Telecommunication opens up opportunities for Palestinians, but also challenges

‘Israel only allowed the use of 3G services in order to better spy on Palestinians.’ (Reuters)
Updated 09 May 2017

Telecommunication opens up opportunities for Palestinians, but also challenges

AMMAN: For years, Palestinians have been asking Israel to release their telecommunication equipment so that they can provide their mobile customers with high-speed mobile.
Israel had insisted that its refusal to allow Palestinians to use the latest technologies was based purely on security concerns.
Mashour Abudaka, former Palestinian minister of telecommunications, told Arab News that the Israeli justifications were illogical.
“The real reasons for the ban were economic and not security. They wanted to help Israeli mobile phone companies that had the 3G technology to benefit by having Palestinians buy their services.”
Abudaka elaborated why the Israeli security argument makes little sense: “All phones use the international gateway which Israel controls. You can’t make a call or have data transferred without going through the Internet and telephone equipment that it controls.”
In 2013, the Israeli reluctance to allow Palestinians high-speed mobile connectivity was raised during the visit of former US President Barack Obama.
When Obama was visiting Ramallah, a group of Palestinians put up three huge billboards that spoke directly to him: “Don’t bring your smartphone with you when you come to Ramallah, we have no 3G in Palestine.”
While it was a powerful campaign, it failed to make Israelis budge from their position; they continued to refuse to allow the two licensed Palestinian mobile phone companies to own and operate newer technology.
A Palestinian-Israeli official agreement signed recently removes the last Israeli obstacle that has held up the release of 3G equipment, which has been lying in Israeli warehouses for years.
Abudaka believes that the Israelis agreed to allow 3G as part of their phasing out of older technology, as their companies are moving on to 4G.
In order to understand the background to this decision, one has to go back to the initial Israeli-Palestinian agreement that was expected to usher in the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed, in the context of the 1993 Oslo Accords and the various agreements thereafter, to share the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes frequencies for television, radio and mobile services.
A joint technical committee (JTC) was set up to discuss each side’s requirements.
Palestinians were to present their spectrum needs, and the JTC was to fulfill them within a month. In practice, however, little was achieved.
Ala Alaeddin, CEO of Intertech Co, and activists in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector told Arab News that the new 3G technology will give a great boost to Palestinian IT entrepreneurs.
“It will allow creative Palestinian talents to program many mobile applications that can now be used since data will be available on Palestinian handsets,” he said.
Since Palestine is highly wired and most people own smartphones, Alaeddin believes that many services will benefit from the availability of 3G in Palestine.
“New companies will enter this sector and benefit from the availability of data exchange on the go. Transport companies like Uber and Careem will be able to operate in Palestine now and banks will be able to offer banking services for Palestinian clients on the go.”
Former minister Abudaka, who is now working as an IT consultant, told Arab News that Israel increased the power it gave to the Palestinian mobile companies. “The companies asked for 5GEM and the Israelis gave them 10 GEM, but this was divided into two parts. The mobile company gets 5GEM for exclusive use in the urban areas, while it gets to share 5GEM in areas that border Jewish settlements.”
According to Abudaka, Palestinians traveling from Ramallah to Nablus would use the exclusive frequencies when they are within the two cities, but will use the shared frequencies once outside the city limits.
This issue was not easily resolved because both Israelis and Palestinians wanted to control the coverage in these outlying areas.
Abudaka said the problem was resolved when the two sides agreed to allow the Swedish company Ericsson to manage the shared airspace.
While many Palestinian IT entrepreneurs were celebrating the breakthrough, some were skeptical about the Israeli intentions.
Ghassan Abdallah, a math professor at Bir Zeit University, told Arab News that Israel only allowed the use of 3G services in order to better spy on Palestinians.
“Once they were able to completely control the workings of 3G to monitor Palestinians, they allowed the mobile companies to use it.”
Abdallah, however, believes that Palestinians should figure this out and create alternative technology to stop any attempts at prying into their information and movements.
Since Obama saw that sign in 2013, the World Bank estimates that the Palestinian economy has incurred a $1 billion loss in revenues.
The World Bank report, issued on April 1, cited the competitive advantage Israeli companies with 3G and 4G have over the Palestinian market.
As Palestinian telephone companies started being able to provide this new service to their customers, Palestinians began a campaign against Israeli cellphone companies.
The Palestinian government resolved to stop local merchants from selling Israeli SIM cards.
The introduction of 3G technology will boost the Palestinian economy and provide much faster connectivity to Palestinians, but with the new technology come complicated agreements that tend to make Palestinians more dependent on Israel, rather than less.
Palestinian aspirations to a totally independent and sovereign state include not only control over land but also over the airwaves that, until now, are in the hands of the Israeli occupiers.
The 3G breakthrough illustrates both the accomplishments and the challenges faced by the Palestinians in their ongoing struggle for independence.


