Palestinians turn to technology to avoid roadblocks

Checkpoint-buster program uses text messages to warn drivers of long lines ahead in West Bank.

By ARIEH O’SULLIVAN / THE MEDIA LINE
February 27, 2011 20:45
4 minute read.
idf roadblock in w bank with un car

roadblock 248.88. (photo credit: IDF [file])

 
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Adopting an attitude of “If you can’t beat’em, go around’em,” Palestinian computer programmers have developed a simple text-messaging system to help cope with surprise or crowded checkpoints set up by the Israeli army across the West Bank.

Called “Ezma,” or Arabic for traffic, the program is sustained on a user-fed databank that ferries it to subscribers, much like a traffic monitoring system in other countries.

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“We in the West Bank suffer from many roadblocks especially between cities. Sometimes they’re surprise checkpoints and they’re crowded so what is normally an hour-and-a-half-long trip can find us sitting for more than five hours,” Muath Al-Badawi, one of the programmers, told The Media Line. “And sometimes the checkpoints are unmanned or gone.  Drivers need this information.”

The checkpoints, which Israel says are needed to thwart the movement of terrorists, are a thorn in the side to ordinary Palestinians travelling the roads of the West Bank to work, shop or transport goods. The International Monetary Fund calls the checkpoints the biggest obstacle to putting the economy of the region back on its feet after the so-called Second Intifada.

Al-Badawi and his fellow computer geek, Hammam Samara, both 23-years old and residents of Ramallah, are currently in negotiations with the Palestinian mobile phone companies Jawwal and Wataniya to perfect the system before it is launched.

While mobile phone penetration in the Palestinian Authority areas is high, Al-Badawi said one of the challenges they faced dealt was designing technology for simple phones.



“Most drivers don’t have smart phone education or GPS maps of the West Bank. So we decided on a text-based solution to solve this problem,” he said. “The drivers can just SMS [short messaging system] information on the traffic and can receive it via an SMS.”

Al-Badawi said the program “still needed work” but could support both English and Arabic. They haven’t worked out all of the marketing concepts yet, but said they were planning to credit subscribers based on reports they send in. Others could also pay for membership, he added.

The new roadblock-monitoring system was presented at a “Start up Weekend” organized by the Peres Center for Peace, which brought together Israeli entrepreneurs, and computer programmers with a handful of Palestinians to discuss joint ventures.

Haggai Alon, a former adviser on the Palestinian economy to the Israeli Ministry of Defense, praised the innovation but said it doesn’t address the main problem facing the Palestinian economy, which is the presence of the roadblocks themselves.

“The paradox is that there is no relation between the number of roadblocks and the economic situation because the [Israeli] army’s freedom of movement remains and the security effectiveness of the roadblocks has been under a big question mark for some time,” Alon said on Israel radio.

Israel says it has significantly reduced the number of roadblocks in the territories since they peaked some five years ago when terrorist attacks were more prevalent and the security barrier between Israel and the Palestinian Authority had not yet been completed. Today, there are 13 roadblocks around Jerusalem and some 40 others, most of these on the border, but also a number in the heart of the West Bank. 

This doesn’t include the scores of “surprise” roadblocks the Israeli security services set up temporarily across the territory. It is these that the “Traffic” programmers mainly sought to remedy with information that told drivers their location so they could seek alternative routes.

As far as the Israeli army is concerned, the venture was no longer really necessary.

“The days of long lines don’t exist anymore. The IDF has learned the lessons and has even set up special units to deal with roadblocks,” Lt.-Col. Avital Leibovitz, an IDF spokeswoman, told The Media Line. “The lines of the past years you don’t see anymore. Of course, you can wait sometimes for 20 minutes, but that can happen to you in any traffic jam.”

But Alon said the line or no lines, he perceived a real threat coming from technology-savvy Palestinians like Al-Badawi and Samar, who are like their peers leading revolutions in Egypt and Tunisians.

“In light of the recent current events, we should understand that these very same Facebook youth – the computer programmers and SMS developers who are finding solutions to coping with the checkpoints and how not to stand at roadblocks – they are likely to create the same revolutionary wave against the standing order and then we will all become nostalgic,” Alon said.
 

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