Wednesday, July 8, 2009

An Impromptu Interview with Palestinian Official Suleiman Zuhairy

I met with Suleiman M. Zuhairy, deputy minister at the Palestinian Ministry of Telecom and Information Technology, the day after my meeting with Nati Schubert. I had no appointment, and literally just showed up at the door of the ministry, which is located one block away from the residence of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The wall was cracking in the hallway of the ministry building, and the elevator would not move when I pressed the button for the first floor, so I took the stairs instead. There was also a ladder with paint on it sitting squarely in the reception lobby.

Before meeting with Zuhairy, I met with Kamal Hassouneh, the Minister of Telecom, who seemed to be in a solely political role. He and I spoke in English and Arabic, and I was surprised that, despite his position, he did not know the word for “tower” in English.

The real technical expert at the ministry was Zuhairy, who had worked there for more than ten years, served as Nati Schubert’s primary counterpart, and seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the issues. Zuhairy’s office included a map of British sea cable routes along the ocean floor from 1870 to 1970.

“Britain was governing all the world through these cables,” Zuhairy said. “One of the most important connections was in Yemen. The Middle East connected to London through Yemen…This is how telecommunications was started….One of the most important things to govern the whole area was with communications. This for me is what is interesting about it.”

Zuhairy dressed formally, smiled a lot, and seemed very eager to plead his case and make sure that I understood the technical details.

Though I had come unannounced, Zuhairy talked with me for more than one hour. He also gave me copies of the July 2008 contract between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority and put me in touch with officials from Tony Blair’s Quartet, whom he said were pressuring Israel to “at least implement what we already agreed upon with the Israelis.”

Throughout the interview, Zuhairy returned to the point that the Palestinian ministry was promised frequencies to allot as it saw fit. “It is not an Israeli problem how the Palestinian side will manage these frequencies,” he said. “The Israelis shouldn’t interfere between Jawwal and Wataniya. It is a Palestinian competition. We didn’t interfere…[with] any Israeli company.”

Zuhairy also rejected Schubert’s comment that the Palestinians had an internal problem that they needed to resolve before the frequencies could be released. “The only one thing they are trying to hide behind is that we have to [make a sharing arrangement] between Orange, Jawwal and Wataniya," he said. "Jawwal is a company and Wataniya is another company. [Jawwal] has the right not to share frequencies.”

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