Palestinian, Israeli tech leaders strengthen ties

In Google’s 26th floor Tel Aviv Campus, leaders from Israeli, Palestinian high-tech communities gather to discuss business.

High tech peace-talks 370 (photo credit: NIV ELIS)
High tech peace-talks 370
(photo credit: NIV ELIS)
Affable graffiti characters peered out from collages adorning the walls of Google’s 26th floor Tel Aviv Campus, as leaders from the Israeli and Palestinian hi-tech communities gathered Sunday evening to discuss business.
Though Israel is known as the “start-up nation,” the Palestinian economy, too, boasts an educated workforce and technical talent. The gathering’s organizers – which include, among others, the Peres Center for Peace, the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, Mercy Corps and IATI, Israel’s hi-tech umbrella organization – believe that deepening business relations between the two sides would not only bring economic benefit to both, but also help develop ties that could facilitate a peace agreement.
“This is a pool of talent that is untapped by Israelis and multi-nationals,” says Murad Tahboub, managing director of Asal Technologies, whose 130 engineers provide services for Cisco in Israel.
According to the Palestine Information Technology Association of Companies (PITA), the Palestinian IT sector accounts for 8 percent of the Palestinian economy, even though it only represents 3% of the workers.
Despite a slew of difficulties such as travel restrictions, partnering with Palestinians offers many advantages. Aside from living in the same time zone as Israel, many of them speak perfect Hebrew, excellent English, and share a closer cultural outlook to Israelis than, say, Indians or Chinese.
“Communicating with our Palestinian counterparts is easier,” says Intel’s Research & Development head in Jerusalem Yishai Frankel.
If that’s not convincing, there are some compelling numbers that are. The cost of highly educated, Palestinian engineers ranges, on average, from a quarter to a sixth of the cost of skilled Israeli labor, he said. Microsoft estimated the cost at a third.
“For the same number of dollars I get in an outsource budget, I can hire one engineer here in Tel Aviv or four in Ramallah,” Frankel says.
According to a recent report by PITA, “During the last few years more than 500 Palestinian engineers and analysts have been employed in Palestinian companies working with Israeli IT companies.” There are 4,000 working in the Palestinian private IT sector and another 3,000 in telecoms. Beyond that, 1,500 to 2,200 more graduate into the field every year from the 13 universities in the Palestinian territories.
Helping them find lucrative work will aid the approach championed by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who on Sunday at the World Economic Forum announced a $4 billion fund to help develop the Palestinian private sector, a step he said was important for creating the right conditions for peace.
President Shimon Peres’s son Chemi, who chairs the Peres peace center, says that the hitech sector has much to gain from reaching outside the standard pool of Israeli talent.
“The next talent will come from Palestine, it will come from the ultra-Orthodox sector, it will come from the Israeli Arab community,” he predicts.
That, however, may not be so easy, notes Frankel. “I suspect the Israeli tech sector is not truly open to diversity,” he says, whether haredi or Palestinian.
There are taboos on the Palestinian side as well. When a hi-tech worker who lives in Gush Etzion asked Tahboub about possible cooperation, Tahboub flatly responded, “We don’t work with settlements.”
Overcoming personal discomforts will be necessary not just for better business but for peace, Frankel says.
“Many of the people we work with in Ramallah never saw an Israeli outside a uniform until they worked with us.”