The occupation enters the Metaverse

The advent of the Metaverse threatens to bring new forms of virtual exclusion and erasure for Palestinians trapped under Israel’s technological control.

A digital mock-up of a keffiyeh in 3-D mesh. (Ameera Kawash)
A digital mock-up of a keffiyeh in 3-D mesh. (Ameera Kawash)

I am designing a digital Keffiyeh to wear in “the Metaverse.” It seems a little bizarre to be translating the netted pattern into a triangular mesh to be compatible with virtual worlds. Yet billions are being invested in immersive digital spaces, as tech giants like Meta (formerly Facebook) and Microsoft push their own grandiose visions of an internet transformed by virtual reality, 3-D computing, and blockchain-based technologies.

The Metaverse refers to an online world where users socialize, play games, and work in a real-time virtual environment — running parallel to, and ostensibly integrated seamlessly into, the physical world. While this remains a speculative and over-hyped concept, the Metaverse is attracting massive investment and media interest, and is pushing innovation in the high-tech sector.

While there is no single vision as to what the Metaverse is, a popular slogan heard in Metaverse-related tech conversations is that “the Metaverse is for everyone,” or “there is only one Metaverse.” This refers to the idea that, much like the internet, no one company will control the Metaverse, and users will be able to access different digital worlds — referred to as “interoperability.” Such universalist claims overlook the specific ways that technologies become entangled and constrained by local geopolitics and digital divides, or conscripted unevenly to serve political agendas.

Mainstreaming the Metaverse will require widespread access to high-speed internet and developed communications networks. This poses serious problems for any global community struggling with access to existing networks and digital technologies. However, in Palestine, where digital occupation and the technological gap with the Israeli tech sector is already entrenched, the Metaverse also presents new forms of virtual exclusion and digital erasure for Palestinians. These futures are not inevitable, but the result of Israeli restrictions and policies that cause systematic underdevelopment of Palestinian communications and information networks.

An ever-expanding technological gap

In Israel’s highly developed technological landscape, numerous tech firms already have competitive advantages in Metaverse-related technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, gaming engines, cyber security, fin-tech and blockchain technologies. Investment Fund Reimagine Ventures estimates that there are already at least 50 Israeli companies active in the Metaverse space.

One of Meta’s most strategic virtual and mixed reality research and development hubs is located in Tel Aviv, and the company is actively recruiting more developers to build the Metaverse. Most of the Israeli population has access to 4G networks, and 5G usage is growing. These combined factors embolden Israeli businesses and consumers to engage with technological future imaginaries, some of which could evolve into widely adopted technologies.

As Israeli tech companies begin to consider the Metaverse, Palestinian communities and businesses in the West Bank and Gaza remain restricted by digital occupation and systematically underdeveloped communication networks. The digital occupation, by which Israel’s control over Palestinian territory extends into communication networks and digital frequencies, continues to impact the development of Palestinian communication infrastructures, economic outputs, and daily internet usage.

An in-game preview of a Keffiyeh wearable in 'Decentraland.' (Ameera Kawash)
An in-game preview of a Keffiyeh wearable in ‘Decentraland.’ (Ameera Kawash)

The Metaverse, as a data-intensive, 3-D interactive experience, requires extremely high download speeds. Some developers are proposing that it run on 5G networks, which are the fastest speeds currently available. Even existing and popular Metaverse platforms, such as Decentraland (which can run without VR), require at least 10Mbps internet speed and 2 gigabytes of available graphics memory. Palestinian internet networks are at least one or two, and in some cases three, generations behind Israeli networks. Palestinians in the West Bank currently only have access to 3G (3Mbps), while Gaza remains limited to 2G (0.1 Mbps).

To be clear, 2G refers to the second generation of cellular services, which came into being in 1991, and only allows users to send text messages and photos. 3G means access to basic wireless communications, but download speeds remain slow. While Israel transitioned to 4G in 2014, Palestinians in the West Bank were prevented from upgrading to 3G until 2018 due to Israel’s control of Palestinian communication infrastructure and restrictions on the importation of hardware and equipment.  In terms of at-home connectivity, only 7 percent of Palestinian households owned a broadband subscription in 2020.

