How Israel bought off UN’s war crimes probe

October 8, 2009

Jonathan Cook:  

6 October 2009

Israel celebrated at the weekend its success at the United Nations in
forcing the Palestinians to defer demands that the International
Criminal Court investigate allegations of war crimes committed by
Israel during its winter assault on the Gaza Strip.

The about-turn, following vigorous lobbying from Israel and the United
States, appears to have buried the damning report of Judge Richard
Goldstone into the fighting, which killed some 1,400 Palestinians, most
of them civilians.

Israeli diplomats suggested on Sunday that Washington had promised the
Palestinian Authority, in return for delaying an inquiry, that the US
would apply “significant pressure” on Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli
prime minister, to move ahead on a diplomatic process when the US
envoy, George Mitchell, arrives in the region tomorrow.

But, according to Israeli and Palestinian analysts, diplomatic
arm-twisting was not the only factor in the PA’s change of heart.
Haaretz newspaper reported last week that, behind the scenes,
Palestinian officials had faced threats that Israel would retaliate by
inflicting enormous damage on the beleaguered Palestinian economy.

In particular, Israel warned it would renege on a commitment to allot
radio frequencies to allow Wataniya, a mobile phone provider, to begin
operations this month in the West Bank. The telecommunications industry
is the bedrock of the Palestinian economy, with the current monopoly
company, PalTel, accounting for half the worth of the Palestinian stock

The collapse of the Wataniya deal would have cost the Palestinian
Authority hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties, blocked massive
investment in the local economy and jeopardized about 2,500 jobs.

Omar Barghouti, a Jerusalem-based founder of a Palestinian movement for
an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, denounced the Palestinian
Authority’s move: “Trading off Palestinian rights and the fundamental
duty to protect the Palestinians under occupation for personal gains is
the textbook definition of collaboration and betrayal.”

The deal to establish Wataniya as the second Palestinian mobile phone
operator has been at the center of the international community’s plans
to revive the West Bank’s economy and show that Palestinians are better
off under the rule of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, than

Tony Blair, the Middle East envoy representing the so-called Quartet of
the US, Russia, the UN and the EU, brokered the agreement last summer,
saying Wataniya’s investment of more than $700 million over the next 10
years would “provide a much-needed boost to the Palestinian economy.”

Wataniya is a joint venture between Palestinian investors, including
close allies of Abbas, and Qatari and Kuwaiti businessmen.

But while Netanyahu has welcomed the deal as part of his plans for an
“economic peace,” an option he prefers to Palestinian statehood, Israel
has been dragging its feet in allocating the necessary frequencies.

Wataniya’s planned launch earlier this year had to be pushed back and
the company has threatened to pull out of the deal if the new 15
October deadline is missed. If it does, the Palestinian Authority will
have to repay $140m in licensing fees and could be liable for hundreds
of millions more that Wataniya has invested in building 350
communication masts across the West Bank.

According to Who Profits?, an Israeli organization that investigates
links between Israel and international companies in exploiting the
occupied territories, Israel has a vested interest in limiting the
success of the Palestinian mobile phone industry and protecting its
control over extensive parts of the West Bank it wants for Jewish

The only existing Palestinian operator, Jawwal, a subsidiary of PalTel,
has been blocked from building communications infrastructure in the
so-called Area C of the West Bank, comprising 60 percent of the
territory, which is designated under full Israeli control.

Instead, four Israeli companies — Cellcom, Orange, Pelephone and Mirs
— have built an extensive network of antennas and transmission
stations for Jewish settlers in Area C. Mirs, a subsidiary of Motorola
Israel, also has an exclusive license to provide cellular services to
the Israeli military.

Typically, Palestinians traveling outside the major population areas of
the West Bank find a limited or non-existent Jawwal service and
therefore have to rely on the Israeli companies.

A World Bank report last year found that as much as 45 percent of the
Palestinian mobile phone market may be in the hands of the Israeli
companies. In violation of the Oslo accords, these firms do not pay
taxes to the PA for their commercial activity, losing the Palestinian
treasury revenues of up to $60m a year.

Israeli companies also rake off additional surcharges on connections
made by Palestinians using Jawwal, including calls between mobile
phones and landlines, between the West Bank and Gaza and many within
Area C, and international calls.

Dalit Baum, a founder of Who Profits?, said the importance of the
telecommunications industry to the Palestinian economy made it a point
of leverage over the PA at moments of diplomatic crisis, such as the
Goldstone report.

She said: “This case highlights not only how Israel restricts
Palestinian economic development through the occupation but also how it
uses that control for its own economic and diplomatic advantage.”

Israel’s chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, was reported last week to have
conditioned his approval for Wataniya’s launch on the Palestinian
leadership withdrawing demands for a referral to the war crimes

Defense officials were reported to be angry that the PA had supported
the attack on Gaza when it was launched last winter but were now
pressing for Israeli soldiers to be put in the dock. One senior figure
was quoted by the Haaretz newspaper saying: “The PA has reached the
point where it has to decide whether it is working with us or against

Under the Oslo accords, Israel retained ultimate control over the
“electro-magnetic spectrum,” including the allocation of radio
frequencies, in both Israel and the occupied territories.

Allan Richardson, Wataniya’s chief executive, who has previously
launched mobile services in post-war Iraq and Afghanistan, blamed
Israel for the company’s problems during an interview in July: “The
obstacles we’re suffering from are obstacles you’ll never get anywhere
else in the world.”

Last year Israel committed to providing Wataniya with a bandwidth of
4.8MHz, the absolute minimum required to provide coverage over the West
Bank, but so far has offered only 3.8MHz.

Jawwal finally received 4.8MHz from Israel in 1999, two years after it
launched. Despite the number of its subscribers growing tenfold to 1.1
million today, its bandwidth has remained the same. In comparison,
Israel’s Cellcom company, with three times as many subscribers, has

Abdel Malik Jaber, PalTel’s chief executive, complained last year that
millions of dollars of imported telecoms equipment was stuck at Israeli
customs, some of it since 2004. Wataniya has made similar accusations
against Israel.



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