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Occupation Apps

New applications and mobile services for Palestinians are being called liberatory. But they’re more a way for capitalists to profit from occupation.

Text “Q” to 37117 on a Jawwal mobile phone and you can get a brief update on the traffic conditions at the Qalandia checkpoint.

This sounds helpful enough, as Qalandia remains the busiest checkpoint in the West Bank, serving tens of thousands of Palestinians who must pass through it daily. The checkpoint was created in 2001, staffed 24/7 by the Israeli military starting in late 2002, and was redefined as a terminal in 2005.

As far as the military is concerned, the facility is a border crossing, which is obviously incongruous with the fact that Israel has yet to declare where any of its borders lie. Qalandia connects all of the central and northern West Bank — including cities like Ramallah and Nablus — to Jerusalem and other points in Israel. It does not, however, lie on any border. Qalandia sits on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, and separates Palestinians in the southern parts of the West Bank, in cities such as Bethlehem, Jericho, and Hebron, from areas farther north.

Qalandia forcefully deploys Israel’s security technologies. Entering through barricaded walkways, passing through remote-controlled turnstiles, scanning magnetic ID cards through machines, displaying paperwork across a one-way mirror, and passing one’s body and belongings through various detection machines: the interaction between Palestinian pedestrians and the Israeli military is almost entirely virtual and abstract. Communication takes place unidirectionally, over a loudspeaker.

It is slightly more personal for those going through by bus or private car: between remote-controlled barricades, razor-wire fences, and eight-foot-high metal doors built into the security barrier, there are opportunities to be questioned by soldiers, border patrol, police, and private guards.

The orderliness of “security” is met by a chaotic environment of honking, cursing, fisticuffs, street merchants selling their wares, bodies (mostly male) pressed up against each other and against metal fences, dust, used plastic cups, layers and layers of graffiti, pieces of walls and barricades and fences, cigarette butts, and exhaust.

So it’s helpful for Jawwal-equipped commuters to know whether it will take an hour or three to get through.

Technology pundits, entrepreneurs, and journalists praise technologies such as the Q service as liberatory for Palestinians. The Jawwal service is a latecomer to the game of mobile apps targeting Palestinians’ mobility.

In 2010, a text messaging service called ‘Ezma — Arabic for traffic jam — allowed cell phone users to send and receive messages about traffic conditions everywhere in the West Bank. An Uber-inspired application called Wasselni (“give me a ride” in Arabic) which allows people to find others to share a cab with, recently launched in the Gaza Strip. Q, offered by the first and largest Palestinian cellular provider, Jawwal (also the Arabic word for mobile phone), is simply targeting the niche market of the checkpoint.

It is a relative latecomer to that market; a Facebook group called Qalandia Conditions, launched in early 2012, relies on community members to share their traffic experiences and allows members to post updates, pictures, videos, jokes, and frustrations.

There are technological and economic differences between these initiatives. ‘Ezma is only available for cell phone users; Q only for those with a Jawwal phone. Wasselni is the outcome of Gaza Sky Geeks, an entity funded by various Western NGOs seeking to bolster the entrepreneurial tech spirit in the Gaza Strip.

‘Ezma, a for-profit business, was born at a Start Up Weekend organized by the Peres Center for Peace, which prides itself on bringing Israeli entrepreneurs and programmers together with a few chosen Palestinians to come up with “joint” ventures. Qalandia Conditions is a grassroots effort which seeks neither funding nor revenue.

There is no denying that all of them demonstrate Palestinians’ entrepreneurial spirit, reveal the wider diffusion of mobile technologies in society, speak to a desire for normalcy among Palestinians, and are examples of Palestinians’ creative attempts to deal with Israel’s control over their homeland.

Still, a text-message service created by Pal­estine’s largest telecommunications provider in order to profit from the need to pass through an Israeli military checkpoint inside the West Bank symbolizes both the possibilities and limitations of technological and economic innovation under occupation.

Controlled Mobility

The Qalandia checkpoint itself is one of the most telling outcomes of the US-sponsored “peace” process. It emerged at the tail end of the five-year interim period between the 1995 Oslo II Accords and the Second Intifada in late 2000. It is located in Oslo-defined “Area C” — the 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli military control and joint Israeli and Palestinian Authority civil control.

Fourteen years after its inception, Qalandia today is a physical testament to the severing of Palestinian territory, the ongoing presence of the Israeli military, and the failure of a two-state solution.

The checkpoint also represents Israel’s drive to “secure borders,” understood as the creation of secure borders rather than an agreement on where borders are. The difference is not just geopolitical or semantic, but technological as well. Israel’s success as a high-tech nation has been gained through the occupation.

Its security-surveillance-military products and services — from unmanned aerial drones to walls, from gamma ray detectors to cyber-checkpoints — are marketed and sold as effective in combating terror, securing borders, and engaging in urban warfare or cyber-surveillance because they have been tested and proven in the field against Palestinians.

