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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“The frequencies are a Palestinian right,” he said. “Why should I rent my atmosphere in Ramallah from an Israeli company?”

According to Zuhairi, the Israeli companies providing 3G to Palestinians do so “illegally,” without Palestinian authorization explicitly stipulated as a requirement in the Oslo Agreement. Shabi, the Israeli spokesman, rejected this, saying that the Israeli operators act “in accordance with the agreements between Israel and the Palestinian side.”

The actual text of the Oslo Agreement seems to favor Zuhairi’s argument. Under the agreement, Israel is empowered to offer telecom services only to settlements and military locations in “Area ‘C,’” the mostly rural part of the West Bank that is still under full Israeli military control. The agreement has no provision for Israel operating telecom services in Palestinian Authority areas ‘A’ and ‘B,’ the more heavily populated Palestinian self-rule zones where the Israeli companies have amassed their Palestinian West Bank market.

The Oslo Agreement also says that “operators and providers of services, presently and in the future in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, shall be required to obtain the necessary approvals from the Palestinian side.” But in practice this approval has never been sought or given.

No one interviewed in the cafe admitted to using 3G from an Israeli company. A spokeswoman for Partner Communications, the company that owns the major cell phone provider Orange, said she did not have statistics on how many Palestinians in the West Bank are using the company’s services.

“For many persons here, it’s a moral obligation not to use the Israeli telecom providers, but some people have no choice if they are businessmen or need Internet access on their smart phones,” Khatib said.

“We all need 3G,” added architect Sara Khasib, 23, who is also waiting for Palestinian providers to offer it. “It is not comfortable to need to send an email and to have to go back to the office to send it.”

Wadee Shalash, a journalist, said that 3G would make a big difference in terms of Palestinians being able to be in touch with relatives abroad, since Skype is of poor quality due to low Internet speed in the West Bank, and there are smart phone applications for free phone calls.

Fayez Husseini, CEO of Wataniya Telecom, which was given frequencies for 2G six years ago by Israel after a three-year delay, said that because Israel is holding back on 3G frequencies, it “cripples what we can do.”

“As long as they have 3G and the Palestinian operators don’t, they have a strategic advantage, a very clear differentiator. When it comes to patriotism, you can only push it that much,” he said. He estimated that his firm’s inability to provide 3G lost it $40 million to $50 million a year. Paltel CEO Ammar Aker says his company loses $80 million to $100 million in revenues a year because it lacks 3G.


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