Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – Smartphones are ubiquitous in Ramallah. All over the city people tap away at their screens as familiar ringtones add to the din of the crowds on the streets.
“This is a tech hungry place,” said Omar, a phone shop owner. “People want to be connected to news, politics, culture and to each other. Connectivity here is key.”
But Palestinians are spending hundreds of dollars on the latest smartphones that cannot do what they’re built for: The West Bank’s two service providers, Jawwaland Kuwait-based Wataniya, cannot provide fast 3G mobile data services because of Israel’s refusal to grant the Palestinian Authority sufficient bandwidth.
Ammar Aker, the chief executive of Jawwal, said this has left Palestinians in a bygone era. “We are stuck with 2G even as telecom companies throughout the Middle East prepare to launch 4G capabilities.”
2G technology dates back to 1991 – the age of brick-sized phones with batteries lasting 20 minutes. While 3G is many thousands of times faster than its predecessor, it is itself a technology more than a decade old.
According to a WikiLeaks report, Israel’s policy has forced many Palestinians to switch to Israeli carriers servicing the growing settler population.
“National sentiment can only go so far,” Aker said. “Mobile data is very important and people need to be connected to the Internet everywhere. Israel withholding frequency is killing our ability to introduce new products and new services in Palestine. We lose millions of dollars every year because of this.”
Samer, a Palestinian engineer, summed up the dilemma: “I don’t want to use an Israeli SIM, but my job requires me to email while I’m on the road. So what can I do?”
‘Drop in the bucket‘
Fayez Husseini, CEO of Wataniya, said provisions in the Oslo Accords signed 20 years ago cover Palestinians’ right to faster communications.
“Israel deals with frequency and spectrum like it’s a scarce resource. We are guaranteed part of it under the Oslo Accords, but they control it like they do water. If they decide it’s enough for Palestinians to take one shower a month, or drink once a day, they have that control. And when it comes to frequency, they give us almost nothing … a drop in the bucket.
“Israel has 60 megahertz and is getting ready to launch 4G. All I need is 10 megahertz to deliver good quality 3G services. They have it to spare and still they won’t give us even close to that.”
Israel’s Minister of Communications Gilad Erdan was unavailable for comment on the country’s policy.
The political dimensions of smartphone frequency in the West Bank were brought to attention earlier this year during a visit to the region by US President Barack Obama. He was greeted with posters saying, “Dear Barack Obama: Don’t bring your smartphone to Ramallah. You won’t have mobile access to the Internet. We have no 3G in Palestine!”
Connectivity is everything today. And here, everything - our land, our families, our nation and even our voices - are being disconnected ... or, in this case, dropped.
3G is only one of the problems mobile users face in the West Bank. Since the separation of Palestine into areas A, B and C under the Oslo Accords, area C has been under full Israeli control, and Palestinians are denied access to its development and resources.
The absence of Jawwal and Wataniya towers in this area means that service is spotty or non-existent between Palestinian cities, creating a difficult situation for both providers.
“From Ramallah to Jericho, if you’re using our line, you get disconnected multiple times,” said Aker. “These areas are full of settlements and we are not allowed to place any antenna close to settlements.”
Israel retains complete control over all Palestinian trade and borders. Both mobile networks experience delays in receiving clearing equipment, such as transmitters, into the West Bank.
“For Israel, acquiring transmitters takes 10 days to two weeks. For us? Eight months to two years,” said Aker.
This situation is worse in Gaza, Aker said. “Up until 2010, we couldn’t send a single screw to Gaza. Our network was facing problems, and we could not fix it.”
Power cuts of up to eight hours a day and high fuel costs add to the problems.
“The closing of the tunnels by Egypt has only made it worse,” Aker said. “Now every single Jawwal tower in Gaza has its own separate generator. The cost is huge. Tell me of another place in the world that has to cope with these problems.”
Back to the West Bank, and despite it being illegal under Oslo for Israeli phone companies to operate on Palestinian land, up to 30 percent of Palestinian mobile users have Israeli SIMs, and use networks servicing the settlements.
That illegal business hurts the native networks and, according to the World Bank, loses the Palestinian Authority $100 million a year in licences and revenue.
It is another example of Israel denying Palestinian development, says Said Haifa, a professor of economics at Birzeit University.
“This has nothing to do with Israeli security,” he said. “Restrictions on frequency and infrastructural development on area C is consistent with decades of Israeli policies of denying all forms of development for more than 60 percent of Palestine.”
According to a report published by the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem and the Palestine Ministry of National Economy, it is Israeli policy to control Palestinian markets and resources.
“Israeli restrictions prevent Palestinians from accessing much of their land and from exploiting most of their natural resources: They isolate the Palestinians from global markets, and fragment their territory into small, badly connected ‘cantons’.”
As much as mobile phones expose the asymmetrical economic relations between Israel and Palestine, they also expose the physical reality in the West Bank of disconnection. Mobile services, much like walls, guard towers and Israeli bypass roads, mark the settlement geography of the West Bank and the boundaries of Israeli control.
Critics say an infrastructure of annexation and separation is being set up, and nowhere is the “Bantustan” nature of the Palestine “State” more apparent than the poor mobile phone services.
“Connectivity is everything today. And here, everything – our land, our families, our nation and even our voices – are being disconnected … or in this case dropped,” said the mobile phone salesman Omar.