At least 140 Palestinians and 20 Israelis have been killed in the latest flare-up of violence that began on Oct. 1. While the world’s attention is fixated on the crisis, Israel and the Palestinian Authority quietly signed a long-awaited agreement on Nov. 19 allowing Palestinian telecom companies to provide 3G mobile services in the occupied territories. It is unclear whether or how the intensified violence will affect this implementation, but it is urgent that Israel lift the many technological barriers that are still in place.
Information and communication technology (ICT) is an important tool for the social, economic and political development of the occupied territories. There are an estimated 250 Palestinian ICT operators and approximately 10,000 qualified ICT workers. And at least 1,000 Palestinian students graduate in ICT-related vocations each year. In 2012 the ICT sector accounted for 5.6 percent of the Palestinian gross domestic product, helping drive some development despite the prolonged military occupation. But Israeli control of and restrictions on the sector have limited its potential for the beleaguered Palestinian economy.
Since signing the Oslo Accord in 1993, Israel has maintained a tight grip over the ICT sector, to the detriment of the Palestinian economy. As part of the deal, Israel gave the Palestinian Authority limited control over its telecommunication infrastructure in the West Bank (excluding Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip while ensuring that all incoming and outgoing communication to and from the Palestinian territories goes through an Israeli switch.
In other words, Israel has retained complete control, constraining access to the electromagnetic spectrum and imports of equipment. The lack of 3G mobile services has cost Palestinian operators an estimated $80 to $100 million annually. Whereas Palestinian mobile operators have struggled with limited 2G technologies for years, in January Israel released 4G mobile broadband radio frequencies to six Israeli companies.
Israel’s restrictions are not limited to the Palestinian telecom network and the ICT industry. Israel has built 3G towers in its settlements across the West Bank and, in some cases, on privately owned Palestinian land, in violation of international law and previous agreements, which prohibit Israel from using the Palestinian spectrum for its economic benefit. By contrast, Palestinian operators are prohibited from building ICT towers and switches in most of the West Bank, including areas that are supposed to be under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
As for Gaza, its telecom infrastructure is wholly dependent on Israel. The fiber optic cable that connects Gaza with the world goes through Israel. Gaza’s telecom structure has thus become a space of control and surveillance, as reflected in the calls and text messages that the Israeli military sent to Palestinians in Gaza during its military assault in 2014.
Palestinian investors are further restricted by an onerous process to import ICT equipment, including approval from the Israeli Ministry of Communications for each shipment, up to 30-day waits and delays for products listed as dual-use items.
The U.S. government and major American companies have made significant investments in recent years and remain key partners for ICT growth in the Palestinian territories. For example, from 2008 to 2012, Cisco invested $15 million to boost the Palestinian ICT industry, drawing the interest of other American companies — including Google, Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft. The U.S. State Department has sought to support this growing sector by facilitating partnership between U.S. companies and Palestinian ICT operators. However, such efforts will be wasted if basic ICT infrastructure is not unbound and expanded across the country.
But removing barriers to ICT growth should not be limited to simply greasing the wheels of the ICT sector to recoup lost revenue. Without full Palestinian control over the ICT infrastructure, any investment in the sector risks becoming a project to manage the occupation, rather than a catalyst for Palestinian economic growth.
The ICT sector is a key engine of development. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regularly touts the vitality of his country’s high-tech sector in positioning Israel as a major economic power and high-tech corridor. But in the occupied territories, the ICT industry serves as an example of the effect of Israel’s military occupation and asymmetrical relationship with the territories under its occupation.
By introducing 3G connections in the Palestinian territories, Netanyahu might be planning to revive his long-standing efforts to promote economic peace in lieu of a political settlement that would respect Palestinian rights. One thing is certain: The Palestinian economy has already paid a high price trying to harness the country’s economic resources. Israel must immediately lift its restrictions on Palestinians’ communications infrastructure and allow them to utilize their resources to their full potential.