Communications infrastructure in Palestine has become a tool of repression

Photo: Anna/Flickr

Passing the Qalandiya Checkpoint, Ramallah

In Qalandia Checkpoint, the largest Israeli military checkpoint in the occupied West Bank, there is no cell phone signal. Palestinian providers are not allowed to install equipment in its vicinity, and Israeli providers have little incentive to do so. The result is that Palestinians traveling through the checkpoint, a site of recurring human rights abuses, find themselves in what media researcher Helga Tawil Souri calls “a telephonic no-man’s-land.”

To understand this cellular no-man’s-land, it is necessary to understand that mechanisms under which mobile telephony operates involve infrastructure that is anything but mobile. A cellular network operates through two key components—mobile devices and fixed base antennas. In order to function, a given territory is divided into thousands of geographic “cells”, each equipped with a base station antenna, a physical installation that covers a limited range. The cells overlap to create what is commonly referred to as cellular coverage, and the mobile phone transmits and receives radio signals to and from the base site. In areas where there is no cellular overlap, typically due to physical barriers such as a mountainous terrain, coverage is interrupted and there is limited or no reception. Yet the existence of dead zones like Qalandia is the product of policy rather than topography, which raises important questions around the intersection of mobile technology and human rights. These dead zones bring to the fore issues of physical infrastructure, and the structural inequalities and vulnerabilities generated by infrastructure, particularly under military occupation.

Critical conversations on the human rights risks surrounding communications technology have encompassed issues as diverse as the human costs exacted along the smartphone supply chain, the perils of poorly thought out queer dating apps, issues of privacy rights and state surveillance. Yet more work needs to be done on the political, economic and human rights implications of the very control of cellular infrastructure in situations of occupation, including the potential for infrastructure to be weaponized by a belligerent occupying power and exploited in a captive, subjugated economy.

In the context of the occupied Palestinian territory, telecommunications infrastructure, though formally independent and controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Palestinian companies since 1995, remains occupied, its subjugation crafted into the economic protocols annexed to the Oslo Accords. Continued Israeli constraints on the bandwidth of microwave links mean that Paltel—the Palestine Telecommunication Company—is forced to route all calls between the West Bank and Gaza, and many intra-Gaza and West Bank calls, through Israeli providers. These providers collect a percentage surcharge on all interconnection revenues from calls between Palestinian landlines and cellular phones, as well as calls between cellular phones of Palestinian operators and Israeli operators. Israel prevents Paltel from operating its own international gateway, requiring that Palestinian operators go through an Israeli-registered company to access international links. Such practices generate easy profits to Israeli telecommunication corporations, who collect termination fees for both domestic and international calls.

The dependence of Palestinian infrastructure on the Israeli backbone for all internet, landline and cellular activity also endows the occupying power with massive surveillance abilities, abilities that can be used not only to circulate propaganda, but also to spy on the occupied population. Through its control over radio frequencies, the Israeli army is able to hack into, disrupt and cut off radio broadcasts. During the large-scale Israeli military assaults on Gaza in 2008-9 and 2014, it used this ability to call and text Gazans whose homes or neighborhoods were about to be bombed. Palestinian cyber space, in particular social media space, has also become increasingly surveilled, with tweets and Facebook posts serving as pretext for arrests by Israeli forces on both sides of the Green Line.

Israeli cellular corporations are able to exploit the dependency and de-development of the Palestinian telecommunications sector with zero accountability. Already present on the ground as service providers to illegal settlements, with hundreds of antennas littered throughout the West Bank, Israeli companies are well placed to absorb illicit traffic into their networks. Aided by an occupation architecture that favors hilltop outposts and military installations, Israeli cellular signals penetrate deep into Palestinian population centers. In fact, signals penetrate so deep that one wonders if the excessive deployment may be deliberate, as illicit access to the Palestinian market effectively subsidizes the installation and maintenance of telecommunications infrastructure in remote and sparsely populated settlements.

Thus, though formally prohibited from operating in the Palestinian market, unauthorized activity of Israeli cellular companies accounts for an estimated 20% to 40% of the Palestinian telecommunications market. In light of the restrictions imposed on Palestinian operators, including the inability to offer 4G (and until recently 3G) capabilities and comprehensive cellular coverage, these figures are hardly surprising. The World Bank estimated that in the period of 2013 to 2015, revenue loss for Palestinian mobile operators directly attributable to the absence of 3G was between $339 and $742 million US dollars. Additionally, as their activities are unauthorized, Israeli mobile operators do not pay licensing fees or taxes to the Palestinian Authority, citing issues of double taxation. Therefore, not a fraction of the sizable profits generated from Palestinian users makes its way back to the Palestinian economy.

Since the Israeli telecommunications sector is fully privatized, it is for-profit Israeli and international corporations such as the Netherlands-based Altice and the Israeli Bezeq that carry out the exploitation of the Palestinian telecommunications sphere and that reap the profits. In recent years, several prominent telecommunications companies have adopted Guiding Principles on freedom of expression and privacy, guided by the United Nations “Protect, Respect, and Remedy” business and human rights framework. In 2017, seven telecom corporations became members of the Global Network Initiative (GNI). While welcomed, such efforts need to be greatly expanded if they are to address human rights concerns that, like the ones detailed above, fall outside the scope of privacy rights and freedom of opinion. As long as communications corporations persist in neglecting their duty to respect human rights and international law and continue to operate in the framework of a belligerent and prolonged occupation, communications infrastructure will remain a vehicle of social control, economic exploitation and repression.


*This article is based on a recent report by Who Profits Research Center on telecommunications under the Israeli occupation. The full report can be found here.

*** This article is part of a series on technology and human rights co-sponsored with Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and University of Washington Rule of Law Initiative.