they bona fide security considerations? Various sources explain that the Civil Administration is afraid to cut off the power to entire neighborhoods as doing so could lead to legally constructed buildings being cut off from the network, too. And because taking that kind of step could lead to a petition by left-wing NGOs against the Civil Administration, which is already overwhelmed with such petitions.
Moreover, the Civil Administration currently faces severe manpower shortages. There are only 15 inspectors covering this enormous area. The outgoing government promised to allocate another 46 slots for inspectors, but these have yet to be filled due to bureaucratic obstacles. Moreover, crews carrying out the demolition of illegal Palestinian Authority Arab buildings often come under fire and thus require a large military escort. IDF forces on the ground are already swamped with security missions and as a result, enforcement often has to be postponed.
Hooking up to the neighbors
Heading north from Efrat, we turned southeast toward the Judean desert. South of Tekoa and north of Ma’ale Amos, we stopped at Kisan and al-Maniyah, two Palestinian Authority villages with extensive, illegal construction on their outskirts. Some of the houses are modest, but near a square in al-Maniyah there are luxurious three-story villas. These two villages were defined in the Oslo Accords as being in Area A, under full P.A. control, but dozens of illegal buildings have spilled over into Area C, which is under full Israeli control.
Aerial photographs show undeveloped land in Area A where the villages could have expanded to. But hey, if they can build undisturbed in Area C, then why not. Looking up at the clear blue skies and the tops of the electricity poles shows that here as well, it is JDECO that supplies electricity. In al-Maniyah, another sign displays a European Union-funded project to provide electricity from photovoltaic cells. But most of the solar panels have been vandalized. The connection between JDECO electricity poles and the illegal buildings is made through a mesh of wires and transformers. Are these illegal connections put up by the villagers themselves?
We approached Mustafa, a resident of the village living in one of the illegal areas.
“Marhaba, how are you?”
“Thank God,” Mustafa replied in Hebrew. The conversation flowed, and he told us that he has 10 children from two wives. We ask if they lack electricity in the village, and Mustafa replied that they lack nothing.
“Where do you get your electricity from?”
“We get it from the East Jerusalem company [JDECO]. We pay them every month. First you pay and then you get electricity. When the money we pay runs out, the company cuts off the electricity. Some people aren’t connected to the company and instead, they connect to other houses and pay the neighbors,” he explained.
Mustafa told us that the Civil Administration only rarely intervenes in affairs in the village. “This house is a really big house, on the road itself, so they demolished it,” he said. “But usually, there are no problems here. We get on with the Civil Administration.”
That being the case, it isn’t hard to understand why illegal construction in Area C has become such an uncontrollable deluge. According to up-to-date figures, gathered by Regavim through a process of mapping the area and then comparing with aerial photos from over the years, the number of illegal Palestinian buildings in Area C currently stands at 81,317. The number of illegal Israeli buildings in Area C is 4,382. Over the past year, 5,535 illegal Palestinian Authority buildings were constructed in Area C, an increase of 80% on the previous year. In the Jewish sector, 406 illegal buildings were constructed in settlements or outposts, an increase of only 10%. All this at a time when there are only 350,000 Palestinians living in Area C, compared to 500,000 Jews. All these buildings are connected to electricity.
Do the PPA Arabs suffer from overcrowding or a land shortage? A look at the wide-open spaces and the nature of construction suffices to see that this is not the case. The figures prove this is not the case. The population density of PA Arabs in Judea and Samaria is 5.6 persons per dunam (quarter acre). In “little Israel,” it is 10 persons per dunam. Moreover, 70% of Areas A and B are uninhabited. Thus, in most cases, illegal building is not a consequence of natural growth, but a clear effort by the P.A. to establish facts on the ground ahead of a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state.
On the ground, the evidence of a guiding hand is clear. The P.A., financed and supported by the Europeans, is building dirt roads and putting up electricity poles. Only then do the illegal buildings appear out of nowhere. The exceptions are the Palestinian Authority towns of Qalqilya and Tulkarm, where the massive overflow of illegal construction into Area C results from the available land for construction in Area A having been fully exhausted. The Civil Administration has given up in the face of the multi-story buildings being built illegally in these two towns. Everyone understands that sooner or later these buildings will be legalized. The Civil Administration is concentrating its efforts in more strategic locations, such as near main roads in the Jerusalem envelope, national parks and IDF firing zones, and in destroying illegal construction in Jewish settler outposts.
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), which is responsible for the civil administration and sits near military headquarters in Tel Aviv, often hosts European representatives. The picture COGAT tries to paint is one of equal enforcement when it comes to illegal construction. The extreme gap between the scope of illegal Palestinian Authority construction and illegal Israeli building is one COGAT doesn’t seem to stress. Perhaps it is more convenient for COGAT to shut its eyes and see illegal Palestinian Authority as natural growth and not a strategy. And perhaps when they give an account to the Europeans, they don’t want to clash with the silver platter that supports the Palestinian Authority takeover of Area C in not only words, but cash—lots of cash.
From 2016 to 2018, the European Union provided €33 million in “humanitarian assistance” to Palestinians Authority Arabs living in Area C. Another €2.5 million were designated for advancing plans to legalize 113 illegal Palestinian Authority outposts in Area C. More than €30 million have been invested in infrastructure and agricultural development, and €20 million were donated to legal assistance to prevent enforcement via legal assistance to persons who have received demolition orders. Instead of the State of Israel demanding that the European Union stop financing the illegal Palestinian Authority takeover of Area C, its hosts the E.U. representatives at COGAT. About a year ago, a COGAT delegation accompanied by Regional Cooperation Minister Issawi Frej attended a convention of donor nations in Oslo with the aim of increasing aid to Palestinian Authority Arabs.
