Light Up the West Bank

Want to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process? Start with 3G.

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.

Today, there are mobile companies ready to make 3G a reality in the Palestinian territories, but Israel has so far refused access to the necessary frequencies and imported equipment. Although some believe that Israel restricts access for security reasons, others argue that it wants to protect Israeli telecommunications companies or restrict the avenues through which Palestinians can share their narratives with the wider world. Still others believe that the Israeli government fears the empowerment that would come to Palestinian youth by virtue of their newfound connectedness. In other words, the holdup is political, not economic or technological. Restricting access not only costs the Palestinian Authority some $150 million annually in lost tax revenue, but it also stunts the growth of the Palestinian high-tech sector. Currently, the high-tech industry in the territories is forced to focus on low-end tasks like IT outsourcing. Without access to 3G, Palestinian start-ups cannot specialize in higher-value functions, such as software development.

But confidence-building measures should move in both directions. If Israel allows for 3G access in the Palestinian territories, then Arab states should relax their boycott of Israeli goods and make an exception for those that have Palestinian-controlled companies in their supply chains. Arab states should also allow their citizens to provide labor and services to those companies. If they need to slap a "Made in Palestine" sticker on the products, so be it.

Israeli entrepreneurs have succeeded despite their lack of access to neighboring markets and workforces, but there are no other examples of this level of economic success being achieved under similar conditions. The supply capacity developed through regional integration prepares countries to enter the global economy with strength. And lest the Arab states think they would be handing Israel an outsized concession, they should remember that their own workforces would benefit from access to the supply chains of high-end Israeli tech firms. The simple fact is that Arab countries are not producing high-value technology products and services on a scale that even remotely rivals Israel's success. Arab countries need the jobs, and they could stand to learn a thing or two about technology-driven entrepreneurship from Israel, whether they want to admit it or not.

Providing 3G access to the Palestinian territories is just one example of the type of concrete actions that Israelis, Palestinians, and third-party actors should be promoting. To overcome the region's hardened cynicism, Israelis and Palestinians need to see real progress that makes their day-to-day lives better -- even if only incrementally. The simple things that can be done today may do more than anything else to help achieve the lofty goals of tomorrow.


Democracy Lab

Europe's Dirty Little Secret

Europe prides itself on its democratic credentials. So why is a tiny band of underdog dissidents having such a hard time fighting the continent’s last dictator?

Tom Stoppard, the celebrated playwright, is hailed as a "bard for our times," who has been showered with awards for his work. Yet Sir Tom (Queen Elizabeth II knighted the Czech émigré in 1997) cannot mask the catch in his throat when he tells me about a review the New York Times published on January 17, 2013. The reviewer, Ben Brantley described Minsk 2011 as "beautiful and brutal" and enthused about its "mythic" quality.

"You couldn't hope for a better review, could you?"

Sir Tom is basking in reflected glory. The play is not his, but the work of the Belarus Free Theater, a company that he has long championed that was banned from performing in their homeland because of their daring criticism of Aleksander Lukashenko, the Belarusian autocrat.

Stoppard has also been helping another Lukashenko foe, Andrei Sannikov. The former deputy foreign minister was tortured and imprisoned for standing against Lukashenko in the December 2010 presidential elections. His show trial two years ago came to a dramatic standstill when a letter of support by Tom Stoppard was read out. Sannikov attributes his release (after 16 months in prison) to the playwright's intervention.

But despite their victory, neither the dissident nor playwright is capable of really opposing Aleksander Lukashenko. The man known as Europe's last dictator has held his country in an iron grip for 19 years. Under him, Belarus, a country the size of Kansas, with 9.5 million inhabitants, has earned one of the worst records on political rights and civil liberties in the world. The regime has carefully orchestrated every election and national referendum since 1994.

The first line of the national anthem may proclaim, "We are Belarusians, a peaceful people," but a secret death squad has been in operation since the late 1990s. A dozen members of the opposition have disappeared and a number of activists are thought to be political prisoners.

