Israel’s decision to expand the coverage of its cellular phone network, to include most of the West Bank, is a blow to Palestinian telecommunications companies that may threaten their existence, according to experts.
According to Palestinian figures related to the telecommunications sector, the expansion of communication networks within the occupied territories by the occupation authorities is taking place at a time when Palestinian networks are being prevented from developing their capabilities.
Palestinians in the Gaza Strip still use the second generation of telecommunications services, while Palestinians in the West Bank switched to third-generation services in 2018, and existing companies are prevented from developing their services and moving to the fourth and fifth generations.
There are two mobile phone companies operating in the Occupied Palestinian Authority, which are “Jawwal” and “Ooredoo”, and one company for landlines, the “Palestinian Telecommunications Company”.
And on Sunday, February 14, Benny Gantz, the Israeli Minister of Defense and Communications, decided to allow Israeli cellular companies to expand their coverage of the fourth generation network, to include 95% of the occupied West Bank, from 75% now.
Last October, the former Israeli Minister of Communications, Yoaz Hendel, granted the land-based telecommunications company “Bezeq” (pezeq) a license to operate fully in the West Bank.
According to recent estimates by organizations concerned with the settlement file, the number of settlers in the West Bank exceeds 470,000, and the occupation authorities have invoked their service to expand their network, and these data do not include more than 220,000 settlers in the settlements built on the lands of East Jerusalem.
Palestine has been complaining for years about the illegal work of Israeli cellular communication companies inside the West Bank, which inflicts heavy losses on the Palestinian telecommunications sector.
Many Palestinians in the West Bank use Israeli cellular communication networks due to their development, but the Palestinian Authority prohibits the circulation of its SIM cards and pursues those who trade in them.
According to the data of the Palestinian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology until October 2020, Israel is deploying 560 communications towers in the West Bank, most of them in Area C classified according to the Oslo Agreement (1995), estimated at 61% of the West Bank area, and is subject to full Israeli control. .
The Oslo Agreement, signed between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel, regulates the telecommunications sector, but requires Israel’s approval of any steps or agreements with regard to the Palestinian telecommunications sector, and it also gives Israel the right to manage the frequency spectrum.
There are no recent data on the number of Palestinians who use Israeli telecommunications networks, and the size of Palestinian losses as a result of the invasion of Israeli companies, but data published by the World Bank years ago estimated it at about one billion and 100 million dollars.
And in 2018, an official document obtained by Anatolia revealed the existence of 8 Israeli communication networks operating illegally in the Palestinian territories.
The document – which was distributed on the sidelines of the “Expotech Palestine 2018” conference – expected that the number of users of the Israeli segments (Palestinians) would reach one million users in 2020, and at that time the amount that users of these segments would pay to Israeli companies annually was about $ 100 million.
Undermining the Quartet’s efforts
Ishaq Sidr, the Palestinian Minister of Communications and Information Technology, says that the Israeli decision contravenes international and commercial laws, not just those that regulate the issue of communications and frequencies.
Sidr added – in an interview with Anadolu Agency – that Israel prevents the Palestinians from developing the telecommunications sector, and deprives them of the frequencies needed to operate the fourth and fifth generations, and added that frequencies, like any other natural resource, are the right of the Palestinian people, guaranteed by international conventions, treaties and UN resolutions.
He pointed to submitting complaints regarding the Israeli decision to international bodies, most notably the International Telecommunication Union and the International Quartet Committee (which includes Washington, Moscow, the United Nations and the European Union), and confirmed that the Palestinian movement towards international courts to prosecute Israel for its actions has begun.
The minister revealed that the Israeli decision came to block the efforts made by the International Quartet to determine the Palestinian market’s needs for frequencies.
He said that a neutral company commissioned by the international quartet, last May, completed its study of the frequencies needed to operate the fourth and fifth generation, and presented it to international bodies.
He added that the Israeli move aims to occupy the frequencies, block the attempts to allocate the required frequencies to the Palestinians, claiming that they are busy, and then stop the efforts of the international Quartet.
For his part, Ammar Al-Aker, CEO of the Palestinian Communications Group, which includes the “Jawwal” cellular communications company, sees the Israeli decision as a strategic threat and a technical invasion of the Palestinian areas.
He added – in his speech to Anadolu Agency – that work is underway with the Palestinian Authority and private companies, in international forums, to pressure Israel, so that Palestinian companies can be technically competitive with Israeli companies.
He points out that the Israeli competition is not new, as Israeli companies are always technically advanced, work without fees or licenses, and do not pay taxes to the Palestinian Authority, but rather receive incentives from the Israeli government to work in the West Bank, and he indicated that there is a tendency to fight the Israeli decision in international forums.
He said that the private sector, in cooperation with the Ministry of Post, Communications and Information Technology, published a press release on the recent occupation measures in the US media.
Al-Aker is looking forward to the intervention of the new US administration to dissuade Israel from its decision, on the one hand, and to help the Palestinians obtain the frequencies for the fourth and fifth generations, on the other hand.
He explained that the administration of former US President Barack Obama, of which the current President Joe Biden was a part, is the one that helped Palestinians obtain third-generation services (only in the West Bank without the Gaza Strip), and is relying on them to develop the capabilities of Palestinian networks.
Limited ability to compete
For his part, Ibrahim Jafal, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Federation of Palestinian Communications and Information Technology Companies “Beta”, said that the ability of Palestinian companies to compete with Israeli companies is very limited due to their limited capabilities and Israeli restrictions.
The Palestinian expert expected a decline in Palestinian company sales and possibly layoffs, a decline in tax payments to the government, and other economic consequences, in the event that Israel implements its plan, and the Palestinian user switches to its networks.
He added that tens of millions will be lost by Palestinian companies annually, and we may witness the collapse of these companies due to their weak ability to compete.
According to data from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the percentage of Palestinian families that have a smartphone is 97.3%.