A Slow Boat to Fast Data: Why is Palestine Still Waiting for 3G?
Good news for Palestinians: According to several August news reports,
a 3G mobile network might be finally coming their way. After years of
struggling with 2G speeds, the Israeli government and the Palestinian
Authority are reported to have come to an agreement that would result in
Israel releasing the frequencies required for 3G and possibly 4G
As documented by a new report
on the country’s telecommunications industry by the Palestinian think
tank, Al Shabaka, that speed upgrade has been a long time coming. The
Oslo Accords, the agreement struck between Israel and the Palestine
Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1995, settled that Palestinians should
have their own telephone, radio and TV networks, but handed over the
details of that to a joint technical committee. As detailed in the
Accords, Israel would control all allocation of frequencies and
determine where Palestinians could build new infrastructure. Israel
consistently foot-dragged since then, delaying Palestinian telcos the
ability to upgrade their networks, or share the radio spectrum with
Israeli services and companies.
result is an infamously slow phone network, roundly blamed on the
political conflict between the two countries. Palestinians say that
they’re the only country without access to 3G, and when President Obama
visited the state in 2013, he was greeted by activists’ placards telling
him to leave his smartphone at home. But Palestine’s data lines are not
only slower and more poorly supported than those of its neighbors;
they’re also the worst-case scenario for digital privacy in a
centralized and state-managed telecommunications infrastructure.
to the Internet shouldn’t be a bargaining chip in geopolitical
battles—and neither should privacy. As the Palestinian government and
telcos negotiate for their new 3G network, they need to actively address
the security of their users’ communications.
We know that telcos
can end up compromising their users’ privacy by making secret deals with
the government. In the United States, AT&T and others agreed for
years to unlawfully hand over data to the government after pressure was
applied. Other countries seek and obtain undisclosed access
to telecommunications cables. In Palestine, the telecommunication
companies are just as dependent on the government for the existence and
economic success of their network. But in this case, the government in
question is Israel, a state with a different electorate, radically
different political motives, and with both the motive and capability to
peer into the contents of the users of those companies’ communication
Palestinian vs. Israeli Telcos in the Territories
Palestine and Israel’s ICT infrastructure are deeply intertwined.
All international traffic must be routed through Israeli providers,
with Palestinian companies paying connection and termination fees to
them. Most infrastructure is only permitted within the small area of the
West Bank that is theoretically (but not practically) under full
Palestinian Authority control and, under the terms of the Oslo Accords,
is additionally restricted from Israeli-defined buffer zones and along
the separation wall.
Internet traffic thus relies on a fragmented, dependent infrastructure.
Palestinian phone calls and data traffic go through Israeli companies,
onto Israeli soil, and with Israeli security and law enforcement access.
Israel probably has a better insight into the movements of Palestinians
than their own government does. Asserting the privacy of their
communications would be extremely difficult for Palestinians, who have
minimal access or redress under Israel’s judicial and administrative
The problem becomes more acute in the mobile market.
According to 2013 data from the International Telecommunications Union
(ITU), nearly 74% of Palestinians living in the West Bank or Gaza have a
mobile cellular subscription, a rate on par with Palestine’s neighbors.
Like the rest of Palestine’s infrastructure, mobile telephony is
controlled by Israel—including spectrum allocation.
Israel licensed access to 4.8 MHz in the 900 MHz band to Jawwal, a
subsidiary of Palestine Telecom (PalTel), the national telecom provider
in the West Bank. According to Al Shabaka’s report, Jawwal still retains
the same access, but for more than 2.5 million subscribers compared to
only 120,000 in 1999. Palestine’s secondary provider, Wataniya—which
only operates in the West Bank—was also granted non-exclusive 2G
frequencies in 2007.
Meanwhile, Israeli mobile operators have had
access to 3G frequencies for several years now. In January 2015, the
government of Israel awarded six companies 4G mobile broadband frequencies
in the 1800 MHz band, at the same time as it was continuing to argue
over sharing 3G bands with the Palestinian authorities. Israeli
companies, with faster connectivity, operate cell towers in settlements
throughout the West Bank. And these operators sell SIM cards in the West
Bank without paying licensing fees or taxes to the local authorities,
as required by the Oslo Accords.
This domination of spectrum and the market for Palestinians allows Israel a greater level of control over Gaza’s telecommunications, as evidenced by the calls and text messages sent by the Israeli military to Gaza’s citizens during its 2014 assault on the territory.
