13 May 2019 How Israel controls Palestinian ICTs
What follows are the summary, introduction and conclusion from “Connection Interrupted: Israel’s Control of the Palestinian ICT Infrastructure and Its Impact on Digital Rights” published by 7amleh – The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media (December 2018).
The development of information and communications technology (ICT) has allowed for an extensive flow of information in our lives surpassing territorial constraints. However, in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), Israel has been controlling the ICT infrastructure since it began its military occupation in 1967. Although per the Oslo Accords, an Interim Agreement signed between Israel and Palestinian representatives in 1995, Israel transferred some of this control to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Otherwise, Israel has retained control over critical aspects of the ICT sector making it impossible for Palestinians to develop an independent network and thereby enjoy a greater safety and flow of information.
Israel’s control of the Palestinian ICT infrastructure has not only hindered its development but has also allowed Israel to conduct mass surveillance of Palestinians and restrict their access to digital rights, specifically rights to internet security, privacy and freedom of opinion and expression. ICT has changed the way we lead our lives from social networking to ecommerce, leading to significant societal changes and transformations. As the interactions between our daily lives and components of ICT continue to grow, opportunities but also risks to how we exercise our human rights emerge, and specifically to rights of privacy and freedom of expression. The components of ICT include all the infrastructure and technologies that allow for interactions in the digital world, inter alia, network equipment, telecommunications services, devices and electronics, and security software.
In this report, 7amleh – The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media provides information on the interaction between the ICT sector and digital rights in Palestine, by identifying Israeli restrictions imposed on the Palestinian ICT infrastructure and their implications for the enjoyment of digital rights by Palestinians. The paper focuses on how such control has allowed Israel to conduct mass surveillance of Palestinians and monitor content online, thus violating an array of human rights, both in the online and offline world.
7amleh believes that Israel’s continued control of the Palestinian ICT sector greatly affects digital rights in particular, and human rights in general in the oPt, and as such calls on Israel to cease its unjustified control of the ICT sector and its illegal digital surveillance practices of the Palestinian population. Social media and ICT companies involved in dealings with Israel must also ensure that their operations in the oPt do not violate Palestinians’ human rights. Further, third party states, must also ensure that their policies do not recognize or support unlawful Israeli actions that violate the rights of Palestinians and ensure that Israel meets its international legal obligations as an occupying power in the oPt.
In today’s digital lifestyle, everyone is increasingly conducting their personal and professional lives online acquiring knowledge but also sharing personal data and content, and social networking, while storing data online. Today, people rely on information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure to connect them to the world. This increased interconnectedness creates opportunities to share information but also creates new risks and ethical dilemmas that affect human rights, particularly in regards to what is shared and with whom and how personal data is stored and accessed. Human rights online, or digital rights, are considered an extension of human rights in the digital context and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on multiple occasions emphasized that “the same rights that people have offline must be also protected online”.1
Since its occupation of the Palestinian territories (oPt) in 1967, Israel has controlled the Palestinian ICT infrastructure, hindering its development and Palestinians’ digital rights including recent mass surveillance and monitoring of Palestinian content online. Israel’s control of the Palestinian ICT infrastructure is part and parcel of its policies and practices as an occupying power controlling the oPt and as a result Palestinians are unable to develop an independent ICT sector and forced to depend on Israeli operators to provide services and encounter the repeated destruction of networks and equipment by Israel, enduring significant economic losses.
According to the Palestinian Information Technology Association (PITA), the ICT market in the West Bank and Gaza encompasses 400,000 fixed-line subscribers, 100 radio and local television stations, as well as 17 companies operating in the field of telecommunication and Internet.2 In 2017, there were about 3,018,770 registered internet users (amounting to 60.5% of the population) in the oPt, excluding East Jerusalem,3 with 1,600,000 users being active social media users connected to various social media platforms.4 In the same year, there were 4,400,000 sim cards in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, 90% of which were operated by Palestinian telecom operators and the remaining 10% were operated by Israeli ones. For about 1,400,000 internet users, mobile phones are their means of accessing the Internet.
The advancement of the ICT sector and digital technology has had many positive effects on the exercise of human rights in the digital context, in particular for the right to freedom of opinion and expression, which includes the right to acquire and disseminate information, and the right to communicate. Today, various technology products allow for easier access to information and the ability to filter or even block content.5 This has increased unlawful conduct by governments or service providers along the ICT service chain that can infringe people’s digital rights and make people more vulnerable. Potential abuses resulting from the government’s illegitimate use of ICT infrastructure include, inter alia, disrupting or completely shutting down systems, the misuse of information for surveillance, censoring speech, deleting or blocking data, or the forced distribution of politically motivated messages via operators’ networks.6
During various Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip in 2014, which resulted in appalling human losses and damages to Palestinian infrastructure, the Israeli army bombed 14 stations of the PalTel group, resulting in an estimated loss of US$32.6 million in revenue and damaged networks.7 Israel has also targeted many Palestinians through their social media profiles. Monitoring of Palestinian profiles, which is used largely to connect with fellow Palestinians across fragmented geographical areas, has resulted in hundreds of Palestinian profiles being deleted and hundreds of Palestinians being arrested and charged with the far reaching charge of ‘incitement’.8
There is a worldwide concern about the emerging challenges of the impact of the ICT sector on digital rights particularly in areas of data protection and privacy and the freedoms of expression and assembly. Within the oPt, these challenges are further heightened as a result of Israel’s over 50 years long occupation, where Israeli restrictions imposed on the Palestinian ICT sector and infrastructure are part of the overall punitive nature of the Israeli occupation, which Israel must put an end to and ensure that the rights of Palestinians are upheld.