"Lukashenko's regime has dealt with the opposition by literally murdering a small number of people," Stoppard tells me. The Belarusian KGB (Lukashenko has clung to the old Soviet name and model for his secret police) keeps an eye on their fellow citizens. New laws make that all the easier, especially online, with the government investing heavily in the development of software to track Internet users i.e. 55 percent of Belarusians over the age of 15. Lukashenko has also been orchestrating cyber attacks against activists. On December 19, 2010, the day of the last presidential elections, opposition sites were blocked. By 2 p.m. local time, access to mail and Facebook were blocked, and by 4 p.m. almost all independent websites were inaccessible.

Belarus is Europe's dirty little secret. Its existence should fill Europeans with shame and the European Union with guilt. The institution that likes to grandstand about a common moral purpose and a sterling record on rights has done little to clean up the mess on its doorstep. Belarus may not be a member, but it routinely deals with the European Union -- which actually tends to put its weaknesses on vivid display.

Andrei Sannikov certainly thinks so. Exiled to a town just outside London, he feels at once baffled and frustrated by Western (and in particular European) indifference to his compatriots' plight. Self-interest should prompt them to action, he argues: "Westerners should remember that what happens in Belarus affects them. Lukashenko has established ties with other rogue states around the world, and supplied terrorists with arms. Qaddafi, Iran, Sudan, even Saddam Hussein: Lukashenko has sold arms to them all."

Self-interest does feature in the west's dealings with Belarus. But not in the way Sannikov hopes. E.U. countries like the Netherlands and Latvia buy cheap oil products from Belarusian refineries. In the first six months of last year alone, Lukashenko earned $8 billion from the trade.

The surveillance equipment he uses to spy on his citizens is made by Swedish telecommunication giant Ericsson -- though when confronted by Index on Censorship, Ericsson explained that this was because the company had sold its equipment to Turkcell, a Turkish cell phone operator, which in turn had sold their wares to Belarus.

Britain, meanwhile, last year sold to Belarus some £3 million worth of arms. The government-sponsored Joint Arms Control Implementation Group has invited Belarusian officers later this year to Britain, where they are supposed to receive training in "managing" Belarus's weapons stockpile.

Is it any wonder the Belarusian opposition thinks Europe is propping up the "last dictatorship?" Sannikov persists with his mission: to oust Aleksandr Lukashenko. The West finds it convenient to portray Belarus as a "basket case," he says indignantly, because depicting Belarusians as "passive and brutalized" makes it easier for Europeans to wash their hands of their troublesome neighbors.

It's difficult, despite Sannikov's patriotic fervor, not to view his homeland as a hopeless cause. Belarus has long been a geographical expression, but it only gained independence in 1918 -- and even then for only a few months. Sandwiched between Europe and Russia, Belarus was the center of the Holocaust, according to Timothy Snyder, and the "route number one" for the Nazis' invasion of the USSR in 1941.

One of the founding republics of the old Soviet Union, Belarus played an instrumental part in the USSR's dissolution. But it has never managed to emerge from the Kremlin's orbit. Today it remains sorely dependent on Russia for its energy supplies. A telling sign of Belarusians' weak sense of identity is that most citizens speak Russian rather than Belarusian at home. As for their leader, Lukashenko uses Russian for all official functions -- though the wily dictator may do this to please Vladimir Putin. The two leaders have had their run-ins, though. Only last year, Russian television broadcast an unflattering four part series titled The Godfather, as it dubbed the Belarusian dictator.

The Mafia soubriquet fits only to a point. Lukashenko often plays the clown, Berlusconi-style. When Guido Westerwelle, Germany's gay foreign minister, warned him recently that the European Union would recall their ambassadors from Minsk in protest at his dictatorial regime, Lukashenko replied that "I'd rather be a dictator than gay." Such reckless behavior stems from Lukashenko's knowledge that the West wants to keep Belarus on the side. He ably plays Russia against the European Union and is not above using political prisoners as bargaining chips -- but only, Sannikov claims, because Europe allows it. "They enter into secret negotiations and promise Lukashenko something in return.... It's tit for tat, a loan for a prisoner." (E.U. bilateral assistance to Belarus consisted of 28.50 million Euros in 2012-2013, mostly in the area of environment, education and cross-border cooperation.)

