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Caught in the Net
The Internet in Palestine

The young man gets out of the yellow taxicab and carefully closes the door. His eyes are riveted to a point one hundred meters down the road. To go to Bir Zeit - where one of the West Bank's universities is located - to Ramallah - the region's administrative capital - one crosses a road. A simple road, apparently a secondary one. A signpost in Hebrew reveals however that this is not any road: it links Israeli settlements to each other. Regularly Tsahal soldiers are posted at the crossing, wearing uniform, bullet-proof jacket, radio and machine-gun at the hip. They check Palestinian vehicles and their passengers travelling between Bir Zeit and Ramallah.

It is likely that the young man doesn't carry with him papers valid enough to the Israelis' eyes. Nonetheless he is a Palestinian in Palestine. He will wait until the temporary checkpoint disappears to resume his journey.

Totally dependent

This is only one example to illustrate the daily hassle, which face all those willing to make this small country progress. As a matter of fact, these hassles are generated as well by the Hebrew occupant as by the Palestinian administration, new and inexperienced.

In terms of Internet, the consequence is that development is very slow pace. The main limiting factor is the high cost of the telephone communications. This is due to the fact that all Palestinian providers in the West Bank have to deal with Israeli carriers, naturally located in Israeli territory. Murtada Sinokrot, sales director of the Jerusalem Online Palestinian Internet provider, explains that Israel still forbids satellite communications. The telephone and Internet communications to and from the West Bank - encircled by the Hebrew State - are entirely dependent on the land-lines, which all cross Israel.

Even a communication within the West Bank may be dear: the Israeli authorities control sections of the Palestine telephone network, according to Murtada Sinokrot, which entails artificially inflated communication costs for certain stretches.

In addition, there is the high rates imposed by the Palestinian telecommunications Ministry. As a result, whereas for one shekel (about thirty Swiss cents) the Israeli Internet user connects for ten minutes, the Palestinian one remains online for only two minutes - a five-to-one ratio. It should be mentioned that the Israeli Internet providers offer their customers discount rates as compared to the voice rate. This is made possible thanks to the capacity telephone exchange to "recognise" the numbers the customers use to call the providers.

Murtada Sinokrot explains that his company, Jerusalem Online, and the other Palestinian providers regularly write to the Palestinian Telecom (the sole Palestinian telephone operator; directly under the supervision of the Telecommunications Ministry) requesting similar rates in the region - to no avail so far.

Inadequate infrastructure

Another impediment is the low quality of the telephone infrastructure of the region. Ahmed Abu Haneiah, Bir Zeit University computer lab supervisor, lives across the "green line" dividing Israel and the West Bank. He's compared the connection speeds of his private and his professional lines. The special software he used indicated "Very fast" for the Israeli connection (between 40 and 50 kbps) and "Dead" (below 28 kbps) for the Palestinian one. He believes this slowness discourages a part of the potential users.

As a provider, Murtada Sinokrot reckons the capacity of lines is sufficient. On the other hand, he is worried by the easiness with which anybody can obtain a license and label themselves "access provider". According to him, the Telecommunications Ministry doesn't play its role as quality keeper vis-à-vis the users.

Given the low average buying power of the Palestinian today, it is obvious that the use of the Internet is limited to a minority of professionals, students, and academics or of senior civil servants of the central administration. Our interlocutors all agree on the fact that the main uses of the Internet are related to studies and research, communication (chat and e-mail) and marketing.

In short, the Palestinian net is precarious and entirely dependent on the Hebrew State for its connections. In theory, the latter can at any time isolate the whole or part of the West Bank through his national telephone operator. It can also monitor the content of the messages travelling in and out of the West Bank.

François Joutet, August 1999

Profile of a Palestinian Internet services provider

Jerusalem Online was born in East Jerusalem four years ago, out of a twelve-year old computer company. It has 450 customers in the Holy City and has just opened, five months ago, its first offices in Ramallah, in the West Bank, where it has now over one hundred customers and where four other providers are present. Among the company's customers are four Internet cafés, extremely popular with the students.

Jerusalem Online is a family business run by four brothers of the Sinokrot family, of which three were trained in Israel. The company doesn't rely only on the Internet. "Our business would never become profitable if we didn't also offer computer and reproduction services, in addition to computer assisted designing" confesses the sales director, Murtada Sinokrot. Besides Internet access, Jerusalem Online also deals with web sites design and promotion, as well as hosting.

François Joutet.

Links

(All the broken links were removed from François' original list on August 30th, 2007)

www.jrol.com (Jerusalem online, a Palestinian Internet provider)
www.palnet.com (Palnet, a Palestinian Internet provider)
www.planet.edu (The Palestinian Education Network)
www.bailasan.com (Bailasan, a Palestinian Internet provider)
www.moc.gov.il/new/english/index.html (Israeli Telecom Ministry)

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Created: August 28th, 1999 - Last up-dated: August 20th, 2007