Palestinians have restricted access to inter-settlement roads, shown here in red. Roads inaccessible to Palestinians are shown in yellow.

Settlements and cell phone coverage in the West Bank

Israeli settlements within the West Bank are connected by a highly regulated road system. Palestinians are unable to access some roads within the West Bank, and forced through checkpoints on many others. The International Court of Justice concluded in 2004 that “Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (including East Jerusalem) have been established in breach of international law.” An independent UN inquiry has also called for a halt to all settlement activity due to resulting human rights violations in the region.

Above is a screenshot taken from opensignal.com on 7 March, 2013. Opensignal crowd sources its data via an Android app, and currently does not seem to have data from Palestinian cell providers. Regardless of real accuracy with regards to signal coverage, the map clearly shows the regions people are more likely to have a smartphone.

The establishment of the settlements in the West Bank including East Jerusalem is a mesh of construction and infrastructure leading to a creeping annexation that prevents the establishment of a contiguous and viable Palestinian State and undermines the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. — UN HRC Report

Pockets of mobile phone coverage within the West Bank highlight settlement geography — the only parts of the West Bank with strong coverage are within those Israeli settlements or big cities.

In recent years, the Palestinian Authority has sought to improve mobile services, but progress has been slow. Hangups are due to the existing means of control and authority Israel has over the West Bank. Segregation inherent in the establishment of settlements has created a wide spectrum of consequences, and the problems arising with mobile service illustrate how the system is rigged up with so much red tape that no progress can be made without Israel’s explicit approval. State department cables released by WikiLeaks reveal the inner workings behind these systematic road blocks; we therefore approach the topic as a case study in the effects of Israeli control on the (perhaps rather mundane, but crucial nonetheless to everyday life) quality and improvement of mobile communications in Palestine.

Political complications

Before 2006 the only cellular provider operating in Gaza and the West Bank was Jawwal, a subsidiary of the largest private sector organization in Palestine, the Paltel Group. Outside of major cities in the West Bank, many obtained mobile phone coverage by purchasing unlicensed service from Israeli providers. As a 2010 US embassy cable noted, “private sector contacts carry two phones: one Palestinian and one Israeli. They confirm that it is more cost-effective for them to use their Israeli phones in many areas inside the West Bank,” due to roaming charges incurred whenever Palestinian coverage is not adequate within the West Bank.

On March 28 2006, the Palestinian Authority solicited bids for a 2nd mobile operator. Outgoing Palestinian Authority Minister of Telecommunications Sabri Saidam predicted that the 2nd mobile operator would be established “bukra fil mish-mish,” an Arabic idiom (literally, “[tomorrow] morning with apricots”) meaning “probably never.”  The bid was granted six months later to the Kuwaiti company Wataniya, but complications soon arose.

Earlier in January 2006, Hamas had swept legislative elections, winning 76 of 132 Parliamentary seats. US and Israeli officials were shocked by the results, as both countries had declared Hamas a terrorist organization. Dissatisfaction with Hamas’ influence eventually resulted in violence, dubbed the Fatah-Hamas conflict. A US State Department cable reported that Hamas’ influence was a “significant reason for the [government of Israel] not to issue the requested frequency” to Wataniya in 2006.

Fighting only ended after President Abbas dissolved the democratically elected legislature and dismissed Prime Minister Ismail Haniya in June 2007. Thereafter, Fatah gained control of the West Bank under Western approval, and Abbas appointed Salam Fayyad as new Prime Minister. In July 2007 US Consul General Jake Walles commented that the USD 355 million licensing fees Wataniya would pay the Palestinian Authority would help strengthen the newly formed West Bank government, providing “a significant revenue boost…create technical and service jobs, and end the de facto mobile telecom monopoly currently enjoyed by Paltel-owned Jawwal.”

However, by 2008, Wataniya was still struggling to proceed with operations in the West Bank.  Speaking with US officials, Wataniya’s CEO Allan Richardson warned “that the failure of Wataniya to get up and running in the West Bank would cast a real shadow over efforts to spur foreign investment in the West Bank.”