The Gulf’s war on smugglers

Updated 22 August 2019

The Gulf’s war on smugglers

  • Recent busts have included cash, cannabis and Captagon
  • Tech-savvy criminals play cat-and mouse with tech-savvy criminals

DUBAI: Bulk cash couriers, narcotics mules, counterfeit goods, wildlife trafficking —  spotting smugglers is all part of a day’s work for customs officials and law enforcement professionals in the Gulf.

Experts say that illegal trafficking in all its guises is bringing in billions each year for criminals worldwide, and the problem is increasing across the globe and the region.

In Saudi Arabia this week alone, officials arrested four passengers attempting to smuggle SR3.1 million ($830,000) in cash out of Madinah’s airport, while Saudi Arabian Border Guards intercepted two boats carrying large quantities of cannabis into the Kingdom. In a third bust, Saudi customs thwarted two attempts to bring more than 2.5 million Captagon (amphetamine) pills hidden in two vehicles into the Kingdom via a port.

Adel Hamaizia, a research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at the think tank Chatham House, told Arab News that money laundering,  or cash smuggling, is a major trafficking problem for the Kingdom and wider GCC.

Smuggling of cash is a major trafficking issue for the Kingdom and region, adding to the problem of capital flight.  

“One of the methods aiding capital flight in the GCC is old-school smuggling of cash as well as precious metals,” he said. 

But trafficking of drugs, fuel and even wildlife are also adding to pressures facing customs officials.

“Cross-border fuel smuggling from Saudi Arabia into its neighbors has remained an enduring feature. However, energy pricing reforms in the Kingdom in recent years have stifled smugglers’ margins if not canceled them out altogether,” said Hamaizia. “When it comes to drugs, countries of the GCC serve as consumption destinations and transit hubs, but not production spaces.”

Many countries in the region serve as transit hubs for drug smuggling as a result of geography, infrastructure, porous borders and lengthy coastlines, he said.

“Drugs smuggled into GCC states include qat, opium, cannabis, and Captagon (the family of drugs known as amphetamines). Captagon is one of the major drugs smuggled from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. 

“Wildlife smuggling such as houbara birds, pangolins, ivory, rhinoceros horns and others are also common across Gulf states. Doha serves as transit hubs for birds, mammals, ivory, and reptiles being transported between Africa and Asia.”

The Gulf is a transit point for trade passing through the region, so any and all types of illicit goods are smuggled.

Channing Mavrellis, of the think tank Global Financial Integrity, which works to curtail trade-related illicit financial flows, also highlighted the growing threat smugglers pose in the GCC. “The Gulf is a transit point for trade passing through the region, so any and all types of illicit goods are smuggled,” he said.

Experts say smuggling tactics are becoming increasingly sophisticated. “The methods used depend largely on the type of good being smuggled, its quantity and the level of risk/enforcement,” said Mavrellis. “For bulk cash smuggling or drug trafficking in smaller quantities, someone may simply conceal the illicit goods on their body or in their luggage. For larger quantities, smugglers may conceal the goods in a shipment of legitimate goods.”

However, Hamaizia warned that criminals are adopting new high-tech tactics. “The smuggling of lightweight drugs is now often supported by drones,” he said.

Smugglers are also turning to social media. In a report — Social Media and Drug Smuggling — published in journals earlier this year, authors noted the trend, saying: “Social media can be used for legal or illegal purposes by many individuals. Some may use these applications for drug smuggling. For example, Saudi Arabia Directorate General of Narcotics Control has arrested eight individuals for drug smuggling through social media.”

Saudi Arabia’s Border Guards this week intercepted two boats carrying large quantities of cannabis.  (Social media photo)

According to customs law jointly adopted by GCC countries, illegal transportation of goods can carry a jail term of up to 15 years. 

Meanwhile, many criminals are attempting to take advantage of the busy transit routes in the region.

Hamaizia said: “Traffickers and smugglers often opt for busier international airports where they may benefit from sloppier screening. Smugglers also focus on connecting flights, where screening is rushed and even non-existent in some cases.”

At Dubai International Airport, one of the region’s busiest hubs, authorities caught more than 1,000 people attempting to smuggle illegal goods into the UAE last year, with officials employing a wealth of new technologies. 

These include the Ionscan 500 DT, which can detect a wide range of military, commercial and homemade explosives as well as common illegal drugs, and the Thermo FirstDefender, a handheld device used to identify unknown solids or liquid chemicals.

Mavrellis said the challenge at busy transit routes was to search and question travelers while keeping operations running smoothly. 

“High volumes of international trade can make detecting smuggling difficult as customs agencies must strike a balance between trade facilitation and enforcement. Basically, it is the problem of finding a needle in a haystack — but without taking too much time,” he said.