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Israel pledges to finally permit long-restricted Palestinian 4G cell service

Until 2018, Israel kept Palestinian providers from installing 3G networks, and it could be years before 4G tech is rolled out, even as 5G becomes standard among Israeli competitors

A vendor offers mobile phone contracts from a booth on a street in Nablus in the West Bank on November 15, 2016. (Sebi Berens/Flash90)
A vendor offers mobile phone contracts from a booth on a street in Nablus in the West Bank on November 15, 2016. (Sebi Berens/Flash90)

Israel has tentatively agreed to permit Palestinian cellular companies to set up fourth-generation mobile networks — allowing them to belatedly take advantage of a technology considered standard in much of the world — as part of a series of steps meant to strengthen the Palestinian Authority.

The approval, which has yet to be finalized, was formally presented during a recent closed-door meeting of Israeli and Palestinian telecommunications teams, Israeli and Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel.

“The 4G system will be available for Palestinians as soon as possible. It has already been discussed and agreed upon,” a senior Israeli official involved in advancing the initiative told The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity.

Israel has not permitted Palestinian cellular providers to upgrade their networks for years, leaving most Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza with dramatically slower connections than those in Israel and much of the world.

A spokesperson for the Defense Ministry did not respond to request for comment on the rationale for withholding access to the upgraded networks.

The agreement comes as officials in the Israeli government have said they hope to advance initiatives to improve Palestinian daily life.  Israeli officials have said that strengthening the ailing Palestinian Authority — including by allowing improved telecommunications — will help maintain stability in the West Bank.

Israeli and Palestinian telecommunications teams held a private meeting on November 14, where Israeli officials expressed tentative approval for the 4G upgrade, officials said.

“We will soon see a formal agreement signed. Technical teams on the two sides will begin working at the soonest possible opportunity,” the Israeli official said, estimating that the coming months would see the move go forward.

But a Palestinian official said that the Israelis had informed them that joint technical discussions would not begin until April.

“We have asked the Israelis to hold immediate meetings in the interim, because that date is a long way away,” said the official.

The official said that the Israelis had yet to make a concrete offer of how much bandwidth would be made available to the Palestinians. A previous Israeli proposal, in 2019, was rejected by the Palestinians because it provided only a tiny number of frequencies for Palestinian cell companies, they added.

According to the official, the Palestinian Authority has asked Israel to rely on an independent study of the 4G issue commissioned by the Office of the Quartet, an international body that supports Palestinian economic development.

“In any case, after we finish the technical discussions and receive the frequencies for 4G, our companies need six months to a year to import the equipment from abroad and to launch and operate the 4G system,” the official added.

Even the long-awaited introduction of a faster 4G network would leave Palestinian carriers one step behind their Israeli counterparts. Israel is already implementing super-fast 5G networks across the country — with speeds at least 10 times that of its predecessor.

Palestinians in the West Bank were only permitted third-generation telecommunications in 2018, four years after Israel had already transitioned to 4G. And in Gaza, where Israel has not allowed 3G equipment to enter, Palestinian carriers only offer 2G — a service initially introduced in the 1990s.

A Palestinian policeman stands next to a poster informing US President Barack Obama, “We have no 3G in Palestine,” in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2013 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

The lack of access to faster cellular service speeds poses a serious hurdle to Palestinian economic development, according to observers.

Palestinian-American businessman Sam Bahour, a founding member of Paltel, the national telecommunications provider, said Palestinian businesses need access to faster networks to thrive.

“Take mobile application development — the new technologies open the door for new kinds of applications to be developed. That door is closed in Palestine due to our lack of ability to interact with new technologies,” said Bahour.

Israeli restrictions on cellular frequencies and the placement of towers has resulted in jacked-up mobile prices for Palestinian consumers, who also receive slower service, Bahour said.

But Bahour also described the 4G initiative as too little, too late: Palestinian cellular companies just invested over $50 million in 3G technology in 2018 —  nearly a decade and a half behind their Israeli counterparts.

“Now we’re being asked, late in the game of 4G, to consider having the opportunity to again invest tens of millions more in this technology — now that the rest of the world has already reached 5G,” said Bahour.

“This is a very cruel game that’s being played. It has nothing to do with developing the telecommunications sector,” he added. “It has much more to do with politics: Israel wants something to talk about that’s ‘economic’ rather than ‘political.'”

A Palestinian woman speaks on a cell phone in Ramallah on October 28, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israeli cellphone companies operate widely in the West Bank, and coverage reaches into most Palestinian areas. Many Palestinians use Israeli cell networks, which are both cheaper and provide faster service, rather than stick with their slower Palestinian counterparts.

Israeli networks are meant to service West Bank settlements without impinging into Palestinian Authority areas, according to agreements between the two sides. But on the ground, Israeli cellular signals often reach deep into Palestinian cities.

According to the World Bank, the Palestinian economy lost between $436  million and $1.5 billion between 2013 and 2015 due to Israeli carriers “siphoning off” Palestinian customers, or around 30 percent of the total Palestinian cellular market.

Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, a staunch supporter of the Israeli settlement movement, has vowed to dramatically expand Israeli cellular coverage in the West Bank. The move has sparked Palestinian concerns that even more customers could jump to Israeli carriers.

The Palestinian demand for improved cellular networks has repeatedly been raised over the past few months in meetings with Israeli officials.

“We’re ready, right now, to apply these technologies in the West Bank and Gaza. The sooner it happens, the better it will be for the Palestinian economy and Palestinian development,” PA Telecommunications Minister Ishaq Sidr said in an October interview with The Times of Israel.

After the matter was raised at an August meeting between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, senior Abbas adviser Hussein al-Sheikh announced on Twitter that 4G networks would soon become available in the West Bank and Gaza.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israel and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr lands at Ben Gurion International Airport, on May 14, 2021. (US Embassy Palestinian Affairs Unit/Twitter)

But Israeli officials refused to publicly comment on al-Sheikh’s statements, and Israel only formally gave Palestinians the green light at the November 14 meeting, officials said.

The Israeli Defense Ministry, the Israeli Communications Ministry, and the Israeli army’s liaison to the Palestinians did not respond to requests for comment from The Times of Israel.

The United States and European countries had expressed support for the move to upgrade the Palestinian networks, according to the anonymous Israeli official.

In an off-the-record speech to diplomats in Oslo last Wednesday, senior American diplomat Hady Amr expressed satisfaction at the apparent movement on the issue.

“There’s been progress at the recent telecommunications meeting. And we’re pleased to see that progress on implementing 4G in the West Bank and Gaza, we hope as well. We just hope it can be done as fast as possible,” said Amr, who serves as United States Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israel and Palestinian Affairs.

“There’s no way for the Palestinian economy to progress without access to technology,” he added. “So we hope that we can advance on 4G, at the minimum.”

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