Israel's Arabs Get Short Shrift in Telecoms Market

Mobile companies and TV broadcasters do little to cater to a fifth of the population.

Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv
Women speak on their phones as they ride a light rail in Jerusalem, November 11, 2014.
Women speak on their phones as they ride a light rail in Jerusalem, November 11, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv

Arabs make up over a fifth of Israel’s population and their share is growing, but Israel’s telecommunications and media companies have either ignored them or given them short shrift.

In the past that might have been explained by demographics, as well as by the fact that no major telecom or media company counts a single Israeli Arab as a senior executive. While they are as likely to own electronic appliances as their Jewish neighbors – 74% have a computer at home versus 77% for Israelis generally and 92% have a cellphone versus 99% nationwide – they are less likely to patronize restaurants, cafes and theaters, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. The CBS found that 91% of Israeli Arabs say home is their main venue for entertaining friends.

But Israeli Arabs are much younger than their Jewish counterparts, with an average age of 19.6 years versus 29.8 among Jews. A market study by the advertising agency Afak found that lifestyles and attitudes are changing with more liberal values coming to the fore.

“Women appear more conservative but beneath the surface they are leading the change,” Afak found. “They are more educated and more modern even if men remain dominant and are the one with the ‘final word.’”

Hamudis, a marketing company that specializes in the Arab sector, agrees. “The Arab sector is undergoing a change. The agents influencing it are the Arab world, Western culture and Israeli culture, and the main catalysts are the media – television, mainly Arab channels, advertising and the Internet,” said Hamudis. “The change has been expressed by increased individualism, the changing status of women, greater consumerism and the penetration of technology.”

At Israel’s cellphone companies, however, the Arab sector is not given any special treatment. Two years ago, a group of entrepreneurs talked about setting up a provider to cater to the market, but nothing came of it.

That could be because Israeli Arabs’ phone usage isn’t very different from the rest of the population’s – an unusual exception since as much as half of all ringtone and funtone downloads are done by Arabs, apparently because young people dating each other make use of them, according to a senior industry executive, who asked not to be identified.

“But why isn’t there, for example, a product like Musix for Arabs?” he asked, referring to the popular fee-based music service.

Cellphone companies offering overseas calls as part of their packages don’t include Arab countries like Jordan or the Palestinian Authority among their unlimited-calls destinations. 012 Mobile offers 500 minutes to 42 countries, none of them in the Arab world.

Israel’s two veteran cable television providers, Hot and Yes, offer Arabic channels as do niche offerings for Russian and French speakers, but the content in pretty thin. Cellcom TV, launched last month, has no Arabic channels at all so far.

The reason is that the majority of Israeli Arabs get Arabic-language television directly through satellite dishes installed in their homes. The most popular show is “Arab Idol,” broadcast by MBC from Dubai and filmed in Lebanon.

Most of the satellite broadcasts themselves are free but the cost of putting up a satellite dish is 1,800 shekels (nearly $550) and usually requires at least three visits a year by a technician for maintenance, each visiting costing 150 shekels. Subscribing to premium channels can cost another 1,200 shekels a year.

In terms of infrastructure, Bezeq’s lines reach every home in Israel, but Hot doesn’t offer service to many Arab towns. A list prepared by the Communications Ministry shows 224 municipalities don’t get Hot, but in the Jewish sector they are mainly tiny communities, while in the Arab sector they include sizable towns like Daliat al-Carmel and Isfiya.

Without Hot, Bezeq has the field to itself and the cost of infrastructure in Arab communities tends to be a higher and the selection of content slimmer. Internet infrastructure is allocated equally, with one smaller service provider, Coolnet with 80,000 customers, owned by an Israeli Arab.

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