The Mobile Phone War
Adam Shatz · The Goldstone Report and the PA
In early October the Palestinian Authority dropped its draft resolution calling for a discussion of the Goldstone Report in the UN Security Council or the International Criminal Court. The 575-page report was, by all accounts, one of the most exhaustive and withering studies to date of Israeli war crimes. It also chastised the PA’s rival, Hamas, for firing rockets at Israeli civilians. The PA, which looked on at the Gaza war from distant Ramallah, would seem to have nothing to lose in light of the report's findings, and everything to gain. Yet the PA’s chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, was persuaded that going forward with its resolution would give the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, a pretext to avoid resuming negotiations – and the resolution would, in any case, be vetoed by the Obama administration.
To the Palestinian public in the West Bank and Gaza, Abbas's volte-face was treason, and so, two weeks later, the PA reversed itself again. 'We have the courage to admit there was a mistake,' said Yasir Abed Rabbo, secretary general of the PLO and a close Abbas ally, but he didn't have the courage to explain why the mistake was made.
In the Western press, Abbas's blunder was widely described as an act of realpolitik that backfired in the court of public opinion, but the real story may have more to do with a mobile-phone company called Wataniya, a joint venture set up by a group of investors from Kuwait and Qatar (57 per cent share) and the Palestine Investment Fund (43 per cent), whose head is Abbas's chief economic adviser, Mohammad Mustafa. In July 2008, Tony Blair brokered a deal between the PA and Israel that would have allowed Wataniya to become Palestine's second mobile-phone operator, with a bandwidth of 4.8 MHz; the launch date was meant to be 15 October this year.
In divided Palestine, economic development is factional politics: Wataniya had to succeed, if only to provide proof that Palestinians are better off under the PA in the West Bank than in Hamas-controlled Gaza. It's an argument Netanyahu has also been keen to make, in the hopes that middle-class West Bankers can be bought off, the Gazans forgotten, and statehood consigned to oblivion.
But on 15 September, Richard Goldstone released his findings. According to Jonathan Cook in the National, Israel warned Abbas that unless the Palestinian Authority withdrew its draft resolution on the report, it would deny Wataniya all of its radio frequencies; the PA promptly fell into line, requesting a six-month delay on the resolution. It isn’t hard to imagine what Abbas and his associates were thinking: if the deal collapsed, the PA would have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties, and would also suffer a major loss in investment and jobs (more than 2000). Why should war crimes in Gaza get in the way of the West Bank telecommunications industry? Couldn't this wait another six months?
The PA made its second U-turn, in response to Palestinian public opinion, on 6 October: the resolution on the Goldstone Report wouldn’t be postponed after all. On 15 October, the day Wataniya was set to launch, Israel 're-awarded' it 3.8 MHz of airwave frequency spectrum. This was still 1 MHz shy of the 4.8 MHz it needs to be fully operational – Israel's three major mobile-phone firms each have between 20 and 46 MHz. Why the shortfall? Israeli officials say it's because the PA has failed to honour certain unnamed 'commitments'; one of those commitments may have been deferring to its wishes on Goldstone.