Hacking Palestine: A digital occupation

Israel controls all Palestine’s digital infrastructure, limiting the use of phones, mobiles and internet at any time.

hamas leader with phone and laptop
Israel has strategically located connecting points for landlines, mobiles and internet outside Palestinian territories forcing all trafic flowing from and to Palestine to be routed through Israeli hubs [EPA]

In the aftermath of the near-total shutdown of the internet and telephone network in the West Bank and Gaza Strip last week, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is attempting to figure out how, why and by whom Palestine was hacked. Whether the PA ever comes to a conclusive finding is arguable, even if it manages to mobilise the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to conduct an investigation. The Palestinian Minister of Communications has been hinting that a state may be behind the concerted attack – by which he means Israel.

No matter who the attack was waged by, that the Palestinian infrastructure is hacked into is indeed the responsibility of the Israeli regime, for it is with the latter that ultimate power and control over Palestinian telecommunications actually lies. In fact, the shutdown highlights the continued precariousness of Palestinian telecommunications (landlines, cellular, and internet services), and the regime of digital occupation that Palestinians live under.

The current Palestinian telecommunications infrastructure is a result of the asymmetrical power relationship between the PA and Israel, as well as the constraints and failures of the Oslo Accords. Much the same way in which sovereignty afforded to the PA over internal political and civilian issues has been a masquerade, so too is sovereignty over telecommunications a facade. Consider for example that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (as others before him) stresses that any future Palestinian state will not have control over its electro-magnetic field. If the future vision of Palestine is one without sovereignty over telecommunications, the present condition is one that ascertains such an outcome.  

A much less publicised event than this latest cyber attack was the interruption of international landline, mobile phone and internet connection in the Gaza Strip this past August which occurred when an Israeli military bulldozer digging near the Nahal Oz checkpoint severed one of the fibre-optic lines connecting Gaza to the rest of the world. The ability to shutdown telecommunications whether by dictatorial regimes – as we witnessed in Egypt in January 2011 – or occupying regimes, is incumbent on an infrastructure being managed and controlled in particular ways. In other words, the establishment, building, and ownership of a communications infrastructure is in and of itself a deeply political decision.

Controlling copper

The Palestinian-Israeli technological relationship, like their political and economic relationship, has largely been one of Israeli control and restrictions and Palestinian dependence. After 1967, the Israeli regime owned, managed, controlled and maintained telecommunications systems in the occupied territories and imposed strict legal and military restrictions on infrastructure and use. Despite the fact that Palestinians paid income, value-added, and other taxes to the Israeli government, the state telecommunications provider, Bezeq, was neither quick nor efficient in servicing Palestinian areas and users. Whatever existed of a telecommunications infrastructure prior to Israeli occupation was rarely maintained or upgraded, and what was built in Palestinian areas was done in a manner that would render any future Palestinian network dependent on Israel’s. For example, all switching locations for telecommunications traffic were established outside areas that might eventually be handed over to Palestinian control. This meant that telephone calls made between Gaza City and Rafah would be routed through Ashqelon, calls between Nablus and Jenin through Afula. All international phone calls would similarly be routed through Israel.

It would not be until the second round of the Oslo Accords signed in 1995, that Palestinians were promised direct domestic and international telephone and internet access. But, crucially, while the Accords stated that the Palestinian side had the right to build and operate a separate and independent telecommunications system, the agreements also set the conditions within which an independent system would be rendered impossible. Palestinians could adopt their own standards and import certain equipment only when the Palestinian network would be fully independent from Israel’s. This would become a catch-22. Until today, the Palestinian network is not independent. Until today – despite the ‘death’ of Oslo – Israeli legitimises the limitations it imposes as abiding by the Accords and in the process, keeps the Palestinian network dependent.

Israel handed over responsibility for the telecommunications infrastructure in the Territories to the PA in 1995. The PA awarded Paltel (the Palestine Telecommunications Company) a licence to build, operate and own landlines, a GSM cellular network, data communications, paging services and public phones. The reliance on Israel for most domestic connections and all international connections did not however end with the advent of Paltel. Nor would many other aspects of Palestinian telecommunications ever come under the full control of Paltel or the PA.

Strategic allocation

Israel continues to determine much that shapes Palestinian telecommunications, from the allocation of frequencies to where infrastructure can be built, from how much bandwidth is allocated for internet use to what kind of infrastructure equipment can be imported and installed. Despite the advent of Palestinian telecommunications companies (Paltel’s cellular subsidiary Jawwal, its internet subsidiary Hadara, and as of 2009 a second cellular provider in the West Bank, Wataniya), local landline calls within the Gaza Strip are still routed through Israel; many local calls within the West Bank equally so. International calls in or out of the Palestinian Territories on land or cellular networks are switched in Israel – the international dialling code awarded to Palestine by the ITU remains mostly symbolic. The majority of Palestinian internet traffic is routed through switches outside the Territories. Even on the ubiquitous cellular phones, calls must touch the Israeli backbone. Paltel, Jawwal, Hadara and Wataniya rely on Israeli permissions for the placement, number and strength of routers and exchanges; the range of their signals and the equipment they can use is limited by Israeli restrictions; the allocation of their bandwidth is decided by the Israeli Ministry of Communication – not the Palestinian one.

Landline, cellular telephony and internet infrastructures are forced to be segregated from yet dependent on Israeli networks. While each technology requires different mechanisms to operate, the entire underlying structure of Palestinian telecommunications is occupied. 