Following the Oslo accords, Palestinians obtained the legal right to build their own communications infrastructure. In practice, however, Israel has severely restricted Palestinian development of infrastructure, cell phone towers, fiber optic cables, and access to cellular frequencies.

In the West Bank, access to communications infrastructure is fragmented across areas of Areas A, B, and C. For example, the Palestinian national cellular provider, Jawwal, is only permitted to have a strong cellular signal in Area A. Palestinian communication infrastructure remains forbidden in Area C, while unauthorized Israeli providers bring 4G coverage to Israeli settlements in those same areas. As a result, to have adequate coverage across the West Bank could mean carrying three separate SIM cards — from Palestinian, Israeli, and Jordanian providers.

In her article on “smart colonialism and digital divestment,” Anna Kensicki has written about how “selective deployment” of internet and communication infrastructures allows “plentiful 4G coverage to penetrate deep into the rural parts of the occupied territories for settler use, regardless of need or legality, while at the same time, coverage for Palestinians — who have only 2G or 3G connections — is not responsive to need or population density.” In Kensicki’s analysis, for “Jewish Israeli society, hyperconnectivity enhances Israeli nationalism and digital citizenship,” while for Palestinians, “low levels of connectivity have further fragmented the Palestinian national movement.”

Virtual apartheid?

As Israel retains tight control of Palestinian frequencies, airwaves, and subsoil, which architect Eyal Weizman terms “vertical apartheid,” is it inconceivable there could eventually be a virtual layer too? For example, in one emerging Metaverse platform, called SuperWorld, a digital map of the earth is divided into 64 billion plots of virtual land. By buying this “digital real estate” users can create augmented reality overlays over the physical world.

To date, at least 50 or so of these digital plots have been bought in the Old City of Jerusalem. This allows users with access to the app and VR headsets to see completely different overlays of the city than those without. In an area as divided as Jerusalem, a virtual layer of user-generated information and graphics could further aggravate existing tensions and entrench one-sided narratives. It is also possible that politically motivated virtual and augmented reality vandalism and graffiti could become commonplace.

A security camera seen overlooking the West Bank city of Hebron, January 15, 2013. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A security camera seen overlooking the West Bank city of Hebron, January 15, 2013. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

A virtual layer that is only accessible to high-tech users, while remaining invisible to those without adequate technological capabilities, would undoubtedly contribute to the asymmetries of the digital occupation and the constant state of surveillance to which Palestinian communities are subjected. For example, Blue Wolf, an Israeli surveillance database described by one soldier as a “Facebook for Palestinians,” incentivizes Israeli soldiers to take photos of Palestinians without their consent or knowledge. This allows the Israeli military to weaponize smartphone technology as a widely disseminated instrument of surveillance.

A virtual layer would further deepen this interplay of repressive politics and asymmetrical technological capacities. Biometric or sensitive security information could be projected virtually, accessible to privileged or select users while remaining invisible to marginalized and subjugated populations.

In the race to control virtual space, the Metaverse is ushering in a new era of “digital real estate,” replete with “digital land grabs” and “real estate booms.” By owning digital territory, digital landowners can control what they “build” in the Metaverse and by extension, how the digital experience is curated.  For example, in popular Metaverse worlds like Sandbox or Decentraland, users purchase digital plots as NFTs on which they might “build” online galleries, gaming stops, or online shops.

In the most popular Metaverses existing today, digital property can demand up to six or seven figure amounts. As digital landowners can influence and curate user experiences, any future Metaverse following this model will be influenced by emerging digital geopolitics of representation as well as asymmetries between “users” and “owners.”

Should Palestinian communities — already restricted by digital occupation in the form of territorial, bandwidth, and economic constraints — be worried about representation and technological disparities in virtual spaces to come? Furthermore, were the Metaverse to take off, would issues of access and inclusion/exclusion determine who can participate in emerging virtual and digital economies of the future?