Cellular frequency allocation

The Palestinian Ministry of Telecom and Information Technology is responsible for allocating frequencies in the West Bank, and must negotiate with Israel to claim appropriate frequencies for a new provider to broadcast mobile traffic over.

However, it is apparent in the cables that “negotiations” in this case are really in the hands of the Israeli government. In March 2007, a policy adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Negotiations Support Unit suggested to US officials that Israel’s “refusal to allocate mobile frequencies is an attempt to protect Israeli mobile operators who provide unlicensed cellular services in the [West Bank/Gaza].” Such unlicensed service would clearly be feasible amongst the patchwork settlements with good cellular coverage in the West Bank.

Ultimately, Wataniya only obtains a fraction of the spectrum they requested in 29 July 2008, even though three months beforehand, the government of Israel had already allocated more frequency to Jawaal, giving them a competitive edge.

However, in April 2009, a US State Department cable reports that Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Fayyad said “he had secured and then lost agreement with the [government of Israel] to release the necessary spectrum in the 1800 band to allow Wataniya to launch.” In addition, he “claimed to need [Israeli Defense Forces] permission before agreeing on the release.”

Wataniya finally launched with limited spectrum in early 2010.

Cell tower construction restrictions

A month after Wataniya’s launch, Wataniya’s CEO Allan Richardson told US officials that

“coverage remains weak to non-existent between cities due to Wataniya’s inability to secure any permits to build towers in Area C. Wataniya, like most other [information and communications technology] companies, also continues to face difficulties and delays clearing equipment, such as base stations and transmitters, into the West Bank.”

Area C covers 60 percent of the West Bank, and is under full control of Israel with regards to security, planning, and construction. During its operations, Jawaal has regularly faced six to 18 month customs delays due to Israel customs inspections.

In another 2010 cable Council General Daniel Rubinstein states:

“The two Palestinian mobile telephone operators (Jawwal and Wataniya) say they continue to struggle with lack of coverage throughout the West Bank, penetration of Israeli settlement-based cellular networks into Palestinian urban areas, and small frequency allotments compared to those of their Israeli competitors…The [government of Israel] has not approved an Area C permit for cellular operators since 1999, according to Jawwal.”

In the same cable, Wataniya engineer Jamal Yassen told US officials “that they had received an order to freeze all applications for building sites in Area C for Palestinian and Israeli operators as part of the [government of Israel's] freeze on residential construction in West Bank settlements.”

The irony of Yassen’s claim is that the settlement construction freeze was supposedly a peace offering to Palestinians in preparation for beginning peace talks. Instead, it appears here as an excuse for prevention of construction in Area C of the West Bank, outside of Israeli settlement area.

Construction restrictions are only one example of the control mechanisms in place. Coupled with political concerns and delays in frequency allocation, it took four years for Wataniya to launch and obtain limited success in providing services.

Wataniya’s progress in 2012

In February 2013, Wataniya Palestine Mobile released its annual report for 2012. Media coverage of the report emphasized that the company had improved its net losses to USD 23.8 million, a 9% increase from its 2011 USD 26.2 million loss. Wataniya CEO Fayez Husseini said he hoped they would be able to expand to Gaza in 2013.

Research tools

This article was put together through use of

The interactive Cableweaver graph contains selected cables to make up the larger circles of the graph. Arrows are pointing to older referenced cables.

For more information and background on the process of creating this piece, see: http://thedod.github.com/cableweaving/fil-mish-mish.html

Update on 20 March 2013 (with thanks to par):

In protest to President Obama’s trip to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan from 19-23 March, signs along the streets of Ramallah read:

Dear Barack Obama: Don’t Bring Your Smart Phone to Ramallah. You won’t have mobile access to the Internet.

We have no 3G in Palestine!

USA Today reports that Palestinians are pessimistic that Obama’s visit will lead to any improvement in their lives.