Qalandia is a “smart” border, decked out with the latest Israeli-made military technologies that perniciously demonstrate new techniques of surveillance and produce new kinds of borders and spaces of control.

To be sure, spatial monitoring and population control have been central aspects of Israeli surveillance practices for decades. They are rooted in a history of governing subjugated populations in which the interaction between controller and controlled is increasingly mediated and abstracted, and where state violence shifts from direct infliction of bodily harm to concealed, sometimes “restrained” force. The checkpoint is not simply a moment of violence; it exists to disrupt everyday life. It is to this disruption that Q, Wasselni, ‘Ezma, and others are responding.

Telecommunications, and especially cellular telephony, are also products of foreign-brokered “peace” processes. The second round of the Oslo Accords, signed in 1995, specified the terms of a possible independent and sovereign communications infrastructure: Palestinians could build their own telecommunications network, but everything about its infrastructure would ultimately remain under Israeli control.

The Palestinian Authority sold the rights of telecommunications to the private sector, and the newly formed Paltel — and later its cellular subsidiary Jawwal — was billed as one of the first national firms. This rhetoric fit with various claims made by the PA, Israel, the US, and the EU that national institutions would lead to a nation-state. The birth of Jawwal and Paltel also demonstrate the ideological hold of a neoliberal political economy which does not challenge Israel’s economic power over Palestinians.

Israel maintained the power to determine what kind of equipment could be purchased, how much spectrum bandwidth would be provided, what area codes and access speeds would be allocated, how tall cellular and broadcasting transmission towers could be, and where infrastructure could be built, maintained, and accessed. The result was and continues to be a fractured infrastructure, limited in its technological capacity and dependent on the good graces of the occupation regime.

Israel’s digital controls in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip parallel the occupation’s materiality and provide a hint as to what Israel’s geopolitical objectives for the two territories may be.

With respect to Gaza, the digital landscape parallels Israel’s “disengagement.” Since the settlements were removed in summer 2005, Israeli providers do not offer service in Gaza anymore. But the infrastructure remains dependent on Israel’s: there is only one fiber-optic cable that connects the entirety of Gaza to the outside world, and it passes through and is controlled by Israel.

All telephone calls within the Gaza Strip, whether on landlines or cellular phones, are switched on routers physically located within Israel. Internet speeds are capped by Israel’s Ministry of Communications. The list of limitations goes on.

Since 2005, the Israeli military has also taken the liberty of bombing and destroying much of the Palestinian infrastructure. As demonstrated in the last military blitzes over Gaza, the fact that the Israeli military can interrupt signals, pinpoint the location of beaming signals, call specific numbers in any given location to “warn” of an impending bomb, and slow or halt Internet access is due to the fact that the entirety of the infrastructure is under Israeli control.

Compared to the Gaza Strip, the West Bank’s digital landscape is more fractured. Palestinians were given permission to build their own infrastructure in Area A and some of Area B, but always with strict limitations as to the kinds of technologies permissible. Only once, after years of negotiation, did Israel give permission to the Palestinians to erect a cellular antenna in Area C, for example.

As in Gaza, all West Bank telephone and Internet lines ultimately connect through Israeli routers for which Palestinian companies pay higher prices — called “termination charges” — than their Israeli counterparts. Jawwal was given spectrum allocation by the Israeli Ministry of Communications in 1998 to support 120,000 subscribers on a 1.5G network. Today, Jawwal boasts more than 2.5 million cellular users, but the infrastructural capacity of its network remains that of 120,000.

The overburdened network is operating on technologies more than fifteen years old: 2G and 3G are not permitted, which means that new mobile services such as financial applications (PayPal, online banking), mapping, and GPS are nonexistent. Pushed by the World Bank to liberalize its cellular market, the PA agreed in 2006 to allow a second cellular provider to operate in the Territories.

Wataniya negotiated with Israeli ministries for more than four years before it obtained spectrum allocation to operate in the West Bank, and only after Tony Blair’s involvement in his capacity as the Quartet’s Special Envoy was Wataniya eventually provided just enough spectrum to launch a basic 2G network. It is still waiting for permission to operate in the Gaza Strip.

There are numerous ways in which Israel holds back Palestinian telecommunications development, but spectrum allocation epitomizes the extent to which the underlying structure of Palestinian digital development has been stunted from its inception.

Neither cellular telephony, nor Wi-Fi, nor ambulance and police communications, for example, can exist without spectrum. Allocation must be adjusted for every new technology, from microwaves to handheld GPS devices. Spectrum allocation is also used as a negotiating tool: every time the Palestinian Authority has threatened moving forward with its International Criminal Court application, for example, Israel withholds the release of bandwidth.

Bandwidth is not an unlimited resource, but claims that Israel does not have enough to share with Palestinians are technologically erroneous. What does pose a bandwidth “problem” is that the four Israeli commercial cellular firms service almost the entirety of the West Bank.

