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A double-edged electric switch

The shared electricity grid in the West Bank denies a possibility of "electric" separation

By Amiram Cohen

"The economic separation between the Israeli and Palestinian economies will not include the electricity system. The Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) continues and will continue to meet the electricity demands of the Palestinians," a senior official at the corporation told Ha'aretz Sunday."In Gaza," the official continued, "the electricity networks to Jewish and Arab customers are separate, so it is possible to effect an [economic] separation, but in the West Bank the grid is shared. The lines that supply electricity to the settlements also carry it to the Palestinian villages. So there is no way to execute a separation, except by establishing two parallel grids, an idea that could never be implemented." The official added that separating the grids would take years and cost a fortune.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is currently incapable of producing its own electricity, and buys its entire electrical supply from the IEC. Has anyone in the government ever thought of flicking the switch as a weapon in the contention currently reigning between Israel and the PA? Probably not. "Such a step," said one government minister, "would be a declaration of war on the Palestinians."

A senior source in the Prime Minister's Office, when asked if Israel would cut off electricity to the PA, or even make such a threat for political gain, said, "Even though the Government Companies Law (paragraph 4) authorizes the government to order the electric corporation to do so, it is inconceivable that a sane government would use a control switch in the political arena."

He said that the paragraph in question is a problematic one from the outset, and was not intended to be used for political purposes. The government has used this provision only once - when it forbade El Al Airlines from operating flights on the Sabbath.

The PA buys electricity from the IEC via the East Jerusalem Electric Company, which it controls, so the IEC has no direct contact with Palestinian consumers. The East Jerusalem Electric Company is responsible for repairing and maintaining the electricity lines to all the Palestinian towns and villages in the PA territories.

Electricity consumption by the PA currently stands at 450 megawatts per day (about 5.3 per cent of the capacity of the IEC). Yigal Ben-Aryeh, the director of the IEC's Jerusalem district who is in charge of the electricity connections between the corporation and the PA, says these figures are not an accurate reflection of the electricity demands of the PA areas, because there are many areas, particularly in Gaza and in the northern section of the West Bank, where the infrastructure is insufficient to supply the needs of the residents. If the PA were to utilize all the electricity that is at its disposal, said Ben-Aryeh, electricity consumption by the Palestinians would grow by 15 percent per year (300 million kilowatt hours per year), but this potential is currently not being realized.

In its plans for electricity production over the next 10 years, the IEC took into consideration the fact that electricity demand by the Palestinians will reach 750 megawatts per day. Sources at the corporation say that the continued supply of electricity to the PA, just like the expansion of services, is dependent on the signing of trade agreements between the two sides.

However, the PA now has a strategic goal to produce and convey its own electricity. The American electric company Arnon has already commenced building a gas turbine power plant in Gaza, with a future capacity of 120 megawatts.

The first production unit of the power station, with a capacity of 60 megawatts, will be operational within a month or two, Ha'aretz has learned. The PA will also apparently be issuing an international tender for the construction of an additional power station.

The new station will be powered by natural gas from the wells drilled by British Gas off the coast of Gaza, or from a gas pipeline being built by the Italian Agip company, which channels gas to El Arish and Egypt. Until the natural gas is available, the turbine will be powered by diesel. The IEC currently supplies the Gaza Strip with about 125 megawatts of electricity per day, and estimates that demand will reach 200 megawatts by 2005.

The hostilities are making life difficult for IEC repair and maintenance personnel, who are responsible for the central grids that carry electricity from Israel to the territories, and for the networks that serve the settlements. All repairs now have to be done with protection from the army

-- Martin Thompson (, October 24, 2000

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