'Operator? Please dear, get me Palestine, and hurry up please!'

Many Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were putting new words to a famous old song this week after the Lebanese government lifted a decades-old ban on all calls to Occupied Palestine. The move also made it possible for MENASSAT to call its correspondents in Gaza and the West Bank for the first time ever.
As of this week, the phone lines between Lebanon and historic Palestine are no longer dead. (Photomontage by arabimages.com)

BEIRUT, July 31, 2008 (MENASSAT) – There is a famous Lebanese song by the singer Sabah that goes: "Hello, hello, hello, Beirut? Please, dear, get me Beirut, and hurry up please!"

A Palestinian friend, Imad, was humming the tune over the phone when he called from Kuwait this week.

Like Imad, many Palestinians in Lebanon have been putting new words to the old tune in the past few days: "Hello, hello, hello, Palestine? Please dear, get me Palestine, and hurry up please!"

The reason is that the Lebanese government has officially lifted the ban on calls to the 970 country code this week, making it possible for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to call their relatives in historic Palestine for the first time in decades.

"I am thrilled with the news, but I cannot help feeling bad about all the years I spent in Beirut without being able to contact my family and relatives who are still in Palestine," Imad said. "Still, better late than never."
The 970 country code was established in 1993 and was issued to the Palestinian Authority which at the time was in control of both the West Bank and Gaza.

Since then, the Islamic Hamas party has taken control of the Gaza Strip, while President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party controls the West Bank. But the Hamas-Fatah split has apparently not affected the phone network.

Yesterday, MENASSAT was able for the first time to call its Gaza and West Bank correspondents on their 970 numbers. (The 972 numbers, which are also in use in Gaza and the West Bank, are still off-limits because they belong to the Israeli phone system.)

The Lebanese decision is a radical new development for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in Lebanon, who for decades have had to rely on alternative methods (international calling cards, call-back systems and the like) to call their relatives in historic Palestine.

The decision was announced on July 29 by Lebanon's new Communications Minister, Jubran Basil. Sources confirmed that both the Ministry and the Palestine Liberation Organization's embassy head in Lebanon, Abbas Zaki, had been working on the deal for some time. According to the ministry, the logistics for lifting the ban were already in place; it was a lack of political will that held up the decision until now.

After the announcement, Palestinians throughout Lebanon rushed to call their relatives in the West Bank and Gaza.

Approved by Hezbollah

Despite the welcome news, political insiders told MENASSAT that the timing behind Basil's announcement was purely political.

Some Lebanese newspapers said the minister consulted with both Lebanon's newly elected president, Michael Sleiman, and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora shortly before his decision was announced.

It was a means of providing "political cover," one source said, while others asserted that Basil would not have taken such a step without first consulting with Lebanon's Shia resistance movement, Hezbollah.

For the same reason, the sources said, this decision could never have been taken under the former Communications Minister, Marwan Hmadeh, who belonged to the pro-Western parliamentary majority.

(Basil is a member of Michel Aoun's FPM party which is allied with Hezbollah. He was appointed as part of a national unity government, which was formed after the Doha peace accord in May. Ironically, the May fighting was set off by a government attempt to investigate Hezbollah's own secret telecommunications network.)

During a press conference this week, Basil sidestepped the political question. "I am not really sure of the reasons why the decision has been delayed for so long," he said.

Now that Lebanon has lifted the ban, Syria is the only remaining country that doesn’t allow phone calls to the 970 country-code.

Hisham Debsy, media adviser for the PLO embassy in Lebanon, told MENASSAT, "There is no security or political justification for keeping the phones lines with Palestine dead. Resuming international calls has been one of the major demands discussed as part of the Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue committee, and was it was discussed with Prime Minister Siniora repeatedly."

As to the timing of the decision, Debsy said, "All Palestinian requests take their time when discussed at the Lebanese political table. It seems every issue has to wait for the right circumstances to be solved."

Debsy said this is a humanitarian issue first and foremost. "The 970 code has existed for 15 years, and it used by every other country in the world."

Israel calling

The reactions from Palestinians have generally been positive, and official thanks from the PLO in Lebanon have been sent to the new Lebanese government and Prime Minister Siniora for his role in sponsoring the talks.

But Debsy bristled when asked about the possibility of security breaches in the telecommunications network now that the lines are reopened.

"You have to refer to the Lebanese government for this answer. Israel did not wait for the lines to reopen in order to hack into Lebanese land lines and mobile phones," he said.

Indeed, even if it was impossible to call Israel/Palestine from Lebanon, it has always been possible to call Lebanon from Israel/Palestine.

Israel has recently taken advantage of that situation by bombarding Lebanese phone subscribers with automated voice messages.

In a repeat of a tactic also used during the 2006 war, residents in Beirut and South Lebanon received calls warning them against allowing Hezbollah to become a "state within the state" and promising "harsh retaliation" against any future assault by Hezbollah.

Just like in 2006, the Arabic voice on the other end of the line signed off with the words, "This is a warning from the State of Israel."