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Uproar over Israeli Move to Take over East Jerusalem Utility Firm

A new political uproar burst in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank today after the government notified the Arab-owned East Jerusalem Electric Co. that it intends to purchase the utility in one year. Energy Minister Yitzhak Modai said the decision was purely technical and was made because the company has been unable to serve its customers adequately.

But West Bank leaders and executives of the company immediately denounced it as a political move aimed at tightening Israel’s grip on the territory and vowed to fight it in the Israeli courts and abroad if necessary according to the government’s announcement, the effective date of the purchase will be Jan. 1, 1981. No price was mentioned.

The electric company is owned by Arab municipalities on the West Bank and receives a stipend from the Jordanian government although it has operated under Israeli rule since 1967. It supplies electric power to Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as well as to the Arab sections and to Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Arab villages. Its concession extends for a radius of 20 miles, centered on the Old City of Jerusalem and it serves about 60,000 customers in all.

But the rapid growth of East Jerusalem has cause severe strains. There have been frequent power black outs and Israeli customers have accused the utility of deliberately cutting off their electric supplies. The Energy Ministry has found those accusations to be groundless. Nevertheless, it believes that the company is unable to fulfill its functions and cannot cope with growing demands. Although it provides two percent of the electric power produced in Israel, it has been able to service only 50 of the 130 villages within its franchise territory.

ACTED ON ORIGINAL FRANCHISE

If the purchase is effected, Israel’s National Electric Co. will take over the franchise. The 400 Arab employes reportedly have been assured that they would retain their jobs. Modai said the government acted on the basis of a clause in the original franchise, which the British Mandatory authorities granted to Arab owners in 1928, that allowed the British High Commissioner by Palestine to exercise on option to purchase the franchise.

The government served notice of its intention on the utility’s board of directors yesterday. Board chairman Anwar Nusseibeh, a former Jordanian Defense Minister, convened the board which promptly rejected the notice and ledge a formal protest. Nusseibeh said the decision would be fought by “every legal means including the (Israeli) Supreme Court and the International Court at The Hague.”

Mayor Fahed Kawasme of Hebron said the company was “the property of the Palestinian people and is not up for sale.” West Bank chambers of commerce, meeting in Jerusalem today, also condemned the government’s decision. Leading Arab businessmen demanded that Modai reverse it. Protest telegrams were sent to Defense Minister Ezer Weizman and to Brig. Gen. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, military commander of the West Bank.

Officials at Jerusalem’s City Hall did not conceal their unhappiness over the decision. Some senior officials warned that the move might jeopardize efforts to promote cooperation between Jews and Arabs in the city and concern was expressed that Arab extremists might use the occasion for their own ends. Mayor Teddy Kollek has declined comment. He spent the day visiting the mayors of nearby Arab towns to convey New Year greetings.

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