Palestine not only has a pie in the sky, it also has one off the coast of Gaza and many more across the land. The pies here are strategic economic assets for a Palestinian economy worthy of a state. But all of them are under total Israeli military control, rendering them paralyzed at best.
Until the collective international community — not just the United States — starts using its political weight to hold Israel accountable for holding an entire economy — and people — hostage, the reality on the ground is bound to get worse and the forthcoming violence more deadly and damaging.
The first potential asset is the electromagnetic spectrum, better known as broadcast frequencies. These frequencies, are the media through which telephones, radios and televisions work. In Palestine, these frequencies above ground are occupied by the Israeli military, just like the land and water below.
The Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement signed on Sept. 28, 1995 regulates the bilateral relations between Palestinians and Israelis, and dedicates an entire annex specifically to the issue of telecommunications. It states as its first principle that “Israel recognizes that the Palestinian side has the right to build and operate separate and independent communication systems and infrastructures including telecommunication networks ...” (Annex 3, Article 36). Sounds great — until you read on. The rest of the annex is dedicated to making sure that the utilization of any economic resource required to actually build such networks would require unilateral Israeli approval.
So the Palestinians have the “right” to build a cellular network, but to do so, they will require frequencies which only Israel, their occupier, can release to them. This is the equivalent of giving your teenage child the right to use the car, but making them ask you for the keys every time they want to do so.
Palestinians yearn to use 3G telecommunication services. To do so, they require the specific frequencies which allow all of those smartphones to be connected to high-speed data networks. Over the past several years, Israel has refused to approve multiple Palestinian requests for their 3G frequencies, even though that very same Interim Agreement article states that the Israeli side “must fulfill these requirements within a period not exceeding one month …” In the meantime, Israel allows its own cellular operators, which are unlicensed in the Palestinian Authority (PA) area, to use the Palestinians’ 3G frequencies, in essence stifling the ability of the Palestinian telecommunications sector, and that of the economy as a whole, to grow.
What is missing is the Palestinian operators’ ability to provide services, to create the jobs to provide such services, to pay taxes that would support the PA and so on. In short, an Israeli muzzle is suffocating the Palestinian economy.
In Gaza, the situation is even more acute. Israel refuses to allow a second licensed Palestinian operator to bring in equipment and set up its own network, leaving Gazans with a monopoly service provider and, along with it, fewer job opportunities and a higher cost of living.
If prohibiting Palestine’s telecommunications sector from growing is not enough, Israel is making sure that the Palestinian economy will not benefit from their largest asset, which lies off the shores of Gaza: an estimated $6.5 billion in natural gas found in 1999.
According to estimates of the Palestine Investment Fund (PIF), one of the partners responsible for developing this strategic asset, there are 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas available in two offshore gas fields. PIF’s gas-exploration partners are the BG Group and the Consolidated Contractors Company.
The sky is occupied. The sea is occupied. And the land does not stand a chance.
A free Palestine has so much to offer — everything from a vibrant agricultural industry to a tourism sector built around the magnificent sites of the Holy Land, such as the Church of the Nativity, Dome of the Rock, Church of the Holy Sepulcher and hundreds of others. Add to that a cultural and arts scene that can give the rest of the region a serious run for its money. But none of these can be economically developed as long as Israel maintains a 10-meter-high separation wall and hundreds of military checkpoints within Palestinian lands, and as long as Israel continues to control the borders, effectively blocking the entire Muslim world from visiting and frequently turning away Christians — and even Jews — from its borders.
As the PA finds itself having to beg for financial assistance to remain afloat, donor countries such as the US are turning a blind eye to the fact that Palestine has plenty of natural and economic resources to stand on its own. Instead of throwing their citizens’ tax dollars in the never-ending well required to sustain the PA, the powers that be would be well-advised to hold Israel accountable.
If doing so requires calling for sanctions on Israel until it ends its 45-year military occupation, then so be it. Sanctions, as hard as they are to apply, remain a much more nonviolent tool than allowing the situation in Gaza and the West Bank to boil over into war yet again.
Sam Bahour is a business-development consultant living in Ramallah. He frequently provides independent commentary on Palestine and serves as a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network. He blogs at www.epalestine.com.