Clare Simon
The Guardian
October 4, 2007 - 2:49pm

This is a tale of two cities. The first is Nablus in the West Bank of the occupied Palestinian territories, a city of picturesque ancient buildings and winding alleyways - and fierce resistance to the Israeli presence. The second is virtual Nablus - a city of monitors, keyboards and cables where the residents of Nablus can experience a freedom they do not enjoy in real life.

"Without the internet I would die," says 29-year-old Mahmoud, a journalism student at Nablus's An-Najah National University. Last year he tried to visit the United States, but the Israeli authorities would not let him leave the West Bank.

"I had a visa for the US but when I got to the bridge [the Allenby Bridge over the River Jordan to Jordan; Palestinians usually cannot enter Israel so travel via Jordan] the Israelis said I couldn't go out."

Mahmoud is establishing an arts project near his home in Balata refugee camp but his American co-founder has been denied entry to Israel, and therefore the occupied territories, by the Israeli authorities. So now the pair conduct business meetings via the internet, using Skype, Microsoft Messenger and email.

Internet service

Between 160,000 and 175,000 people live in around 50,000 homes in Nablus. Of those, according to Paltel, the Palestinian telecoms provider, 28,500 are landline subscribers, and 5,300 of those have Paltel's ADSL service. The company recently launched a subscription-free dialup internet service, through which anyone with a landline can access the internet for 1.2 shekels (around 14p) an hour. ADSL starts at 2 shekels a day for a 128Kbps connection for residential users, and 400 shekels per month for a 512Kbps connection for business subscribers. That compares to an average net daily wage of $17.90 (£8.76) for men and $16.50 for women employed in the occupied territories.

Nablus has 14 internet cafes, offering around 150 terminals between them, all charging around 3 shekels an hour. Internet cafes are especially popular with An-Najah students such as Mosab, who is from the village of Salfit, which is separated from Nablus by two permanent checkpoints, Huwarra and Za'atara. These, plus an occasional "flying" checkpoint at Yitzhar, can together can add an hour or more to a journey.

Says Mosab: "My home is only about 15km from Nablus, but I live in Nablus during the week because of the checkpoints." So he turns to the internet to keep in touch. "I use chatting to find out news from home. I talk to my friends about things I would talk to them about if I were in Salfit: their work, their lives, and I also ask them what's happening in Salfit, and about my family."

It's not just young people who use the internet to keep in touch: Huda, 60, is another regular user of the internet. A native of Jerusalem, she moved to Nablus with her husband in 1967, just after the Six-Day War. As Palestinians from the occupied territories are, with a few exceptions, barred from entering Israel, and holders of Israeli ID cards - including Huda's relatives - cannot enter areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority, the internet is a lifeline. "You know the Gethsemane garden on the Mount of Olives?" she says, "Well, my family lives just behind there. But I can't go to see them. We email each other. They want to hear about the soldiers, especially when they hear there's been a big incursion into Nablus, and about my children."

She adds: "I play dominos and games online, too, because there's nothing else to do in Nablus; I've made friends from all over the world doing that."

The internet helps younger people get around cultural restrictions, too. Nablus is one of the most conservative cities in the occupied territories, meaning that reputations, especially those of young women, are very important. As a result, many spend their evenings at home, away from "damaging" contact with young men. Unable to meet their friends in person, they chat online instead. Socialising between unmarried men and women is frowned upon, so, as Ilham, a 21-year-old female student, puts it: "Sometimes the only way to get to know someone is to marry them." But Ilham is getting to know her boyfriend Mohammed via the internet. Although Mohammed also attends An-Najah, Ilham cannot speak to him if she sees him there, so the pair chat almost every night on Messenger. "Now we know a lot about each other; what we're thinking, how we like each other to act," she says. "Because of social attitudes here I couldn't do that any other way."

There are times when internet access becomes especially important to the people of Nablus: during curfews imposed by the Israelis. In February Israelis occupied the city for some four days, putting the city centre under curfew, which shut down the whole city, including An-Najah. Remembers Ilham: "Everything closed. The only entertainment we had was the internet. Me and my sisters chatted with all our friends, and I kept in touch with my boyfriend, to see if he was OK. "I 'talked' to people over the internet as I would have talked to them at university but couldn't. We talked about how boring and depressing the situation was, and how much we missed university and our classes."

Ala Yousef, the co-ordinator of the Zajel Youth Exchange Programme at An-Najah, remembers the Israelis putting Nablus under curfew for weeks in 2002. He recalls: "I was stuck at home. I couldn't even go on my balcony, but I had a great time chatting with my friend in New York. Without the internet, my mood would have been much worse."

Without the internet, Zajel probably could not exist. Ala says he and his colleagues founded Zajel - Arabic for "carrier pigeon" - seven years ago to promote an image of Palestinians and Palestine different to that given in most of the mainstream English-language media.

One arm of Zajel maintains a website carrying academic papers by staff and students. The hope is that researchers will find the website ( while searching for something else, then stay to read some of the hundreds of articles on Palestinian news, culture and history also posted there.

Establishing relationships

The other arm seeks to increase contact between Nabulsis and people around the world. One way of doing this is to organise work placements at the university for international volunteers. The majority of these volunteers learn of Zajel from the internet, and all contact with them prior to their arrival in Nablus is done through email and chatting online.

Zajel also tries to build links between the university and organisations around the world. Says Ala: "Before the internet, it would take a very long time even to make contact with a western organisation, let alone establish a relationship.

"We would have to have face-to-face meetings, workshops, seminars and so on, it would all take a lot of time and effort, and as there's not really a postal service here, it was difficult to send letters. Now it's as easy as accessing a website."

For Maria Khayat and her Nabulsi husband, Amer, the internet has made it much easier to find suppliers and customers for their Holyland Industries toiletries business. "All our research is done through the internet. We order our raw materials - such as oils - on the internet, and we communicate with customers through it too," she says.

The Holyland Industries website, launched five months ago, now generates around 60% of the Khayats' business. Although her husband has been able to travel to trade shows around the region, his wife says he is often given "a hard time", even in other Arab countries. "Suppliers often won't buy our products because they are made in Palestine. We're up against prejudice in other countries, but the internet allows us to go direct to our customers," she says.


"People used the interent before, but during the past two years, it's been like a revolution," says Nameer Khayyat, general director of Nablus Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which has more than 6,000 registered members in Nablus. He says: "The number of businesses using the internet hasn't doubled; I'd say it's tripled."

The internet means more to business people in Nablus than a way of finding suppliers and markets, though. Says Khayyat: "You have a meeting in Gaza, but you can't go there because the Israelis prevent you from going there. So you do the meeting by video conference instead."

But there are still difficulties getting supplies into Nablus and products out. Palestinian business people sometimes have to wait months for merchandise to pass through Israeli customs and into the occupied territories.

In addition, all goods entering and leaving Nablus must pass through Awarta commercial checkpoint, near Huwarra. Cargo is taken off one vehicle on one side of the checkpoint, inspected by soldiers, then loaded on to another vehicle on the other side. Items get lost and damaged; the checkpoint is sometimes closed and, according to Khayyat, Awarta can process just a fraction of the 170 or so vehicles approaching it each day. Delays are long - and expensive. "There are some problems even the internet can't solve," he says.


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