Palestinians Suffer in Cell Phone Dark Ages — and Point Finger of Blame at Israel

In Facebook Age, Politics Takes Back Seat to Connectivity

Cell phones are ubiquitous in the West Bank. But Israeli rules prevent providers from offering even 3G service, angering tech-savvy Palestinians.
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Cell phones are ubiquitous in the West Bank. But Israeli rules prevent providers from offering even 3G service, angering tech-savvy Palestinians.

By Ben Lynfield

Published July 27, 2013, issue of August 02, 2013.
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At the upscale November Café, near Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s house, the conversation and atmosphere are relaxed, and state-of-the-art smart phones rest on tables as their young owners sip cappuccino or fruit juice.

But despite the veneer of normalcy, the pinch of Israel’s 45-year-old occupation of the West Bank is palpable here. For one thing, the smart phones are limited in what they can do. They can’t provide email or Internet via Palestinian companies because Israel prevents these firms from offering 3G services. This has frozen the Palestinian telecommunications sector in a bygone era technologically.

“I am waiting, like many others here, holding smart phones without 3G,” photographer Noor Khatib, 33, told the Forward. Khatib, who shoots for a company that is part of Paltel, the biggest Palestinian telecommunications firm, explained that he preferred to forgo 3G rather than turn to an Israeli company for this service.

For the past seven years, Israel has refused to grant the Palestinian Authority electromagnetic spectrum for 3G service that it exclusively controls despite provisions in the 1993 Oslo Accords that appear to obligate Israel to provide this. The restriction has relegated the Palestinians to 2G, even as Israel prepares to launch 4G for its own citizens.

Israel’s Ministry of Communication says it cannot at present grant any spectrum to the Palestinians, because none is available. As soon as such frequencies will be available, “they will be assigned… to the Palestinians,” said Yechiel Shabi, spokesman for the ministry.

But enabling Palestinian 3G seems far from a priority for Israel. In 2011, the ministry granted frequency spectrum to two Israeli companies, Golan Telecom and Hot Mobile, rather than to the Palestinian firms, and a year later, as those two companies launched 3G, the ministry told the Palestinian firms that no frequencies were left; they would have to rent spectrum from Israeli firms.

The Israeli veto on Palestinian firms seeking to offer 3G leaves the Palestinian companies far behind even the standards of the region: Algeria and Iraq are the only other two countries in the Middle East to lack 3G. Palestinians see Israel’s policies on the frequencies as reflecting a larger Israeli approach that stunts their economic development.

But in this case, protectionist profit making may also be a factor. Palestinian mobile operators say that they are losing tens of millions of dollars a year because they cannot provide 3G, while their potential customers are forced to turn to the Israeli companies providing this service to West Bank Palestinians. Estimates are that between 300,000 and 500,000 West Bankers have Israeli SIM cards that originate in Jerusalem, giving them access to 3G.

This captive market for Israel is not what was envisioned in the Oslo Agreement. The agreement, which both sides agree remains in effect, says that the electromagnetic spectrum is to be shared and that Palestinian frequency requests are to be granted within a month of their submission to a joint committee.

“Israel is acting in bad faith to keep the pressure on our economy, and it’s acting in favor of Israeli companies,” Suleiman Zuhairi, the P.A. deputy minister of telecommunications, told the Forward in an interview in his Ramallah offices. Zuhairi dismissed Israel’s proposal that the Palestinians rent frequencies from Israeli companies as “impossible.”


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