Where’s the money?
Let’s go back to the issue of electricity in the Palestinian Authority. According to the Oslo Accords, the P.A. was supposed to develop energy independence. Israel agreed to provide it with electricity on a temporary basis, but the temporary became permanent, and today the P.A. remains almost completely dependent on the IEC. Alongside JDECO, the Palestinian Electricity Transmission Company (PETL) and three small private Palestinian Authority companies are responsible for providing electricity and collecting payment. Over the years, these companies have accrued massive debt to the IEC.
These debts were accrued as the result of non-payment of electricity bills for public buildings and as a result of failure to collect debts, as well as electricity theft, which has become commonplace in the refugee camps. Wealthy families who are fourth-generation “refugees” don’t pay for electricity. After disconnecting electricity countless times, and a long legal battle, the P.A. and the IEC reached an agreement over deduction of the debt from the taxes that Israel collects from goods imported to the P.A.
Today, the P.A doesn’t have a direct debt to the IEC, as every month COGAT deducts 75 million shekels ($22 million) from the P.A.—of which 38 million shekels ($11.1 million) covers electricity consumption in Gaza, while the remainder covers electricity consumption in Judea and Samaria. Excluded from the calculation is electricity purchased by JDECO, which is what led to the billion-shekel debt—basically an indirect debt of the P.A. to the I.E.C. So far, for political reasons, JDECO has refrained from legal action against the P.A. JDECO has requested from the Israeli Energy Ministry that it include that debt in the deduction agreement. Israeli sources explained to JDECO that they could not make any deduction without the P.A.’s agreement. JDECO has been hesitant to take any action, and the debt has swelled.
Turning off the switch
On Oct. 6, the IEC sent out a letter to all relevant authorities in Israel and the P.A. in which it declared that as of Nov. 21, it would shut off the electricity supply to 36 different regions in the P.A. for six hours straight over 10 days throughout the winter.
COGAT understood that this would be an event with major ramifications and could lead to widespread unrest in the Palestinian territories. Israel is now pressuring the P.A. to reach a deduction agreement or pay its debt to the IEC.
At the same time, since the Oslo Accords took effect, there have been several attempts to increase the amount of electricity supplied to the P.A., as JDECO is unable to meet growing demand. In 2016, the Europeans built four substations, in Jenin, Nablus, Atarot and Tarkumiya, with the aim of increasing power production. The substations were connected to the IEC and have managed to significantly increase electricity supply, but due to internal transmission issues caused by decaying infrastructure, JDECO is unable to transmit its full potential. At the same time, a number of large solar farms have been built with European financing, for example near Jericho and between Neve Tzuf and Ofarim, and the Palestinians are seeking to build a power station in Jenin.
JDECO, which is engaged in illegal activities and owes the IEC a billion shekels, won the tender to purchase electricity from the solar farms. It has also been awarded a license to upgrade the electricity line between Jordan and Israel and to increase the amount of electricity it purchases from Jordan to 80 megawatts.
JDECO is currently putting up electricity poles from the Jordan Valley to Ramallah, going through a large area between the Israeli communities of Kochav Hashashar and Ma’ale Michmash, an area that the Palestinian Authority plans to take over through illegal construction. The power line that will aid these plans is now moving from the planning to execution stage, with—how surprising—the approval of the State of Israel.
At a ceremony in Jordan, P.A. prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said the goal of the project was to enable the P.A. to completely free itself of energy dependence on Israel, and from “Israeli extortion,” as it works toward the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Among those at the ceremony was JDECO CEO Hisham Omari.
Omari is a busy man. We wanted to meet with him in person, and traveled to JDECO’s offices in Jerusalem. Among colorful shops selling jalabiyas and keffiyehs sits a large, impressive building that houses JDECO’s offices. The security guard at the entrance wouldn’t let us in. “There is no one available to speak to you right now,” he said. “The entire management is in Ramallah at the moment.” Eventually, we got hold of Omari’s mobile phone number, called him, and left a message. We never got a response. We sent our questions to JDECO’s attorney, Anat Klein. There was no response there either.
“The biggest problem is that there is no clear policy,” a senior Israeli electricity industry source told us. “For years, there has been no proper debate with the relevant professional echelons on the issue of electricity in the Palestinian Authority. There is no proper plan for the future and no policy. All we do is put out fires.”
We approached the Energy Ministry, COGAT and the Civil Administration to figure out whether there is a policy regarding disconnecting illegally constructed buildings from the grid, and why no action has been taken against JDECO.
A joint statement issued by COGAT and the Civil Administration said: “In the past year, Civil Administration enforcement authorities carried out six enforcement actions against illegal electricity infrastructure throughout Judea and Samaria. With regard to enforcement against illegal construction in Area C—since the beginning of 2022 we have taken enforcement measures and demolished over 1,300 buildings, infrastructures, agricultural takeovers of state lands, illegal works, etc.”
The Civil Administration refused to provide exact data on the demolition of illegal buildings and the segmentation of enforcement measures by sector (Israeli as opposed to Palestinian Authority Arab) and the years in which these measures were taken. However, sources we spoke to said some 90 percent of demolitions were of Palestinian Authority buildings.
A spokesperson for the IEC said: “JDECO’s debt to the IEC currently stands at one billion shekels. In order to collect this debt, we have been forced to carry out disconnections in accordance with the law, and with the provision of advance notice. We have asked the finance and energy ministries to help us collect the debt. The IEC believes that the monthly deductions from the Palestinian Authority should be increased by 20-25 million shekels a month to cover JDECO’s debt.”
Yifat Erlich is an author and investigative journalist.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.