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Last update - 02:31 31/05/2007
Holding on tight to the frequencies
By Amira Hass
The air is one escape route from the roadblocks and the separation regime that Israel imposes on the Palestinians. But Israel catches up with them even in the air. Israel does not allocate cellular frequencies to the Palestinians that answer their modern technological, economic, social and personal needs. More precisely, Israel refuses to coordinate with the Palestinians so they can use the cellcom frequencies they should have according to the International Telecommunications Union.
The Communications Ministry claims there is no coordination because we are not speaking to the Hamas government. A convenient excuse, but flawed, because even before the Hamas government arose, Palestinian requests to coordinate additional frequencies went unanswered. The Palestinian cellphone company Jawwal received the frequencies it should have had only in 1999, two years after it was founded. In March this year, Jawwal got a competitor: Al-Wataniya. The Kuwaiti company Wataniya International won the Palestinian Authority tender at the end of 2006. Ownership is to be shared between the international company, the Palestinian Investment Fund (PIF) and the public. A professional British management team was appointed, 500 jobs were promised, but no frequencies were allocated.
The importance of the air is reflected in the following data: Jawwal has about 800,000 subscribers, about 60 percent of the Palestinian cellphone market. Economists estimate that Israeli companies have about a 40-percent share of the market. The approximately 4 million Palestinians have more than 1.3 million cellphones. Some people have two - a Palestinian one and an Israeli one. The Palestinians come in third in the Arab world in the number of people connected to the fast data transmission system ADSL. They are also frequent users of video-conferencing services at their parliament - the Palestinian Legislative Council - at government ministries and at private businesses.
That is how they overcome the severing of Gaza from the West Bank and the roadblocks between Jenin and Ramallah. Families who live a few dozen kilometers apart and who have not seen each other for five years or more have learned how to make do with phones, Skype, and e-mails. No wonder Paltel (the Palestinian telecoms company, of which Jawwal is a subsidiary) is the most profitable Palestinian firm.
Dozens of requests for operating permits for Internet and information technology companies lie on the desk of the deputy Palestinian communications minister, Suleiman Zuhairi, who has been working at the ministry since its establishment in 1994. He cannot approve them because of the lack of frequencies.
The geopolitical reality of the multiplied "borders" between the Palestinian enclaves, on the one hand, and area C (of full Israeli control) and the settlements - which comprise 60 percent of the West Bank - requires maximum coordination between Israel and the PA. As long as Israel does not agree to coordinate the distribution and use of frequencies, it will be impossible to install proper equipment in C areas. That is the reason that even the development of landline infrastructure is limited. No private company will risk installing equipment in C areas lest the Civil Administration's supervisors and the Israel Defense Forces bulldozers pounce on it and destroy it.
Although the Israeli Communications Ministry denies any connection with this matter, the non-allocation of frequencies to Palestinians serves the Israeli companies that compete with Jawwal on terms favorable to them. (They do not pay taxes to the PA, although the cellular phones are being used in the Palestinian territories.)
The non-allocation of frequencies is another front in the economic war Israel is waging against the Palestinians. It means a direct loss of income, of jobs, and the blocking of the desire to develop economic niches, which by making use of the air, could overcome the earthen roadblocks and apartheid roads.
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