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Palestinians' Phone Boycott Is Call to Arms

Mideast: Cellular devices become a weapon in the conflict with Israel, both as an object of economic competition and as a means to kill enemies.

July 07, 2001|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JENIN, West Bank — Each week, three Palestinians who have traded in their Israeli cellular phones for the rival Palestinian product get lucky. Their new phone rings, they answer, and a voice at the other end congratulates each of them for winning a weekend for two in Egypt.

Despite more than 6,000 trade-ins, some in Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority have concluded that the prizes--the bait in a 2-month-old patriotic campaign dubbed "Switch and Win"--are not enough. Last week, this hardscrabble town in the West Bank became the first in the Palestinian territories to outlaw the sale of Israeli cell phones.

The reason for the prizes and the crackdown is the same: The telephone is a weapon in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It's partly economic. The 9-month-old Palestinian uprising has spurred a campaign to boycott imports from Israel and promote the domestic Palestinian economy, including the fledgling Jawwal cell phone network.

But telephones also are literally part of the dueling arsenals, helping Israelis track and kill militants on their most-wanted list and Palestinians to trigger terrorist bombs.

Occasionally, a Palestinian with an Israeli cell phone gets unlucky: The phone rings, he answers and, instead of a voice on the other end, there's a deadly explosion right in his face.

At least two Palestinian militants have died this way--betrayed by Israeli collaborators who gained their trust and handed them a phone rigged to blow up with the next answered call. And in a Middle East version of "Dial M for Murder," a member of Arafat's Fatah movement died in the West Bank last month when a booby-trapped public phone exploded as he was using it.

More important, cell phone signals help Israeli security services track wanted Palestinians, and that is why the anti-Israel boycott has become mandatory in this town of 40,000 people. Six Palestinians with Israeli phones have been killed in targeted assassinations here during the uprising, according to Kadura Musa, the local Fatah leader.

"Israeli phones have been banned for two reasons: first for security, second for the sake of developing our own network," Musa said, explaining the order by the police chief.

Police inspectors have warned Jenin's phone dealers that they can be fined $1,125 for violating the ban, which authorities are thinking of extending to other cities and towns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel monopolized the cell phone business in the territories for years before the Palestinians, who gained self-rule in 1994, set up the Jawwal network with help from Sweden's Ericsson cell phone maker in 1999.

The Palestinians are still low-tech underdogs in their guerrilla and commercial battles with Israel, but they are trying to catch up.

Palestinian militants attach cell phones to bombs planted in cars, motorcycles, shopping malls and near fast-food stands, then call the number on those phones to set off explosions and kill passersby.

When Israeli forces detect an unexploded bomb, the government can get Israel's three cell phone companies to shut down the network in that location, disabling the triggering phone if it is one of theirs.

But a growing number of terrorist bombs are set off by Palestinian cell phones--apparently, Israeli security specialists say, because there are more such phones in circulation.

Since the uprising began last September, the number of Jawwal subscribers has grown from 60,000 to 95,000, according to PalCell, which operates the network from Nablus in the West Bank. The company predicts that it will have 216,000 customers by next year; that would nearly equal the number of fixed-phone lines and overtake the three Israeli companies' 200,000 cell phone clients in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Special discounts, patriotic appeals, the boycott campaign and the weekly prizes have helped narrow the gap--aided by the Palestinians' rage over the disproportionate losses of lives, property and freedom of movement suffered by their side since the conflict began.

"Any action against Israel and Israeli products is popular here," declared Said Kakawi, 21, who manages his family's restaurant in Jenin. He was in Ashraf Azooka's shop to trade in his Israeli cell phone for a Palestinian one. "Our national interests are at stake."

As a video game called "Lethal Weapon" played on a television screen above a glass-top counter, Azooka took stock of his day--seven Jawwal phones given out in exchange for Israeli ones, and four more Jawwals sold outright.

Nearly all the phones he collected were connected to Israel's Cellcom network--infamous in the West Bank for the ease with which Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security service, can trace its signal and ascertain the location of its users to within a few yards.

Some phone dealers expect Cellcom sales here to go underground because not everyone welcomes the ban.

Jawwal's coverage area in the West Bank, outside the main towns, is spotty. Israeli companies, with antennas that surround the West Bank and sprout from Jewish settlements within its borders, offer better service here. Palestinians who had jobs in Israel and expect to return to work there when the fighting stops prefer to keep their Israeli phones.

Also, some Palestinians and many Israelis doubt Jawwal's claim that periodic frequency changes foil Israeli scanners and offer "total secrecy against intervention."

"A cell phone is a cell phone. From a security standpoint, they're all the same," said Yakov Perry, a former Shin Bet commander who is now Cellcom's top executive. "Security is a pretext for the Palestinians. They're just trying to get rid of everything that smells Israeli."

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