Start-ups against the odds

Despite digital constraints, Palestinian technological entrepreneurship has in some cases succeeded in reimagining and redesigning Palestinian relationships with communication and information technology. For example, Palestine VR, a virtual reality app launched by Palestinian developers, curates virtual tours that convey the reality of the occupation and daily life for many Palestinians.

Another example is Liyla and the Shadows of War, which tells the story of a girl in Gaza who lives in a war zone and is based on actual events from 2014. In an interview for Wired, developer Rasheed Abueideh describes most media as ones in which one reads or observes the journey of characters, “but in games you talk about your experience. You say ‘I did that.’”

The limitations of communications infrastructure and restricted access to high-speed internet inflicts huge costs on Palestinians’ daily life as well as economic activity. Yet despite Israel’s restrictions, a Palestinian high-tech sector is emerging, predominantly in the West Bank.

I spoke to Ambar Amleh, co-founder of Ibtikar — a fund which invests in Palestinian startups. To date they have funded 26 businesses, 40 percent of which were founded by Palestinian women. Amleh explains the challenges and barriers that the occupation poses for Palestinian start-ups but also how companies have adapted. “We focus on web and mobile,” she says. “We don’t do hardware, we don’t do anything with import and export. If we do anything with physical components it is incredibly difficult.”

A Palestinian youth points to logos of Facebook and WhatsApp on his computer in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip February 22, 2014. (Photo Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
A Palestinian youth points to logos of Facebook and WhatsApp on his computer in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip February 22, 2014. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Amleh describes how a simple piece of hardware could be held up by Israeli authorities at the port for months of security checks, accruing more fees by the day. This makes it almost impossible for Palestinian entrepreneurs to buy components except from Israeli suppliers. By focusing on software and services, the Palestinian technology sector can minimize dependency on Israeli markets and infrastructure while sidestepping import/export barriers. “The incredible part is that our entrepreneurs succeed in spite of the occupation,” Amleh explains, noting that entrepreneurs “are used to having plan B, C, and D and overcoming those challenges.”

The growth of a Palestinian start-up sector, though important in generating livelihoods and giving Palestinians the tools to participate in global digital economies, is dwarfed by the scale and economic cost of the occupation. Badie Sartawi, a professor of Computer Science at Al-Quds University, tells me that focusing on service and software-based expertise is not enough to develop the sector. For Sartawi, “the sector will not grow as long as importing hardware, software, and tools are absolutely banned.”

This sentiment is echoed by economic analyst David Musleh. For Musleh, the current power dynamics that shape the digital sector in Palestine — between the Israeli state, the Palestinian Authority, foreign and diasporic investors, and international donors — cannot overcome the reality of Israel’s “military and digital occupation of Palestine.” According to Musleh, what must first happen is to “uphold political pressure against Israel to ease import restrictions, especially on 4G/5G technology.”

The ability of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to access global digital networks and participate in emergent technological opportunities is constrained by Israeli policies and restrictions. For Helga Tawil-Souri, a professor of media and communications at NYU who has written on the development of the communication infrastructure in Palestine and “digital occupation” in Gaza, online realities are determined by offline materialities: Palestinians’ ability to access digital or virtual worlds are limited by underdeveloped communication infrastructure and territorial enclosure. The “limitations imposed on high-tech flows,” she argues, “have important repercussions because of the growing importance of these flows in our globalized world.”

While it is impossible to know if the Metaverse will succeed as the internet of the future, it is already drawing attention to the digital exclusion and technological divide that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza experience today. There is no doubt that a major change in global communication systems would impact Palestinian communities.

For one, Palestine has a very young population, on average about 20 years old. Would younger generations be able to build, design, and access virtual worlds or be subject to new forms of digital exclusion, surveillance, and erasure? Should technological imagination be determined by differential access to communication technologies that condition participation in global digital flows and digital rights? In that sense, and because of digital apartheid, Palestinian children will have their technological imaginations limited by the realities of already outdated 2G or 3G access, even as the developed world dreams of Metaverses to come.