In the realm of the internet (which parallels landline infrastructure as opposed to cellular telephony), it is the Israeli authorities that determine how much total bandwidth Hadara can have. Similarly, it is Israeli providers who sell bandwidth capacity to Hadara, and do so at substantially higher rates than to ISPs (internet service providers) within Israel. For Palestinians then, it is invariably slower and more expensive to surf the internet than it is for an Israeli. The combination of higher costs, slower speeds and limitations imposed on technologies results in a bondage of bandwidth. In the Gaza Strip for example, Hadara is still waiting for permission for an internet trunk-switch to allow internet traffic to circumvent Israel. Internet networks are continually ‘shutdown’ for various reasons, whether because of Hadara’s failure or delay in paying its Israeli providers, for Israeli-defined ‘security’ issues, or a supposedly inadvertent manoeuvre by a military bulldozer. But the entirety of the telecommunications infrastructure is open to Israeli (state and military-sanctioned) ‘hacking’.

Signals are jammed and hacked into by the IDF. The most notorious example was during the 2008-09 war on Gaza, when the Israeli military sent hundreds of thousands of text messages and voice mails to cellular and landline users in the Strip warning of impending bombings. But these practices have occurred in the West Bank as well, and during both moments of heightened violence as well as on an everyday basis.

It is not just the end-user but also the telecommunications infrastructures themselves that are subject to the occupation’s logic. Although former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan stated that Israel would hand over the land-line infrastructure in Palestinian areas intact, the IDF severed the main north-south connection in the Strip and went so far as to bury parts of that line under the rubble of the Kfar Darom settlement. In some cases, the destruction has been widespread and debilitating, most obviously during the 2008-09 assault on Gaza, when damage to Paltel’s network in Gaza was estimated at more than US 10m. Both the purposeful destruction of equipment and the prevention of its importation and installation limit the development of high-tech infrastructure.

Digital occupation

The mechanisms of digital occupation are exercised through the disruption of everyday life, not simply during exceptional moments of violence. On any “normal” day, a Palestinian’s phone call is routed through Israel, his signals are jammed whenever a drone passes overhead (sometimes as often as every 15 minutes), his phone service may be shut down or tapped, and his internet connection surveilled. And for these interruptions the Palestinian user must pay nearly twice as much as his Israeli counterpart. These kinds of limitations are combined with “legal” and military measures that further contain Palestinian telecommunications infrastructure. These include confiscating and forbidding the import of equipment, illegal competition by Israeli providers (most notoriously in the realm of cellular telephony), limited bandwidth, limitations on what equipment can be installed where, delay of approvals, and purposeful destruction of machinery and infrastructure. 

All of these limitations reinforce territorial barriers on high-tech flows, inhibit the development of Palestinian infrastructure, and perpetuate Palestinians’ economic dependence and de-development (and hence the uneven economic relationship).  They also, in a word, keep Palestinian networks open to hacking.

Paltel has become one of the largest, most successful Palestinian corporations – through practices that have been both criticised and hailed as monopolistic and neo-liberal. Today Paltel’s market capitalisation represents more than half of the value traded on the Palestinian stock exchange, contributes to approximately one third of the PA’s tax income, and its revenues account for approximately 10 per cent of the Palestinian GDP. Most of Paltel’s growth has been through its cellular and internet subsidiaries, Jawwal and Hadara, respectively. And Israel has had much to gain from these as well.

Paltel, Jawwal and Hadara have no choice but to purchase telecommunications capacity from the Israeli market. That Palestinian infrastructure is made to rely on the Israeli backbone and suppliers means that Israeli firms financially benefit from Palestinian telecommunications uses. Collectively, Israeli companies accumulate Palestinian-generated revenues at a number of points: Israeli operators surcharge calls between Jawwal phones and Israeli land and cellular numbers. Since all international calls, all calls to the West Bank, and many intra-Gaza calls and internet traffic are routed through Israel, Israeli operators collect “termination charges”. As one Paltel executive lamented to me in an interview in 2006, “Paltel is one of Bezeq’s biggest customers”. This hasn’t changed. In fact, the continued growth of the Palestinian telecommunications sector has certainly helped deepen the pockets of Bezeq and other Israeli telecommunications firms.

The source of power

Across the Palestinian territories, it is the Israeli regime and its apparatus (the government, the police force, the military, the intelligence services, the high-tech industry, all with incestuous ties to each other) that is the site of power. The PA, Paltel, Paltel’s subsidiaries and other Palestinian high-tech firms are secondary. It is the Israeli state apparatus that decides whether, when, and where Palestinians may install, manage and maintain infrastructure, just as it is the Israeli apparatus that limits and destroys that infrastructure. That any aspect of Palestinian infrastructure is hacked into then, is the responsibility ultimately of the Israeli regime.

Finally, what the events of last week also highlight is not ‘hacking’. Hacking in its historical roots refers to the breaking into computers, accessing administrative controls and other similar practices, under the ideological-political umbrella of the liberalist ideals of freedom of speech, the pursuit of technological beauty, of the desire to ‘free’ and keep code ‘open’. The shutdown of the Palestinian network is instead reflective of an act of cyber terrorism – whose intent of undermining the security of a digital network is explicitly malicious and destructive. In the case of Palestine, the mal-intent was not simply the purposeful target of the digital network, but the right to sovereignty as well.

Helga Tawil-Souri is an Assistant Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. Her book Digital Occupation is forthcoming.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.