Israeli restrictions have resulted in the dependency of Palestinian ICT companies on Israeli operators for coverage and advancement and have allowed Israel to control how Palestinian ICT companies connect to Palestinian customers within the oPt. Israel’s control of ICT infrastructure in the oPt, excluding East Jerusalem, have limited its growth and allowed Israel to restrict access to information and develop means to monitor and censor Palestinians’ content online. Israel utilized its control of the ICT infrastructure as another tool to oppress and control Palestinians. Israeli restrictions have violated Palestinians’ digital rights to access the internet, to privacy, and to freedom of opinion and expression.
More than 25 years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, these Accords no longer provide a framework that is facilitating a final solution to the situation on the ground nor protecting human rights. Indeed, such policies and practices are best described to amount to a “digital occupation” of the Palestinian digital space.9
7amleh – The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media – joins other organizations and institutions that have repeatedly called for the independence of the Palestinian ICT sector from Israeli control, including an independent ICT infrastructure and free access to the frequency spectrum. 7amleh recognizes that the Palestinian MTIT and ICT companies relentlessly continue to try to provide services for Palestinian customers, despite imposed Israeli restrictions.
For example, in December 2016, Jawwal joined the “Humanitarian Connectivity Charter,” a charter that “consists of shared principles to support improved access to communication and information for those affected by crisis in order to reduce the loss of life and positively contribute to humanitarian response,” launched by the GSM Association, a trade body that represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide.10 Jawwal has developed strategies to respond to crises particularly in the Gaza Strip.
7amleh also calls on Israel to uphold its responsibility as an occupying power towards the protected population of the oPt, to stop its illegal measures and practices targeting Palestinians through the ICT sector, and to respect and enable the exercise of Palestinians human rights, including in the digital context. Israel must ensure that Palestinians enjoy the opportunities afforded by the ICT sector while ensuring the protection of their human rights both in the online and offline worlds.
1. UN Human Rights Council, “The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet,” A/HRC/32/L.20, (27 June 2016), available at: https://goo.gl/QeUkDX
2. Palestinian Investment Promotion Agency, “ICT,” available at: https://goo.gl/LTq8Z8
3. Unclear how many Palestinian users in East Jerusalem, given that the ICT sector in East Jerusalem is fully integrated into Israel’s ICT infrastructure.
4. Ipoke. “Social Palestine: Social Media in Palestine in 201”, (23 January 2017), available at: https://goo.gl/FYoDFj
5. Hope, Dunstan. “Protecting human Rights in the Digital Age: Understanding Evolving Freedom of Expression and Privacy Risks in the Information and Communications Technology Industry,” BSR, (February 2011), available at: https://www.bsr.org/reports BSR_Protecting_Human_Rights_in_the_Digital_Age.pdf
7. Alphamena Corporate Services, “PalTel Telecoms/ Palestine,” (6 June 2018), available at: https://goo.gl/sQWHjE
8. See 7amleh’s report “#Palestine 2017: Palestinian Digital Activism Report” available at: http://7amleh.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Palestine-2017-English-final.pdf
9. Tawil-Souri, Helga. “Digital Occupation: Gaza’s High-Tech Enclosure,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Winter 2012), pp. 27-43, (n 18) available at: https://goo.gl/d9kyiC
10. GSMA, “Palestinian Mobile Network operator Jawwal sings the GSMA Humanitarian Connectivity Charter,” (19 December 2016) available at: https://goo.gl/3S6MUU
7amleh is a non-profit organization aimed at enabling the Palestinian and Arab civil society to effectively utilize the tools of digital advocacy through professional capacity building, defending digital rights and building influential digital media campaigns. 7amleh focuses its projects and initiatives in three key areas: 1.Training: Working with civil society organizations, youth, grassroots and activists to strengthen skills in new media, online campaigns, and improving their digital presence. 2.Outreach & Advocacy: Participation in forums, production of publications, and joining coalitions for the protection of digital rights as human rights, including the right to Internet access, digital safety, freedom of expression and association. 3.Campaigns: Coordinating and managing advocacy and awareness campaigns, utilizing digital resources, on various issues related to Palestinian rights.
Image above: Palestine ICTs in numbers