Light Up the West Bank

Want to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process? Start with 3G.


When international businessmen cross into the West Bank, they take out their passports, turn off their now-lifeless smartphones, and change their mindset from investment to assistance. The only parts of the Palestinian territories with reliable mobile coverage are in major cities or Israeli settlements; high-speed mobile Internet is all but nonexistent. So here’s an idea: Light up the West Bank with long-denied 3G wireless Internet connectivity and create an exception in the Arab League boycott of Israeli products for those that have Palestinian-controlled companies in their supply chains.

Without 3G — and the economic opportunities that come with it — the territories will likely continue their slide toward militancy. Last November, I visited the West Bank city of Hebron, where I encountered a joint Hamas-Fatah procession. Hundreds of Palestinian men paraded down the city’s main thoroughfare arm in arm, waiving Fatah’s flag alongside the trademark pennant of Hamas. This was an alarming development. The warming of historically hostile relations between Hamas and Fatah signals the increased militarization of Palestinian politics. Fatah is now a mainstream political party. Hamas, in contrast, remains a terrorist organization, regardless of its popularity and increasing reach into the political mainstream. It continues to conduct indiscriminate attacks, including mortar and rocket assaults against Israeli civilian targets.

While in the West Bank, I spoke at the Palestine Polytechnic University (PPU), which educates more than 5,000 Palestinian students every year in engineering, information technology, and computer science. After the requisite 20 minutes of listening to complaints about America’s recent vote against granting Palestine nonmember observer-state status — and implicit sovereignty — at the United Nations, the discussion turned to what could be done outside the realm of politics to make life better in the West Bank. At one point, a young woman raised her hand and said, "We must have a better economy to have better lives, and we must have 3G to have better a better economy." The auditorium erupted in loud applause. She had hit on one of the most pressing problems faced by Palestinians, day in and day out.

Third-generation (3G) mobile communications technology might seem like a frivolous luxury to some, but it is foundational for economic development. The Palestinian territories will not be able to compete and succeed in today’s technology-rich, knowledge-based economy without the basic infrastructure for participation — and that means access to mobile broadband. In low- and middle-income countries like the Palestinian territories, the World Bank has found that a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration translates into a 1.38 percent bump in the GDP growth. Access to 3G would have a very positive impact for the Palestinian information and communications technology sector, generating an additional $60 million annually in addition to the $150 million in new revenues for the Palestinian Authority.

There is also a security upside to wiring the West Bank with 3G. Among the root causes of terrorism, according to research from the International Center for Counter-Terrorism, are relative depravation and marginalization — both of which are fueled by stalled growth and unemployment. Take an example from the campus of PPU: In March 2003, a 20-year-old computer science student named Mahmoud Kawasme blew himself up on a bus in Haifa, Israel, killing 17 civilians and injuring another 53. Each year, 2,000 Palestinians graduate from local universities in technical subjects, but only about 30 percent of them find work in their fields. Radicalization and engineering skills are a nasty combination, so let’s help these young people find jobs.

Today, there are mobile companies ready to make 3G a reality in the Palestinian territories, but Israel has so far refused access to the necessary frequencies and imported equipment. Although some believe that Israel restricts access for security reasons, others argue that it wants to protect Israeli telecommunications companies or restrict the avenues through which Palestinians can share their narratives with the wider world. Still others believe that the Israeli government fears the empowerment that would come to Palestinian youth by virtue of their newfound connectedness. In other words, the holdup is political, not economic or technological. Restricting access not only costs the Palestinian Authority some $150 million annually in lost tax revenue, but it also stunts the growth of the Palestinian high-tech sector. Currently, the high-tech industry in the territories is forced to focus on low-end tasks like IT outsourcing. Without access to 3G, Palestinian start-ups cannot specialize in higher-value functions, such as software development.

But confidence-building measures should move in both directions. If Israel allows for 3G access in the Palestinian territories, then Arab states should relax their boycott of Israeli goods and make an exception for those that have Palestinian-controlled companies in their supply chains. Arab states should also allow their citizens to provide labor and services to those companies. If they need to slap a "Made in Palestine" sticker on the products, so be it.

Israeli entrepreneurs have succeeded despite their lack of access to neighboring markets and workforces, but there are no other examples of this level of economic success being achieved under similar conditions. The supply capacity developed through regional integration prepares countries to enter the global economy with strength. And lest the Arab states think they would be handing Israel an outsized concession, they should remember that their own workforces would benefit from access to the supply chains of high-end Israeli tech firms. The simple fact is that Arab countries are not producing high-value technology products and services on a scale that even remotely rivals Israel’s success. Arab countries need the jobs, and they could stand to learn a thing or two about technology-driven entrepreneurship from Israel, whether they want to admit it or not.

Providing 3G access to the Palestinian territories is just one example of the type of concrete actions that Israelis, Palestinians, and third-party actors should be promoting. To overcome the region’s hardened cynicism, Israelis and Palestinians need to see real progress that makes their day-to-day lives better — even if only incrementally. The simple things that can be done today may do more than anything else to help achieve the lofty goals of tomorrow.

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