Just before the incident with my home that made me decide to take a break from Palestine, Israeli journalist Tzuri Dar got in contact with me to do a feature on the Palestinian Internet for Ha'aretz, a quality newspaper in Israel. It was published in the wake of my departure and, despite a few unintentional factual innaccuracies and an unfortunate section heading half-way through the article, served as a timely epitaph for my time spent helping to build the Palestinian Internet. For more information about that area of my work, see this section of nigelparry.com. The recommended websites that appear at the bottom of the page are the same that appeared in the article, and not my own.
Facing lousy phone service and Israeli restrictions, Palestinians had a slow start getting going on the information highway. Now, many are trying to catch up. Here's a guide to Palestinian websites.
On April 20, an investigative series began appearing on the Internet, under the title, "Who killed Muhi a Din Sharif?" The reports, written by Nigel Parry of Bir Zeit University, pinned the blame on the Palestinian Authority (PA). Much was written in the papers on Sharif's mysterious death, but no Palestinian journalists dared to point the finger at the Palestinian Authority, to accuse it of collusion with Israel. Whether his comrades killed him or PA security chief Jibril Rajoub's hit men killed him, this was the first time the Palestinian Authority was challenged by the Palestinian press without a response.1 The apparent reason is that the Palestinian Authority does not quite know what to do with the Internet. The Palestinians have never had very high quality telecommunications. For 23 years, making a phone call from the territories to Arab countries was an almost impossible task. Even a local phone call could not be taken for granted. Residents of the territories had to wait seven years on average for a telephone line from Bezeq. Adding to these difficulties was a June 1989 military order prohibiting the use of phone lines to send faxes and e-mail from the territories. This order, made public during the Intifada, closed off quite a few propaganda channels.
The telecommunications infrastructure was planned in such a way as to make it possible for Israel to control. For example, a call from Gaza to Khan Yunis was routed through Ashkelon and calls inside the West Bank were routed through Jerusalem, Netanya and Afula. The Oslo agreements canceled the prohibition on sending faxes and e-mail from the Palestinian Authority, and even gave the Palestinians partial control over telephone lines in Areas A and B. A Palestinian telephone company, Paltel, was established. The privately owned company is now trying to close the quality gap in phone service between the Palestinian Authority and Arab countries. Other matters have yet to be settled in negotiations, such as the issue of international calls and Internet access.
Thus, just when the Internet was beginning to take off, access to it and to e-mail was denied to Palestinians in the territories. Residents of East Jerusalem, however, could hook up through Israeli service providers or through Palnet. Palnet is mainly responsible for bringing the Internet to Palestinian society. Established in 1995 in Ramallah merely as an e-mail provider, the ingenuity of its founders and the hunger for Internet among the Palestinians quickly turned it into the leading Internet provider in the Ramallah and Jerusalem area.
The company exploited the permission for Internet access given to East Jerusalemites to connect the rest of the Palestinian Authority to the Internet, right under the authorities' nose. To overcome the prohibition against hooking up to the Internet, Palnet leased a 128KB line from Netvision to the Sami Ramis neighborhood of East Jerusalem, creating a wireless network using microwave transmissions. In a short time, an infrastructure was created to enable all the residents of the Palestinian Authority to hook up to the Internet, in opposition to the agreements. The access granted to Palestinians to international calls following the Oslo agreements immediately led to intensive use of e-mail. After years of restrictions, scholars and research institutes started making contact with their counterparts abroad, and various human rights organizations used e-mail to transmit reports to Amnesty International2.
Since 1996, there has been a significant rise in the number of Palestinian websites. From a handful two years ago, they have grown to more than 180. According to estimates from Bir Zeit University, some 2,000 people in the Palestinian Authority have access to the Internet. Maa'an Baseiso of Palnet offers much higher figures. "According to our figures, we have 7,000 users in the West Bank and Gaza, with the numbers constantly growing. The low numbers are an outgrowth of the low per-capita income and the poor telephone infrastructure left from the time of the Israelis. For example, last year there were only 2.9 telephones per 100 people. Paltel is improving this ratio by laying new lines."
Nigel Parry, the author of the investigative pieces on Muhi a Din Sharif, is a young Scotsman working in Bir Zeit, and is considered a major authority on the use of multimedia in the Palestinian Authority. He has constructed a number of Palestinian websites, including The Complete Guide to Palestinian Sites. Parry says that the level of computerization and Internet skills in the Palestinian Authority is very low compared to the Western world, because of economics, education, poor infrastructure and low levels of English. According to a study conducted at the Technological Institute of Georgia, English dominates the Internet, at 91.84 percent. Other languages are French 1.18 percent, German 1.07 percent, Spanish 0.9 percent, Hebrew 0.17 percent and Arabic 0.07 percent.
Parry calls the official site of the Palestinian Authority a "riddle" because of the poor quality of its English. Parry does not have any figures on the level of computerization in the offices of the Palestinian Authority, but he describes the infrastructure and level as "not bad to good."
Are attempts being made by the security forces of the Palestinian Authority to censor the Internet? "For the time being, no," Parry says. "In order to get an idea of how far we have gone with publications on the Net, see the site on Muhi a Din Sharif that got by without any response. Apparently, many of the security people are not very well educated. Modeling themselves on other Arab countries, they censor what is printed in papers. I don't believe they have the technical knowledge to censor the Internet. In any case, if they tried, they would fail. Blocking is impossible, even with a national proxy server like they have in Singapore. Even if the Palestinian Authority re-routes all the information on the Web through one central point, all I have to do is dial to a service provider in Israel or Jordan. There is no way to completely limit the flow of information." If Palnet is responsible for building the Palestinian Internet infrastructure, then Bir Zeit University has the monopoly on the contents. The site was launched in June 1996 and 47,000 people visited it in its first year. Bir Zeit University takes the Internet seriously. Much of the work involves developing the ability of the Palestinians to fight for democracy and human rights. Parry points out that until now, most of the Palestinian material on the Net has been from political sources3, because the vast majority of Palestinian people do not have access to the Net.
Dr. Ahmed Tibi, advisor to Arafat, believes that there is a clear link between the Internet and the development of democracy in the Palestinian Authority, and states that there will be no censorship.
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