Despite the bleak history of his homeland and the cunning ploys of its dictator, Andrei Sannikov has no time for those who claim Belarusians are not interested in democracy. For Sannikov, democracy is about aspiration, not habit. "When a group of people gather across a kitchen table, or over the factory assembly line, or in a youth group, and talk of making changes -- that is civil society. It exists in Belarus as in North Korea and China. It simply isn't allowed to have legal channels in these countries."

Natalia Kaliada, who with her husband Nikolai Khalezin founded the Free Belarus Theatre, was arrested at the 2010 election protests. She recalls being pulled up into a paddy wagon. "It was one of those specially built ones, to fit 70-80 people. I was shouting, and the police shouted back ‘face the floor, don't look around!' But then I remembered I'd been told that when you are taken, you must immediately collect all the names of those around you, then text them to someone abroad before they take your phone away. I managed to send many names ... but then the police started shouting that they would rape us women and take us into a wood and shoot us."

Kaliada was taken instead to a detention center already full of women protesters. She was released 48 hours later, and escaped through Russia to London. Her family has joined her there.

Like Sannikov, she believes that "so many [Belarusians] have experienced first-hand the brutality of the authorities, they will realize they cannot live with this regime." They will, she firmly believes, turn to the opposition. "Lukashenko controls the media, but there were 30,000 witnesses that day."

Sannikov believes that those 30,000 protesters will soon swell into 300,000. He points to the latest polls, which show that although a third of citizens support Lukashenko, 15 percent now side with the opposition.

He believes he can stoke the fires of democracy from abroad -- with a little help from his friends in the west. His confidence lies in part in Charter'97, the opposition website he helped found. "It can be populist and sensationalist," a former diplomat explains, "but the website is great propaganda. Not only critics of the regime but an awful lot of high-up civil servants and government ministers are reading the site."

Sometimes, Sannikov points out, grinning, "regime officials quote from the website... even on air. The internet means we can work abroad but reach those inside."

But Charter'97 alone will not transform Belarus. Sannikov calls on the West to help him and the opposition by adopting tougher sanctions. The recalling of ambassadors was one step. The European Commission also has drawn up a list of "undesirables" who may not cross its frontiers, and whose assets in the E.U. will be frozen.

Marietje Schaake, a Dutch MEP who has long campaigned for a more robust E.U. stance in regards to Belarus, admits that none of the European Union's "restrictive measures have had much impact on the policies or actions of the Belarusian government. On April 1, 2013, their foreign minister [Vladimir Makei] said his country was ready for dialogue with the E.U. -- but without any pressure or threat of sanctions."

When targeted sanctions, and his own heroic opposition, fail to dent a dictatorship, what can Sannikov do?

Exchange students, scout trips, cycle tours, and spa tourism: Greater exchange with the West, at every level of society, will make the Belarusian people "see for themselves freedom of speech, of the press, the rule of law. They won't accept their oppression anymore."

Sannikov wants to persuade the European Union to change their visa requirements: Traveling abroad is allowed -- but to date the West has made it difficult, as obtaining a visa is time-consuming and expensive. This may change, according to Marietje Schaake. The European Union wants to start negotiations on visa facilitation and readmission agreements for the public at large. The Belarusian government has not yet replied to the offer, and Schaake says this speaks volumes for Lukashenko's desire for isolation. "After all," she argues, "the dogma and doctrine is easily challenged when people experience a higher quality of life abroad."

While Lukashenko mulls over his options -- can he afford to tweak Europe's nose once more? Will Vladimir repudiate him if he doesn't? -- Sannikov believes his own role is to keep Belarus on the international agenda.

It will be difficult, Tom Stoppard warns: "What are a handful of murders in comparison to the massacres we see daily in Syria? What are a dozen disappeared in comparison to the scenes of destruction of the Arab Spring?" He pauses. "But there is one reason why Belarus should matter to us: This is Europe."