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Why do Palestinians opt for Israeli SIM cards?

Due to the poor quality of Palestinian cellular companies that are crippled by Israeli restrictions, Palestinians in the West Bank are opting for Israeli SIM cards provided by illegal Israeli mobile network operators.

After signing the 1995 Oslo II agreement, Israel handed over the responsibilities of the Palestinian telecommunications infrastructure to the Palestinian Authority (PA) but granted itself total control of the Palestinian frequency spectrum in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Palestinians have repeatedly asked for the termination of this agreement, which was supposed to expire in 1999, but an Israeli approval remains in order.

Al-Monitor secured a copy of a Sept. 25 document published by Paltel Group, the largest Palestinian telecommunications company. According to the document, eight Israeli cellular companies currently operate illegally in the Palestinian territories, accounting for 17% of the Palestinian market, with 600,000 Israeli SIM cards used by Palestinians. This figure, according to the document, is set to rise to 1 million by 2020.

Chief among the Israeli cellular companies operating illegally in the Palestinian territories are Bezeq, Orange, Cellcom, Motorola and Pelephone.

At the opening of EXPOTECH 2018, held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Sept. 25, CEO of Paltel Group Ammar al-Aker said the Israeli companies illegally operating in the Palestinian territories do not pay any taxes or fees to the Palestinian treasury. This, he said, led to losses worth 116 million shekels, about $32 million, in 2017 alone.

Palestinians have used Israeli SIM cards since before the establishment of the PA, when the Palestinian territories were under Israeli occupation before 1993, and they continued to use them even after the establishment of Jawwal in 1997 and Wataniya Mobile in 2009. Should Palestinians continue to use Israeli SIM cards, this loss could amount to 217 million shekels by 2020.

Palestinians using Israeli SIM cards pay 355 million shekels per year.

Israeli SIM cards are either sold in shops across the Palestinian territories or secured through Palestinians working in Israel. PA efforts to confiscate or limit the sale of these cards have thus far been rendered dead in the water.

Samir Abdallah, a senior researcher at the Palestinian Economic Policy Research Institute-MAS, told Al-Monitor, “Israelis are turning huge profits as a result of their growing expansion in the Palestinian telecommunications market. In order to limit the Israeli invasion of the Palestinian telecommunications market, the only solution would be for the Palestinian telecommunications companies to create an atmosphere of competition to improve their provided services and reduce their prices.”

In August, Israeli cellular companies started expanding their networks in the West Bank by setting up 65 new broadcast towers. Settlers had complained about the difficulty of communicating with Israeli security forces to report Palestinian armed attacks.

In Gaza, however, only a limited number of Palestinians use Israeli SIM cards because of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

While Israel imposes restrictions on the construction of Palestinian communication networks and relay stations in Area C of the West Bank under the pretext of security, the Oslo II agreement gave the Israelis the right to build and operate their networks across the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Issa Mohammed, a Palestinian from Hebron, told Al-Monitor, “I use an Israeli SIM card because it costs less and offers better quality than a Palestinian SIM card.”

“I know that I am supporting the Israeli economy, but I do not have a choice,” he added.

Minister of Communications and Information Technology in the PA Allam Mousa announced Aug. 13 that the PA is preparing several memoranda to be submitted to international organizations, such as the International Telecommunication Union, in a bid to prevent Israel from continuing its expansion.

Ghassan Khatib, the former Palestinian planning minister and the current head of the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, told Al-Monitor, “The Israeli expansion in the Palestinian market is linked to the Israeli desire to impose political, military and economic control over the Palestinian territories. Israel considers these territories a market for its economic products, which include telecommunication services.”

The Israeli invasion of the Palestinian market does not only entail economic and political repercussions. It also presents security risks. Palestinian use of the Israeli SIM cards prevents Palestinian legal authorities from pursuing any electronic crimes coordinated through such SIM cards.

Islam Shahwan, a professor of security sciences at Gaza's Al-Awda College, told Al-Monitor, “The Israeli security invasion of the Palestinian telecommunications market allows Israelis to reap huge benefits. [The Israelis] control Palestinian calls, monitor their movements, tap their phones and know in advance their plans to carry out armed attacks against Israelis and work on foiling them.”

The expansion of the Israeli telecommunications sector in the Palestinian territories is not an isolated measure. Other points need to be considered in this regard, including the current political situation and the current PA role, which continues to decline in favor of the Israeli Civil Administration. The Israeli Civil Administration has started issuing work permits for Palestinian workers inside Israel, thus isolating the PA and bolstering their calls for the annexation of the West Bank to Israel.

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