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West Bank telecom authorities flounder in flood of Israeli phone tech

Increasing numbers of Palestinians are using Israeli SIM cards for better cellular service despite their illegality, and the West Bank's economy and security are paying the price.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Hundreds of contraband Israeli SIM cards have been seized at the Palestinian border in the past three months. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Customs Police announced Oct. 8 that it had seized 110 cards in Jericho, south of the West Bank. On Oct. 5, 380 cards were seized in Hebron. On Sept. 24, 200 cards were seized in Nablus in the north. The biggest seizure took place Aug. 20, when 2,200 SIM cards and prepaid-phone cards were confiscated in Nablus.

The use of Israeli SIM cards in the Palestinian territory has increased due to the technology gap with neighboring countries, as Israel dominates communications. While Israeli companies provide 4G services to their customers, Palestinian companies only provide 2G services.

The Ministry of Telecommunications prohibits the sale of settlement products, including cellphones and services, in the Palestinian markets. Israeli communications companies provide services to Israeli settlers, so their signal booster towers are installed in the West Bank settlements.

On April 6, the Palestinian attorney general warned all shops and communication service points that possession or circulation of Israeli SIM cards is a crime under Palestinian law.

Deputy Minister of Communications and Information Technology Suleiman Zuhairi told Al-Monitor, “The use of Israeli SIM cards is significantly increasing due to the siege on the communications sector, which deprives us of the advanced technology and services that Israeli companies provide and cannot be compared with the services provided by the Palestinian companies. This has resulted in a black market for Israeli SIM cards.”

Palestinians obtain SIM cards from various sources. Zuhairi explained, “Tens of thousands of Palestinian workers who work within the Green Line can easily buy the cards. In Area C, the cards are smuggled and sold in shops and in streets, taking advantage of the Palestinian security apparatus' inability to reach them, as the area is under Israeli control.”

Zuhairi said, “There aren’t any reliable figures on the number of Israeli cards [in illicit circulation], but according to our estimates, there’s about half a million,” an estimate close to that of the Palestinian Telecommunications Group. CEO Ammar al-Eker told Al-Monitor, “Our estimates indicate that there are about 450,000 cards, compared to 150,000 in 2014. This means that the number has tripled in three years.”

Palestinian officials hope that the advent of 3G services to the West Bank will reduce the problem. “Launching 3G services soon, in addition to lowering the telecommunications rates in Palestine to a level affordable by citizens, will motivate many people to let go of their Israeli cards,” Zuhairi added.

The use of Israeli cards is costing the Palestinian economy, since Israeli companies that profit from the Palestinian market and compete with Palestinian companies in their own cities do not pay licensing fees or taxes to the Palestinian treasury.

An early 2016 World Bank report estimated that the cellphone sector in the Palestinian territories incurred between $436 million and $1.2 billion in losses due to Israeli restrictions over 2013-2015. Unlicensed Israeli operators control more than 20% of the West Bank market, while telecommunications companies in Palestine are unable to operate in 60% of the West Bank territories that fall under Israel’s control (Area C), according to the World Bank report.

Palestinians hope that the agreement with Israel, signed in April, according to which Israel will allow Palestinian cellphone companies to provide 3G services, will help. “We hope that the provision of 3G services helps reduce the number of Israeli SIM cards used in Palestinian territories. We are still installing stations. We have installed 250 sites out of a thousand, due to Israel’s delay in allowing equipment into the stations,” Eker added.

Asked about the role of Palestinian regulatory agencies in combatting Israeli cards, Eker said, “The regulatory agencies are making efforts in this regard, but they need to do more and the judiciary should prosecute card smugglers who have operated with impunity." 

“There is a law prohibiting the sale of Israeli cards, as they are unlicensed by Palestine and don’t have distributors, commercial agents or signal towers in the West Bank. Whatever is seized or confiscated is referred to the Ministry of Telecommunications to take the appropriate legal measures,” Luai Bani Odeh, head of public relations for the customs police, told Al-Monitor.

Bani Odeh explained that more than 4,710 Israeli cards have been seized from early 2017 through the end of September.

Bani Odeh warned against the danger of Israeli SIM cards, saying, “Israeli cards are used when committing criminal offenses such as theft and drug distribution, as they cannot be tracked by Palestinian [security] services, unlike Palestinian SIM cards. Palestinian numbers can be tracked through the attorney general, who notifies the company.”

The advent of 3G services in the Palestinian territories will not immediately end the use of Israeli SIM cards, but it will be a step forward for Palestinians

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