The communications revolution in the Palestinian territories
by Iain Guest, Georgetown University November 2004

The intifada has had a paradoxical impact on information and communications technology (ICT) in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT). On the one hand, the conflict has caused immense destruction. But on the other, it has produced huge demand for communications. This in turn has generated a mini-boom in the Palestinian ICT sector, even as the rest of the economy has collapsed. ICT is helping Palestinians to reduce the impact of the conflict in two distinct ways: it is providing a means for Palestinians to mitigate the effects of the physical fragmentation created by Israel’s ‘closure’ policy and the separation barrier; and it is helping to build the human, social and economic capital indispensable for any future Palestinian state.

The growth in ICT

In little more than a decade, the Palestinians have gone from total isolation to connection. In 1993, there were an estimated 90,000 telephone lines in the OPT. Today, there are 327,000. Palestinians have 750,000 mobile-phone accounts. Internet use has soared since the outbreak of the intifada in 2000, and an estimated 13% of Palestinians now regularly use the Internet.

The ICT infrastructure in the occupied Palestinian territory was put in place in 1995, as part of the Oslo Accords, which entrusted the new Palestinian Authority (PNA) with the task of providing over 95% of the Palestinian population with essential services. Taking advantage of generous tax breaks, a weak Ministry, and the lack of any central regulatory authority, a group of Palestinian private investors raised $65 million to form the Palestinian Telecommunications Corporation (Paltel). Paltel built a modern telecommunications infrastructure able to provide access to all of the familiar digital technologies – mobile phones, e-mail, Instant Messaging, Text Messaging (SMS) and video hook-ups. Meanwhile, universities began training Palestinians in the skills needed to adapt software to the Palestinian market, design websites and service computers.

This was encouraged by Israel. The Israeli government insisted on controlling all outgoing communications from the OPT, including uplinks to satellites and access to the World Wide Web. At the same time, Israel was content to see a strong indigenous Palestinian ICT sector. Israel’s own IT sector was booming, and Israeli companies were looking for skilled but low-cost workers. Several promising joint Israeli–Palestinian ventures were being developed when the intifada began.

Mitigating the impact of war

Palestinians are taking advantage of the features of ICT which make it such a powerful networking tool. Palestinian human rights groups are using mobile phones, e-mail, video cameras and walky-talkies to collect information from the Gaza Strip, which is increasingly inaccessible, and publish their information to the world through websites and e-mail newsletters. More and more Palestinians are using web diaries and weblogs (‘blogs’) as a form of personal therapy, to relieve the sense of isolation many feel.

Mobile phones have become a necessity rather than a luxury in a country where even ambulances and pregnant women can be delayed at roadblocks for hours, and suspects are summarily detained. Text-messaging (SMS) has also proven its value in circumstances where talking loudly on a mobile phone can attract unwelcome attention. (Some members of the International Solidarity Movement, which mounts non-violent protests against Israeli operations in the OPT, have used SMS to discreetly alert their base after being arrested.) In January 2003, video-conferencing enabled Palestinian legislators to talk face-to-face with the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw after the Israelis refused to allow them visas to travel to Britain for a meeting of the ‘Quartet’ (the UN, the US, the European Union and Russia).

ICT is also helping to build bridges between Palestinian and Israeli civil society. This has become increasingly important with the collapse of official contacts between the two governments, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s declaration in June 2004 that Israel has no peace partner on the Palestinian side. Two major civil society initiatives have been launched to show that this is not the case, and both are using ICT to communicate with each other and promote their message in Israel and the OPT. A quarter of a million Israelis have registered online for a six-point statement of principles, drawn up by the Palestinian president of Al-Quds university, Sari Nusseibeh, and Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Israeli intelligence service Shin Beit (see www.mifkad.org.il/en/principles.asp). In addition to building trust on both sides, and laying the basis for future political agreements, such Israeli–Palestinian initiatives are based on equality between the two sides. This differs from the Oslo model of ‘people-to-people’ projects, which were inspired by the prospect of donor funding, and often dominated by Israelis.

Palestinians have also used ICT to contact sympathisers in the Palestinian diaspora, in the international human rights community and even in the anti-globalisation movement (which has increasingly embraced the Palestinian cause). One of the most active groups is PENGON, a coalition of Palestinian environmentalists which puts out a weekly e-mail newsletter and runs a sophisticated website. PENGON has been able to attract a network of supporters in Europe for its Stop the Wall campaign (see www.stopthewall.org).

Laying the foundations for a Palestinian state

Palestinians have one of the highest literacy rates in the Arab world, but the intifada has taken a heavy toll on Palestinian schools, teachers, pupils and parents. Spurred on by a growing sense of national unease, the Palestinian Authority (PNA) and its donors are using ICT in an effort to restore standards. Computers are being introduced into every school, and 11 universities and technical colleges have introduced IT-related courses or departments.

