Palestinian Internet Users Stuck Between Fatah, Hamas and Israel

Gaza-West Bank split, as well as Israeli blockade, hinder Palestinians' ability to access information online.

Internet use among Palestinians is suffering from the West Bank-Gaza split and from Israeli pressure, according to a new report published this week.

The Global Information Society Watch report, which is published annually, deals this time with issues surrounding access to information and freedom of acquiring knowledge, two things the report argues are essential for the sustainance of a democratic society.

The Gaza Strip split from the Palestinian Authority in a bloody coup staged by Hamas in 2007. Now, the Palestinians are divided into two nearly independent entities, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement ruling the West Bank, and their rival Hamas governing Gaza.

Anat Ben-David, who penned the section of the report on Palestinians with Palestinian businessman Sam Bahour, said the split between the two Palestinian territories created problems. "The current situation where Gaza and Ramallah are simultaneously operating two separate communications ministries, each one with a different policy regarding access to online content and information, hinders the advancement of the Palestinian information processes launched in 2005," she said.

Ben-David, of the Science, Technology and Society department at Bar-Ilan University, says that the Palestinian Authority ranks low when it comes to providing its constituents access to information. On the other hand, the rate of internet use among Palestinians ranks high in comparison to other Arab countries in the Middle East.

Ben-David adds that a third of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and in Gaza have a computer at home, but only half of them - 15.9 percent - have internet access. In contrast, the rate of internet use in Egypt is currently at 20 percent, and In Jordan, some 64 percent of the population use the internet to access information.

Israel has a hand in these problem, Ben-David argues. Israel prevents equipment meant for bettering the internet industry from entering the Palestinian Authority - equipment such as servers and routers. Moreover, Israel is delaying giving a permit to Wataniya, a second cell phone and internet provider in the West Bank, which bolsters the existing company PalTel's monopoly. Ben-David says that "according to the Oslo accords, PalTel is required to pass the communication lines outside the West Bank and through Israel."

Ben-David notes that Palestinian legislation also hinders freedom of information since it addresses these issues in journalism but ignores online media. "This leaves many loopholes regarding creative rights and censorship," says Ben-David.

The problems in Gaza are getting worse, and not only because of the Israeli blockade. Even though PalTel is providing internet service to both the West Bank and Gaza, Ben-David says that "access to content considered harmful to Islamic values is monitored in Gaza, but not in the West Bank." Such content include sex sites, sites concerning gay rights, or sites connected to religions other than Islam.

Furthermore, it was previously published that Hamas screens information concerning itself. Among other strange problems resulting from the Gaza / West Bank split, there is the fact that Hamas controls the web address ps., and therefore controls the registration of government addresses as well. So even though Hamas is a de facto government, its sites enjoy the use of the address while the Fatah government can only use the ps. address.