In settlements, outposts, bypass roads, military installations, military-defined buffer zones, and locations all along the wall, among others, Israeli cellular towers beam strong signals (Israeli firms enjoy two thousand times more spectrum allocation than Jawwal and Wataniya combined, and are permitted to use all of the latest technologies more cheaply). In other words, from the depths of Ramallah and Nablus to the entirety of Area C, including the Qalandia checkpoint, one can receive signals from Pelephone, Cellcom, and Orange — the three largest Israeli cellular firms.

While the Israeli companies operate under the guise of providing service to settlers and the military, they also profit handsomely from the “no-cost” market of Palestinians. No extra investment is necessary to sell service to Palestinians, whether they purchase Israeli phones directly or by “roaming” on Israeli networks.

Roaming connotes movement across different (and arguably sovereign) spaces. It means you are no longer on your provider’s infrastructure but moving into another provider’s space, where service can only work if this provider has infrastructure and if your provider has an agreement to use the network.

In 2005, Jawwal and one of the Israeli providers, Orange, agreed that Jawwal could pay for and sell roaming privileges to its users, and thus “opened” access to much of the West Bank. In the meantime, the Israeli providers do not pay any taxes to the PA — as agreed in Oslo — for operating in Area C and much of Areas A and B. It’s a captive market in every sense of the word.

At the same time, entities such as the World Bank, the EU, and USAID continue to pressure Palestinians to liberalize their markets and open cellular telephony (among other industries) to foreign competition without tackling illegal Israeli competition or the underlying structures of uneven economic conditions.

For years, there was simply no telephone service in and around Qalandia. Given its location in Area C, the largest transportation hub in the West Bank is not part of the Palestinian telecommunications grid. Nearby Jawwal signals are not strong enough to reach the checkpoint, and Jawwal has no permission to build there. Only in the last few years have Israeli signals from nearby settlements become strong enough to reach the checkpoint. The ability to text Q on your Jawwal phone or to check in on the Facebook page requires you to use and pay for Israeli signals.

Jawwal’s Q service, ‘Ezma, Qalandia conditions, and others are all outcomes of Palestinians’ fragmented space and attempts to deal with the reality that Palestinian mobility is stunted. The for-profit examples are always supported, often behind the scenes, by foreign interests pushing to liberalize markets, increase Palestinian purchasing of European and American equipment, or support technological entrepreneurship.

Ironically, each of these examples speaks to a geographic need, and yet not a single one of them can offer, for example, mapping services. In other countries there is no need for Facebook groups or text-message services to gauge traffic, not only because there are no checkpoints, but because people have access to Google Maps, GPS navigation systems, or things like Waze, a community-based navigation and traffic application created in Israel.

Telecommunications permits Palestinians to communicate with each other and the world beyond their walls. It is an important aspect of Palestinian economic development and growth. In fact, the parent company Paltel contributes to at least 10 percent of the West Bank and Gaza’s GDP and 30 percent of the PA’s tax revenue.

But telecommunications is equally a means through which Israeli occupation continues — in dynamic and changing ways — as a form of control and surveillance. And, as Jawwal’s Q service and the Qalandia Conditions Facebook group both demonstrate, telecommunications ends up depending on the very conditions of spatial enclosure it attempts to negate. Jawwal and others seeking to profit from Palestinian imprisonment is representative of the modern political-economic conditions of the occupation.

There is nothing revolutionary about services that help you gauge traffic through a checkpoint: they only exist because of the checkpoint and Palestinian oppression. The Q service is also a testament to the field of economic possibility: profits are made on aspects of life dependent on and made desperate by the occupation.

Israeli firms are the ultimate profit-makers. Neither the NGO-driven for-profit startups nor the nonprofits challenge the macro structure of Israeli occupation, territorial expansion, and technological and economic superiority that relies on Palestinian containment and de-development.

This matrix has only deepened since the beginnings of the Oslo Accords and the various subsequent promises of peace supported by the US and the EU. The agreements established a customs union resulting in an absence of economic borders and thus preserved the uneven economic relations that already existed. Given this, most projects, whether for profit or not, never challenge the idea of a weak Palestinian economy integrated with and dependent on the Israeli economy.

Getting Where?

It’s been at least an hour since you first arrived; you have inhaled more than your fair share of carbon monoxide and dust. You have cursed every mother, father, and child passing by. It will still take you another half hour to get to the soldier, who may well force you to turn back without telling you why.

You text “Q” to 37117 on your Jawwal and receive a message that traffic is “light” today. Conditions are “normal.” You incur an SMS charge on your outdated phone, as well as a roaming fee. You can’t call your spouse to let them know you are late because as you inch your way to the checkpoint, the signal disappears.

You consider yourself lucky because your colleague who decided to take two cabs (one on each side) and pass through the terminal on foot is stuck in the remote-controlled turnstile. Poor bastard. Maybe he should have stayed home.