PayPal has been condemned by pro-Palestine activists for refusing to allow Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to open accounts. Though PayPal is refusing to take up Palestinian customers within the occupied Palestinian territories, Israelis living in illegal West Bank settlements have no problem about access to the service. This has sparked a lot of controversy on social media and amongst Palestinian entrepreneurs, who are finally speaking out against PayPal’s clearly discriminatory policy.
When I contacted PayPal to ask why it has decided to have such a policy and to ask if the company is targeting Palestinians deliberately or if the issue is security-related, I received a generic response that did not answer any of the questions:
“PayPal’s ambition is for everyone ultimately to have access to our services for digital payments and commerce, in accordance with applicable regulatory requirements. We appreciate the interest that the Palestinian community has shown in PayPal. While we do not have anything to announce for the immediate future, we continuously work to develop strategic partnerships, address business feasibility, regulatory, and compliance needs and requirements, and acquire the necessary local authority permissions for new market entries.”
Directly targeting Palestinians?
Despite the fact that the Israeli Shekel is the currency in both Palestine and Israel, Palestinians are disproportionately on the lower socio-economic scale. With high unemployment, many Palestinians are looking to entrepreneurial means in order to survive. This does not always mean selling products; many Palestinians sell services online, such as translations or teaching Arabic through lessons on Skype. Because PayPal is generally perceived to be a safe way to pay for products and services online, many Palestinians miss out on looking to the internet for self-sufficiency.
As a result, many Palestinians are coerced into working in low-paid jobs within illegal Israeli settlements. Children are all too often forced to leave school in order to seek work and help their families. On average, these children earn $18 a day doing agricultural work, even though the national minimum wage is supposed to be $6 an hour. For this reason, they are missing out on vital education and are forced into a growing poverty trap, sometimes turning to crime as a means to survive.
As long as PayPal allows Israelis living in illegal settlements to have an account but not Palestinians in the West Bank, the company is not only — perhaps unwittingly — perpetuating the wealth gap between the local population and settlers within the Occupied Territories, but also perpetuating the cycle of poverty within the Palestinian population. Settlement businesses are able to trade with no restrictions, despite the fact that some use child labour, pay below the minimum wage and operate on Palestinian territory illegally.
Gaza is especially vulnerable to PayPal’s lack of services, due to the fact that its economy is already shattered. According to the World Bank, youth unemployment in Gaza alone is at 60 per cent, giving it the highest youth unemployment rate in the MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) region. The overall unemployment rate in Gaza is 43 per cent, the highest in the world. Steen Lau Jorgensen, the bank’s Director for the West Bank and Gaza, has warned that Gaza’s exports have “virtually disappeared” and that “Gaza cannot survive without being connected to the outside world.” Not having access to PayPal isn’t just a significant inconvenience; for Palestinians in the coastal enclave, having access to PayPal would be a survival mechanism.
Exporting Palestinian literature
The lack of PayPal accounts doesn’t only mean that Palestinians are missing out on yet another form of sustainability; it is also an attack on freedom of speech. Many Palestinian writers, for example, are unable to work on a freelance basis for international media as there is no easy way for them to be paid. The alternative is to work unpaid.
This perpetuates the rhetorical dichotomy between Palestinian and Israeli narratives in the mainstream media. Israeli voices are very well documented within the Western media; although the Palestinian narrative is available, it is not usually heard first hand.
With open discussion being the main route to understanding, restricting freelance journalism or the creative writing industry in Palestine in this way is not only detrimental to the Palestinian voice on the international platform, but also deepens cultural misunderstandings and allows the politics of fear to take root with regards to Palestinians and Arabs both at home and in the diaspora.
Palestine speaks out
In response to the PayPal policy, Palestinians have started a campaign on Twitter — #paypal4palestine — to raise awareness of the issue. More than forty Palestinian companies have also published an open letter to PayPal, urging upon the company the importance of allowing Palestinians inside Palestine to use its services.
I spoke to entrepreneurs in Palestine who reiterated the importance of PayPal’s presence in the market. According to Ambar Amleh, the co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Ibtikar Fund, Palestine’s newest investment fund, by operating in illegal Israeli settlements but not with Palestinian customers, PayPal “completely contradicts its stance on fairness, inclusion and equality.” She also said that the fact that PayPal is “refusing to answer our questions directly” after a number of firms and media outlets have contacted the company on the issue is “very telling.”
Sam Bahour is the managing director at Applied Information Management and a Director of the Arab Islamic Bank. He does not believe that Palestinians are being targeted by PayPal. “As a firm, I believe PayPal executives need to be educated about the reality here and the role that they have to promote Palestinian economic development,” he told me.
Though both recognise that the lack of access to PayPal has had a detrimental effect on Palestinian businesses, they see some hope. Despite the obstacles that Palestinian entrepreneurs face, optimism, resilience and pride continue to dominate. “We are proud to be a Palestinian fund investing in Palestinian start-ups,” insisted Amleh.
For Bahour, there is even optimism that PayPal may hear the Palestinian call out. “Now that PayPal has answered our call to meet, I hope that the company sees that it is part of the solution here, by dealing with Palestine like it deals with the over 200 other countries around the world.”
Though the campaign is based on economic values, it’s clear that Palestinians believe that having access to PayPal isn’t just a financial battle, but also a part of the wider struggle against the Israeli occupation.
On principle, the internet is not only used as a platform to escape the effects of the occupation and to display their resilience, but Palestinians also use it to humanise themselves and to clarify any misconceptions and negative generalisations about the people of Palestine. Giving them full access to online financial services would allow for understanding to grow and for bridges to be built, and would be used as a medium for Palestinians to partake in innovative business practices during difficult economic times.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.