The State of Phone Surveillance in the Territories
that Palestine’s telcos are locked down to basic 2G, Israel may also
have interception access even to those who use only Palestine’s own
telecommunications companies. Earlier generations of tech are more
vulnerable to being tapped by parties with no access to the underlying
infrastructure. The encryption used to protect over-the-air
transmissions by current 2G Palestinian mobiles has long been broken. That means that it’s possible to listen into and decode 2G phone signals with the right receiving equipment and software—technology that is developed and sold by Israeli
companies. Civilian researchers believe that 3G and 4G systems are
safer from passive surveillance. Mobile phone spying technology (like Stingrays or other IMSI catchers)
work by forcing cellphones into their more vulnerable 2G mode, but that
requires transmitters that actively communicate with the cellphone,
which can be detected or blocked.
Is this why Israel has been so
determined to stop Palestinians from upgrading their phones? With the
current status quo, Israeli authorities can surveil and eavesdrop (or
potentially mass send everyone their own text messages) on traffic
coming over Israeli companies’ networks. And if they feel the need to
see what’s going on in Palestinian networks, they can passively monitor
the 2G systems without detection.
To continue that level of
surveillance on an upgraded 3G network run by Palestinian companies,
Israel will have to either ensure that it can continue to tap into the
network backbone those companies use, or use more detectable active
surveillance technology like IMSI catchers. Active surveillance would be
detectable: it would also be a violation of the Oslo accords, which
declare that both sides “shall refrain from any action that interferes
with the communication and broadcasting systems and infrastructures of
the other side.”
Back room deals for phone back doors?
authorities have many reasons for re-establishing control of their
telecommunication network back from the Israelis. For one, it was
promised to them in the Oslo Accords. For another, the lack of a decent
infrastructure remains a profound limitation the opportunity for digital
development and innovation in the Territories. It is also losing them a
considerable amount of money in tax revenue.
In contravention of
the accords, Israeli companies selling digital services in Palestine pay
no taxes. According to Al Shabaka’s report,
it is estimated that Palestinian operators lose $80 to $100 million in
annual revenue as a result of the lack of 3G services. Similarly, a 2008
World Bank report cites the loss in revenue to the Palestinian
Authority as a result of unlicensed Israeli operators to be $60 million
[PDF]. Wataniya, one of the private Palestinian mobile operators, paid
the Palestinian Ministry of Telecommunications and Information
Technology $140M for a 3G contract that it still cannot deploy.
these supposedly independent Palestine-based telecommunication
companies are heavily dependent on Israel’s co-operation to operate at
all. Their traffic needs to pass through Israeli territory to reach Gaza
and the West Bank or beyond. (All of Gaza’s access points are located
within Israel, meaning that all mobile and landline traffic from Gaza must pass through Israel [PDF].)
an already heavily controlled environment, with money on the line,
Palestinian telcos may agree to leave those links unencrypted or
otherwise accessible. Even the Palestinian government may see limited
harm in conceding continuing Israeli data access in return for greater
revenue and their own political control of the networks. It’s notable
that in the current round of agreements, neither the Palestinian nor Israeli
representatives were willing to discuss the compromises they have
struck to move the 3G agreement forward. That’s not a result that should
But for Palestinians, that means that a
long-awaited increase in speed won’t give them any more security from
monitoring—surveillance by any of the many powers, Israeli, Palestine or
others that seek to control their fundamental right to communicate.
They will finally enter the future of faster connectivity promised to
them by the Oslo accords, but remain vulnerable to surveillance by two
What might improve
communications privacy for Palestine? Upgrading to 3G will certainly
help: their current national networks are slow and simple to intercept,
while faster networks operated by Israeli companies are vulnerable to
Israeli surveillance. But 3G doesn’t guarantee privacy.
current negotiators need to push for commitments that protect civilian
privacy: strong and actively enforced legal safeguards for Palestinian
authority access to communications, and secured and encrypted
connections when infrastructure passes out of Palestinian control.
needs more direct links to the rest of the world. Both the Palestinian
government and Israel have security needs, but neither should sacrifice
the economic benefits of a fast and well-connected data network to those
Palestinians could also work to build networks that
work for them, rather than the negotiated settlement of current Israeli
and Palestinian authorities. Al Shabaka’s report suggests that local
municipalities could work to provide Wi-Fi links in their own areas, and
link those with microwave and fiber to the end-points of their choice.
That’s the kind of flexible, decentralized and user-driven network that
could take issues of fast, universal access and privacy out of the hands
of warring politicians and foreign companies, and into the hands of
those most affected by Palestine’s current slow and surveillable mobile
market: its citizens.