Israel's electric company cut off power Monday to more than 700,000 Palestinians in two major West Bank cities and nearby villages, and warned that more outages are coming if Palestinian officials don't pay millions of dollars in outstanding debt.
The outage in Nablus, the largest West Bank city, and Jenin, to the north, lasted about an hour, but could become a regular part of West Bank life if the Palestinian Authority and the local electric utilities don't pay their bills, the Israel Electric Corp. (IEC) warned.
Palestinian officials described the IEC move as a political step and collective punishment against the Palestinian people after the Palestinian Authority joined the Hague-based International Criminal Court last month.
In a reprisal move, Israel has frozen more than $240 million in tax revenues it had collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority in the last two months, leaving an already cash-strapped government unable to even pay full salaries for its 180,000 civil servants.
Speaking at a conference in Jerusalem on Monday, the director of the IEC, Yiftah Ron-Tal, referred to the Palestinian Authority's electricity debts.
"Customers who do not pay electric bills are disconnected; yet here we have an entire population that doesn't pay while we continue to supply electricity," he said. "The Palestinian Authority owes the IEC -- meaning the paying consumers -- nearly 2 billion Israeli shekels [about $500 million]. A year has passed since I said this last and nothing has changed. Starting today, we will begin restricting electricity."
Ghassan Shakaa, the mayor of Nablus and chairman of the board of the North Electricity Company, which supplies Nablus, Jenin and nearby villages with power it purchases from the IEC, described the Israeli measure as unfair.
"This is clearly collective punishment against the Palestinian people," he said. According to Shakaa, the IEC cut power shortly after notifying his company that it owed more than $10 million, and did not wait for an answer or for payment.
He said he expects the power cut to be repeated at random hours over the next few days until some sort of arrangement is reached to pay the bill.
Rashid Fadda, who lives in Nablus and works as a technician for the local electric company, said the power cuts came as a surprise.
"We heard the Israeli company threatening to cut power supply to the West Bank but no one really thought it will happen," he said. "My work depends on electricity and so when the power was cut off, we had to stop work."
Many people were caught in elevators in large Nablus buildings, and some were stuck until power resumed.
The IEC supplies electricity to all of the West Bank with the exception of a small part of Jericho that gets its power supply from nearby Jordan. The Israeli company also supplies parts of the Gaza Strip.
The Jerusalem District Electricity Company (JDEC), a private Palestinian distribution company that supplies electricity to East Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem and most of Jericho, owes the IEC the largest amount, about $200 million.
The IEC went to court to force the Jerusalem company to pay its debt, threatening to seize its assets. No ruling has been issued yet.
JDEC officials have charged that the failure of the Palestinian Authority to pay the company tens of millions in dollars in unpaid bills has strained the company finances and led to its failure to pay the Israeli company's bills.