Palestinians Can’t Use PayPal—but Israeli Settlers Can
PayPal and Palestine
By Sam Bahour
As a Palestinian-American management consultant in Ramallah, Palestine, I advise my Palestinian clients living under Israeli military occupation to use world-class software and online services, assuring them that it will help them enter global markets. Some of these clients are not-for-profit outfits, like the Palestinian Circus School and Birzeit University; others are tech start-ups, many of which are funded by U.S. tax dollars via USAID. Time and again, I regretfully must explain to clients that the most popular worldwide online payment system, PayPal, is unavailable to them.
As an American from Youngstown, Ohio, trying to contribute to building a modern Palestinian economy, and a former software developer who worked all over the U.S., I can never offer a satisfactory answer to those who ask why PayPal refuses to follow the lead of technology giants like Google, Cisco, HP, Oracle, and many others, that all operate in Palestine.
Palestine has a thriving banking sector and all Palestinian banks have corresponding U.S. banks that make money transfers daily. The U.S. Treasury Department is also active in Palestine and has praised the level of Palestinian banking compliance. Considering these financial ties, it is a mystery why PayPal, which is widely considered the most trustworthy company in its sphere, continues to ignores this market. While it’s available to users in Israel and to Israeli settlers living illegally on occupied Palestinian land, PayPal does not extend its services to Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.
Many of these illegal Israeli settlers live literally a few minutes walk from my home, yet they have access to PayPal, but Palestinians do not. This is doubly unfortunate since Palestinians who live in other parts of the world and are regular users of PayPal cannot use the platform to conduct business with Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel has continuously placed suffocating limitations on the Palestinian economy, many which have been directly challenged by successive U.S. presidents, such as Israel’s refusal to release the needed frequencies for Palestinians to have 3G services. The Internet age has brought with it a bit of relief from these physical limitations, and the Palestinian tech sector is a key area of the economy that has potential to grow, especially considering the population is so young. Palestine produces roughly 2,000 IT graduates per year that are well-positioned to address the huge gap between growing demand for online Arabic content and the current lack of supply. Currently, however, only one-third of these graduates find work in their field. Without access to the needed services that facilitate businesses to grow, more Palestinian youth will fall into the despair of unemployment and all that it carries with it.
In order to meet these market needs and generate employment opportunities, Palestinian startups and entrepreneurs need equal access to services like PayPal for business and charitable services. In December, the President of Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy (AVPE), Edward Thompson, and myself, as Chairman of AVPE, wrote to inform PayPal CEO Daniel Schulman of the company’s shortcomings in Palestine, but our request for a meeting went unheeded. Now, a group of 40 prominent Palestinian organizations have penned a public letter asking Mr. Schulman to reconsider.
Among the signatories are the Palestinian Telecommunications Group (Paltel) the largest private-sector company in Palestine and one that I assisted in establishing, the renowned startup incubator Gaza Sky Geeks, and Palestine’s National Beverage Company, whose CEO Zahi Khouri is an early stage startup investor through another signatory, the Ibtikar Fund. And these are just a few examples — those in tech, business and finance have come together from across the span of the struggling Palestinian economy to make this request. Seemingly small but poignant indignities like this one block the road toward freedom, justice and equality for Palestinians, and we hope to methodically clear them from our path.
In the letter, my co-signers and I explain that while other payment portals are available, there is no replacement for the trust and familiarity that PayPal inspires among potential users, particularly those that are unfamiliar with Palestine-based companies. Without access to PayPal, Palestinian entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and others face routine difficulties in receiving payments for business and charitable purposes.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about PayPal’s presence in Israel-Palestine, however, is that access to it depends on ethnicity. Again, while Israeli settlers living in the West Bank are completely integrated into the Israeli system and have access to PayPal and other technologies, the Palestinians they live among do not. These are settlements that are considered illegal under U.S. foreign policy and international law, and the settlers who live in them enjoy access to resources that are regularly denied to the Palestinians next door. In fact, Human Rights Watch released a report earlier this year stated that businesses should withdraw from the settlements entirely to end their complicity in “an inherently unlawful and abusive system that violates the rights of Palestinians.”
This is not just about access to PayPal. It is about PayPal’s role in empowering entrepreneurs, small businesses, and individuals to make a living and conduct commerce, particularly in parts of the world where physical barriers and limitations are established by governments. We would be doing ourselves, as Americans and Palestinians, a disservice by allowing any company to deny their service based on ethnicity, heritage or because of Israeli pressure to enforce a clear suppression of the Palestinian economy via the limitations of occupation.
It is our sincere hope that our latest attempt to right this wrong will not fall on deaf ears. For the Palestinian people, breaking free from Israeli military occupation will mean carving out a meaningful space for ourselves in the global economy, and we cannot do that without equal access to indispensable tools like PayPal.