This has led to several innovative experiments. A series of curfews in 2002 prevented students at Bir Zeit university from attending classes. The university’s computer centre worked around-the-clock to produce a new portal (‘Ritaj’) that allowed students to read class material, submit papers and communicate with professors – all online. Students were able to take exams, and the academic year was saved. Bir Zeit university has since used the Ritaj technology to improve several other aspects of its administration.

The Palestinian economy has been another beneficiary of the ICT boom. Although the IT sector directly produces only about 3,000 jobs, Paltel and its mobile-phone subsidiary Jawwal produced combined profits of $14m in 2003. The growing demand for electronic communications has also benefited Palestinian Internet Service Providers (there are 14 ISPs), software companies and hardware retailers. IT is one of the only sectors (along with NGOs) that has been creating jobs and offering a consistently good wage.

The threat to ICT

In short, ICT represents one of the very few hopeful developments in an otherwise hopeless situation. The question is whether this momentum can be maintained, because ICT is under pressure from many different sources, internal and external.

Since the outbreak of the intifada, Israel has discouraged joint ICT ventures and Israeli–Palestinian contacts. It has also restricted the Palestinians’ ability to update their technical infrastructure by holding up the delivery of new equipment. It is widely assumed that Israel is trying to create an opportunity for Israeli providers in the OPT, where – unlike in Israel – demand is still strong.

The second source of pressure comes from the weakness of the PNA. The minister responsible for ICT, Azzam Al-Ahmad, is struggling to develop a national ICT strategy and introduce measures to protect patents. Both are desperately needed. All foreign-made software in the OPT is pirated, discouraging would-be investors. No aid agencies are providing risk capital for ICT start-ups.

The profitable IT private sector is threatened by a serious internal dispute. In 1996, Paltel secured a ten-year monopoly from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, allowing it to charge several times more than Israeli firms for leased lines and dial-up connections. As a result, Palestinian ISPs are increasingly bypassing Paltel and setting up wireless connections to their clients from East Jerusalem (where they can open accounts directly with Israeli ISPs). Meanwhile, the digital gap is widening within the OPT. A survey of Ramallah and surrounding villages, conducted by the Palestinian NGO Panorama in June 2003, found that just 3.5% of people questioned in rural areas had access to the Internet, compared with 49.5% in town.

Whether the IT boom continues will depend on the ability of consumers to pay for it. More and more Palestinians have exhausted their savings, and visiting an internet cafe or buying a mobile phone may soon be viewed as an unaffordable luxury. Even now, the price of computers and a telephone connection is beyond the means of most Palestinians, particularly in rural areas.

Finally, there is the international community. Donors have provided roughly $1 billion a year to prop up the PNA and civil society since 2000, but they seem unable to understand the opportunity presented by ICT. No major bilateral or multilateral donor has an ICT policy specialist on its staff. There is no regular coordination between donors on ICT or ICT-related projects. Indeed, by providing project funding instead of institutional funds, donors are making it harder for NGOs to make effective use of ICT, which requires core funds to hire IT specialists to manage websites and build networks.

The outlines of a strategy

ICT is deeply, and probably irreversibly, integrated into Palestinian life. The question is whether it could be more effectively applied to addressing the challenge of building peace. The answer depends on usage and application. Innovative experiments like Bir Zeit’s web portal are ad hoc and not linked into any national strategy. The private sector, while profitable, seems indifferent to any larger responsibilities in a collapsing society. NGOs put up websites without having the skills to maintain them. Donors fund expensive computer centres in a village, and then realise too late that women and girls cannot visit them at night or travel to them from nearby villages, for security reasons. Internet cafes spring up, adding to the impression of a vibrant ICT sector, but much of the time is spent on video games and chatting. There is a clear place for virtual entertainment and communications in a beleaguered society, but the Internet can also help Palestinian communities to address serious social problems (like the growing incidence of incest), or generate income through micro-enterprise. Nobody learns from anyone else. No best practices are written up. No online courses are taught in how to surf the Web.

Like so much about Palestinian nation-building, the ICT experiment is driven by desperation rather than design. It need not be like this. If the Palestinians and their donors could develop a coherent, coordinated plan for ICT, this could provide a practical point of entry into many of the difficult challenges that lie ahead: strengthening the economy, increasing the efficiency and transparency of Palestinian civil society, building bridges between Israelis and Palestinians, developing a culture of law, attracting foreign investment and reviving community life in isolated rural villages. Taken together, as part of a national strategy, these steps could make a tangible difference, and even inject some optimism into the stalled peace process.


Iain Guest is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, Washington DC, and founder of the Advocacy Project (www.advocacynet.org). He is currently working on an extended report on the use of ICT in the occupied Palestinian territory, with funding from the US Institute of Peace. He can be contacted at iain@advocacynet.org.