“Under a Virtual Siege” - Activists Demand PayPal Offer its Services to Palestinians

In June, actor Mark Ruffalo joined the campaign calling on online payments platform PayPal to offer its services to Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

“Paypal [sic] operates in Israel’s illegal settlements—but is refusing to provide service to Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank, in direct violation of UN guidelines,” the award-winning actor wrote on Twitter, sharing a link to corporate accountability non-profit SumOfUs’ petition advocating for Palestinian access to PayPal. Nearly 240,000 people have signed the petition thus far.

With a celebrity signature, activists spearheading the campaign have renewed their efforts to target PayPal for its economic censorship and discrimination against Palestinians.

On August 4, 7amleh, The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, in collaboration with SumOfUs and the Muslim grassroots movement, MPower Change, hosted a webinar sharing insights and updates on the #PayPal4Palestine campaign. The panel included speakers Lara Friedman, the Foundation for Middle East Peace president, Mona Shtaya, 7amleh’s advocacy advisor, and MPower Change co-founder Linda Sarsour.

Under virtual siege

Launched in 2016, the #PayPal4Palestine campaign is led by 7amleh along with a number of civil society organizations. According to the campaign’s website, PayPal provides its services to Israeli citizens (including Palestinian citizens of Israel), settlers living in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and Palestinian residents of occupied East Jerusalem. But it does not offer access to Palestinians with bank accounts in the West Bank and Gaza.

“PayPal claims that its services are unavailable to Palestinians on the basis of its ‘Prohibited Countries’ policy, which classifies Palestine and around 30 other countries as ‘high-risk’ areas,” the website reads. Yet the online payment platform operates in over 200 countries including states with human rights violations and political instability, such as Yemen, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Jordan, Somalia, and Venezuela.

During the August 4 panel, 7amleh’s Shtaya explained that PayPal justified the lack of access because high-risk countries must take certain measures to qualify for PayPal services, specifically amending their banking system. A 2018 7amleh report on Palestinian access to PayPal states Palestine implemented several procedures to authorize electronic transactions and combat money laundering and fraud, such as passing the Electronic Transactions Law. According to 7amleh’s communications with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Monetary Authority, PayPal’s recommendations have been met in the last year, but the platform is still unavailable to Palestinians. PayPal did not respond to MintPress News inquiries on why it denies access to Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, earlier this year, PayPal banned MintPress and a number of other alternative media outlets from using their services.

According to 7amleh’s report, SumOfUs, the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, and Jewish Voice for Peace published an online petition in 2016 urging PayPal to provide services to Palestinians. The following year, activists delivered the petition to PayPal’s headquarters in San Jose, California.

“Company representatives that received the petition acknowledged that accusing PayPal of discriminating against Palestinians because of their identity put PayPal in a very uncomfortable situation and that the company never intended to deliberately exclude Palestinians from its services. However, they still refused to commit to any concrete steps to remedy the situation,” 7amleh wrote in their report.

Other groups have also demanded PayPal extend its services to Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories, including the company’s own investors, Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy, and the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network. Yet these efforts were to no avail as PayPal continues to exclude Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories from its platform.

During the webinar, Shtaya described how PayPal barring access to Gazans had put the besieged enclave’s residents under a double blockade.

“Preventing them from accessing PayPal or from having PayPal services means that they also prevent them from having work opportunities beyond [the] Gaza Strip,” Shtaya said. “They are not only under siege on the ground but also under siege virtually.”

Nowhere was this ban felt more acutely than during Israel’s assault on Gaza in May 2021. Shtaya explained that while Israeli rocket fire rained down on Gaza, international activists were blocked from supporting humanitarian organizations in Gaza through Venmo, a subsidiary of PayPal. “In the time of crisis, we’ve seen a huge discrimination against Palestinians, unlike the case of Ukraine and Russia,” Shtaya said.

When war broke out between Ukraine and Russia, PayPal launched a fundraiser to support Ukraine while also suspending its services in Russia.

And while Palestinians in the West Bank cannot open a PayPal account, Israeli settlers just next door can. During the panel discussion, Friedman noted that,

The settlement movement has been dedicated really to taking as much land as possible, putting down an Israeli civilian presence protected by a military presence. And then, over the years, getting us to the point where the Israeli policy, the Israeli government, the Israeli law treats that civilian presence in the West Bank as absolutely indistinguishable from Israelis inside sovereign Israel,”

She explained how Israel’s efforts to normalize the settlements led multinational corporations to treat settlements as part of Israel then and maintain a status quo that is often overlooked.

“You’ve got this two-pronged effort to both isolate the Palestinians and to normalize and weave the settlers into the international communities, a community of nations. And the problem is that organizations or companies like PayPal, I would argue, unwittingly, are absolutely party to that,” she said, noting how the #PayPal4Palestine campaign is part of a larger, global effort to hold international companies responsible for legitimizing settlement activity such as the recent actions against Airbnb and Ben & Jerry’s.

Limited options for Palestinians

Without PayPal, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have few alternatives. PalPay, a local version of PayPal, was established in 2010 by the Bank of Palestine, the First National Bank, and PCNC IT Solutions. Jawwal, the West Bank and Gaza’s largest mobile network provider, partnered with National Electronic Payment Company in 2019 to create Jawwal Pay, an e-wallet allowing individuals to transfer money, pay bills, and shop online.

Yet 7amleh emphasizes in their 2020 report on e-commerce in Palestine that these local electronic payment alternatives remain limited. “In order for these solutions to be more widely adopted in the West Bank and Gaza, they have to be easy to integrate into widely-used international e-commerce platforms,” 7amleh wrote.

Sarsour added that Palestinian business owners also use Western Union or MoneyGram, especially for international transactions. But these wire transfers often cost the entrepreneurs hefty fees and are tracked by the U.S.Treasury Department. As she explained,

A business owner in the United States working with a business owner in occupied Palestine, these wire transfers are very monitored. And sometimes the accounts are stopped. Sometimes the payments are delayed because there’s some sort of investigation into these multiple wire transfers.”

According to 7amleh’s research, PayPal access would not only benefit Palestinians but would also benefit the company itself.

7amleh identified three scenarios where high, middle, and low-income Palestinian households with internet access would spend $644-$1,550 annually, generating about $90 million to $5 billion in payments via PayPal.

“It’s an economic justice issue for me and to be honest, what is PayPal losing?” Sarsour said, highlighting how PayPal is a tangible way for activists abroad to help Palestinians. “It would be a dream for [Palestinian business owners] to be able to participate in PayPal, to be able to have foreigners be able to pay them in a secure way.”

Yet ultimately, what Palestinians are asking for is simply the opportunity to use PayPal.

“In Europe and in the U.S., they are talking about how companies are making profits from their data while we Palestinians, we don’t have the privilege to think about how they are using our data,” Shtaya said. “We are still fighting to have access to PayPal. So, that means that Israel is working systematically to delay or to deny Palestinian access to the digital services and to restrict our activism, our digital engagement.”

Feature photo | Graphic by MintPress News

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.

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