The Conflict in Gaza: The Role (or lack thereof) of Mobile Phones

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Dec 31, 2008

Some people are claiming that the conflict in Gaza is a "social war." But so far, social media is used mainly for propaganda and there is a marked absence of voices from people affected by the conflict, and of useful applications of mobile and other social media.  As the Israeli bombing of Gaza is continuing and is now in its third day, mobile communication is beginning to make the news but is not playing the dominant role in citizen reporting and aid communications as it has in other conflicts.

A few examples that have not been reported anywhere else: Souktel, an organization in Ramallah that is known for its SMS-job matching service connecting Palestine youth with work, is running a Palestinian "SMS Blood Bank" program for the Red Crescent.

This two-way messaging system lets Red Crescent staff send out mass appeals for blood donations, and hear back from donors if needed.  The Red Crescent has aso divided its pool of 9,000 donors into SMS "mailing lists" according to blood type, and in the last few days sent SMS appeals to 5,000 blood donors.  As IRIN reports, there is an increasingly dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Meanwhile, there are lots of people on both sides of the conflict are on Twitter, making their respective cases more or less polemically. Twitter is, of course, also used by many news organizations. The Israeli consulate in New York, as part of ongoing Israeli public relation efforts, held a 'citizen press conference' on Twtter today, answering questions and making the Israeli case. David Saranga, Consul of Media and Public Affairs in New York, answered questions for more than an hour.  According to a release, the consulate "will do our best to answer through Twitter.  If an answer requires more than the 140 character limit, we will respond on Twitter with a link to an answer posted on our blog."

Al Jazeera, the widely-viewed Arab news outlet, and its New Media unit have already been experimenting with mobile reporting, and user-generated content.  Viewers of the media outlet can submit videos on its English site or on the Arab site, with mobile integration planned for the next few days. So far, journalists are using their mobile reporting kits that we've previously written about to produce coverage from Gaza, such as in this mobile phone footage during a recent air raid. Al Jazeera has an SMS news service, and just started reporting on Twitter via a special channel on the conflict in Gaza (though so far with only a few hundred followers.) Al Jazeera may also well be the first media outlet with a twitter widget on a news page. The channel, on its 24-hour Arabic network, also airs viewer text messages on a ticker.

Mobile penetration in the Palestinian territories is high, and the use of mobile phones in Palestine widespread. According to an USAID report, mobile use reaches into the lower-income deciles, with 81% of households having access to a mobile phone (and this data is as of 2006.  It is estimated that state-owned provider JAWWAL has more than 1 million cellular subscribers. In addition, various others estimate that 20-33% of Palestinian mobile phone users are utilizing Israeli networks. However, the Palestine telcom market is characterized by a monopoly and a lack of regulations that have made cross-border mobile communications difficult.

According to a 2008 World Bank report, PalTel controls the vast majority of the mobile  market in West Bank and Gaza through its subsidiary Jawwal. Jawwal relies on PalTel’s infrastructure for domestic communication, and on three Israeli gateway operators for international communications. The report notes, that "because of the fact that Israeli customs recently  did not allow the import of particular switching equipment, Jawwal indicates that it was compelled to host part of its mobile switches in London and to route communication through that switching equipment through one of the Israeli operators." 



 Thanks so much for highlighting all the services/resources that you have here. I'm now in Week #3 of a 4-week Palestinian NGO volunteering mission. And yours and others' resources have been a real godsend in collecting as much information as possible about every available resource. Mobile plays a life-saving role -- seriously -- during this extraordinary times/conditions, particularly in the Gaza strip.

More power to you, and your funders like USAid for not only the continued support and coverage, but also for the continued belief in *and* on-the-ground tangible deliverables (food, medicine, fuel, power, ICT, and money to procure). In the field, on the ground deliverables is what really matters at the end of the day for the families and communities in need.

All the best of continued success in 2009 and beyond!!

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