When international businessmen cross into the West Bank, they take out their passports, turn off their now-lifeless smartphones, and change their mindset from investment to assistance. The only parts of the Palestinian territories with reliable mobile coverage are in major cities or Israeli settlements; high-speed mobile Internet is all but nonexistent. So here's an idea: Light up the West Bank with long-denied 3G wireless Internet connectivity and create an exception in the Arab League boycott of Israeli products for those that have Palestinian-controlled companies in their supply chains.
Without 3G -- and the economic opportunities that come with it -- the territories will likely continue their slide toward militancy. Last November, I visited the West Bank city of Hebron, where I encountered a joint Hamas-Fatah procession. Hundreds of Palestinian men paraded down the city's main thoroughfare arm in arm, waiving Fatah's flag alongside the trademark pennant of Hamas. This was an alarming development. The warming of historically hostile relations between Hamas and Fatah signals the increased militarization of Palestinian politics. Fatah is now a mainstream political party. Hamas, in contrast, remains a terrorist organization, regardless of its popularity and increasing reach into the political mainstream. It continues to conduct indiscriminate attacks, including mortar and rocket assaults against Israeli civilian targets.
While in the West Bank, I spoke at the Palestine Polytechnic University (PPU), which educates more than 5,000 Palestinian students every year in engineering, information technology, and computer science. After the requisite 20 minutes of listening to complaints about America's recent vote against granting Palestine nonmember observer-state status -- and implicit sovereignty -- at the United Nations, the discussion turned to what could be done outside the realm of politics to make life better in the West Bank. At one point, a young woman raised her hand and said, "We must have a better economy to have better lives, and we must have 3G to have better a better economy." The auditorium erupted in loud applause. She had hit on one of the most pressing problems faced by Palestinians, day in and day out.
Third-generation (3G) mobile communications technology might seem like a frivolous luxury to some, but it is foundational for economic development. The Palestinian territories will not be able to compete and succeed in today's technology-rich, knowledge-based economy without the basic infrastructure for participation -- and that means access to mobile broadband. In low- and middle-income countries like the Palestinian territories, the World Bank has found that a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration translates into a 1.38 percent bump in the GDP growth. Access to 3G would have a very positive impact for the Palestinian information and communications technology sector, generating an additional $60 million annually in addition to the $150 million in new revenues for the Palestinian Authority.
There is also a security upside to wiring the West Bank with 3G. Among the root causes of terrorism, according to research from the International Center for Counter-Terrorism, are relative depravation and marginalization -- both of which are fueled by stalled growth and unemployment. Take an example from the campus of PPU: In March 2003, a 20-year-old computer science student named Mahmoud Kawasme blew himself up on a bus in Haifa, Israel, killing 17 civilians and injuring another 53. Each year, 2,000 Palestinians graduate from local universities in technical subjects, but only about 30 percent of them find work in their fields. Radicalization and engineering skills are a nasty combination, so let's help these young people find jobs.