GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israelis and Palestinians appear to be edging toward a technological confrontation that some see as an extension of their escalating physical conflict.
On March 3, Israel's West Bank settlements committee asked the government to prohibit the use of a smartphone application designed to help Palestinian commuters navigate myriad Israeli security checkpoints. Committee member Saji Keisler told the BBC that Palestinians could use the app to communicate information on soldiers' locations and put their lives at risk.
Checkpoints separating Palestinian towns can make commuters miserable, forcing them to waste several hours navigating strict Israeli security measures. Israeli soldiers open and close these checkpoints unpredictably and seem to inspect vehicles and individuals at random. The number of checkpoints throughout the West Bank keeps expanding, reaching more than 400 by the end of 2015.
The delays prompted a young Palestinian studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to design an app called Azmeh (Arabic for "traffic jam"). The crowdsourced app invites commuters to post information about checkpoint conditions as they pass through, allowing other users to check ahead of time on the traffic situation at the specific checkpoint they intend to cross.
“The idea for the app stemmed from the great suffering faced by the Palestinian people at the Israeli checkpoints," developer Basel Sader told Al-Monitor. "Travelers are forced to wait numerous hours, sometimes days, to reach their destination. This is why I told myself that I must do something to change this situation and find a solution to this problem, even if just a partial one.”
He added, “The app is very simple and easy to use. All it needs is Internet or 3G service to enable a person to report on traffic at a specific checkpoint. This will inform other users on the road … whether this checkpoint is closed, jammed or open.”
Sader started working on the app in early October and was able to release it to the Palestinian public after only a couple of weeks. Azmeh quickly gained popularity, with the number of downloads reaching 12,000, including 2,500 active users and around 500-600 daily users, according to Sader.
He believes the Israeli government won't be able to block the app without legal justification. “But the Israelis can do everything. Their ultimate goal is to maintain their restrictions against Palestinians,” he said, adding that he is now focused on improving the app by addressing the need for Internet and 3G services, which are not available at some checkpoints.
Sader has contacted some Palestinian information technology companies about possible technical improvements. He didn't want to be specific, but said the goal is to be able to operate the app offline. Some of the companies welcomed the idea and agreed to support it, he said.
Mustafa Jarrar, a professor of computer science at Birzeit University's faculty of engineering and technology, told Al-Monitor that Palestinians can't use the app to send instructions or encoded messages to attack the Israeli army or settlers. He said the app is primitive, and anyone who wanted to send specific codes could do so through other applications.
Jarrar pointed out that the smartphone app offers users several options for reporting the traffic situation at the designated checkpoint without sending texts. He noted that despite its primitive nature, it has significantly helped Palestinians get through the checkpoints more quickly. “I use this app and depend on it heavily,” he said.
He also found it unlikely that Israel will block the app, since it is hosted by global companies such as Google and Apple. However, he expects Israelis to manipulate the app by posting false information to mislead Palestinians.
Jarrar was surprised at Israel's protesting against the app, saying, “Israel has an app similar to Azmeh, called Waze. It is more advanced and easily used by Israelis to navigate between the cities and on the roads. Waze provides services to the Israelis that are more sophisticated than those provided to Palestinian users and was purchased by Google, and no one objected to it.”
Al-Monitor interviewed Palestinian users, who said they are satisfied with the service in terms of tracking Israeli checkpoints and determining traffic situations in advance to save time.
“I installed the app … and it has improved my commute between Ramallah and Jerusalem, which I visit around three times a week to see my relatives, run errands and pray in Al-Aqsa Mosque. I am forced to cross the Qalandia checkpoint," Salma al-Aweiwi told Al-Monitor.
“When the app indicates that traffic is light at the checkpoint, I hurry to visit Jerusalem, and when I reach the checkpoint, I report the traffic situation and post it on the app to benefit the other users. This app is much needed, especially these days since we are witnessing frequent closures of the checkpoints due to clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli army.”
Another user, who preferred anonymity, needs to cross the Qalandia checkpoint daily to pick up his young brothers from al-Quds Islamic school. By allowing him to monitor the traffic flow at the checkpoint, Azmeh spares him the trouble of leaving home extra early. He told Al-Monitor that for him and some other subscribers, the lack of Internet and 3G service away from the checkpoints, in other parts of the West Bank, is the most difficult challenge.
The Israeli campaign against the smartphone app, despite the Palestinians’ denial that it could be used to attack soldiers, seems to only be adding to the friction between the two sides.
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