As Israel faces tech workers squeeze, Palestinians offer skilled talent pool

More than 3,000 students a year graduate from computer science and engineering programs in the West Bank, creating a surplus of young talent to feed the Startup Nation’s tech needs

Interns taking part in the Palestinian Internship Progam (PIP) founded in 2014 by Israeli-American investor and entrepreneur Yadin Kaufmann (Courtesy)
Interns taking part in the Palestinian Internship Progam (PIP) founded in 2014 by Israeli-American investor and entrepreneur Yadin Kaufmann (Courtesy)

Israeli high-tech companies used to outsourcing overseas are beginning to realize that the solution to their manpower problem may be right on their doorstep — in the West Bank.

More than 3,000 students a year graduate from computer science and engineering programs at universities like An-Najah in the West Bank, creating a surplus of young Palestinian talent. Though a small country on the world map, Israel is a veritable giant in the tech world, which offers Palestinians an opportunity.

“We’re years behind the Israeli high-tech scene,” says Ibrahim, a young Palestinian who works for ASAL Tech, a software development and outsourcing company based in the city of Rawabi. “But we’re hoping to plug into some of that experience.”

Rawabi, a flagship Palestinian tech hub, is a $1.4 billion planned city located between Modiin (in Israel) and Ramallah (in the West Bank). The brainchild of Bashar Masri — a Palestinian-American billionaire who made his fortune from real estate projects in Morocco, Jordan and Egypt — Rawabi aims to generate thousands of new permanent jobs in the city.

The Rawabi commercial and business plaza, known as the Q Center. (Courtesy)

But it’ll take more than one Rawabi to solve the Palestinian employment crisis. The unemployment rate in the Palestinian territories rose to 31.7 percent in Q3 2018. In Gaza, according to the World Bank, 54 percent of the labor force is unemployed. In Israel the unemployment rate is approximately 4 percent.

So it’s not surprising that growing numbers of Palestinians are making use of work permits in Israel. More than 100,000 Palestinians currently work in Israel, including 30,000 laborers without permits. While obtaining a work permit from Israel’s Interior Ministry is relatively straightforward after a criminal and security check, finding the right job is difficult. On top of this, many Palestinians pay up to a third of their salary to middlemen or outsource agencies.

Building bridges

Enter the Palestinian Internship Program (PIP), founded in 2014 by Israeli-American investor and entrepreneur Yadin Kaufmann, to help young Palestinians get their first experience in the startup and high-tech sector. He says the program’s vision is to build bridges and enable Palestinians to one day “create their own startup nation.”

Anna Gol, program director of the Palestinian Internship Program (Courtesy)

“The Israeli high-tech industry has been very open to PIP,” says Anna Gol, the program director. “We currently have over 140 companies in our database that have expressed interest in participating in some way — be it hosting an intern, hosting a workshop, or being a mentor to our interns. But we need more companies to step up and host their first intern or two.”

Israel is seeking to tap into new pools of talent as it faces a shortage of some 12,000-15,000 skilled workers. This workers’ squeeze is considered a direct threat to the country’s tech sector, which has been the main driver of the economy. The shortage is also causing a growing number of Israeli tech companies to look for talent abroad, and has sent local salaries soaring.

PIP runs two recruitment cycles each year and has so far assisted 47 young people to complete internships with multinationals that have set up branches in Israel such as Intel, Thomson Reuters and HP Indigo, and the local Teva. The most popular roles for interns are web developers or software engineers, though there’s also a growing interest in finance, business development, and marketing.

“The most significant challenge PIP interns face is the skill gap,” says Gol, who is originally from Toronto and completed an MA in Conflict Resolution at Tel Aviv University. “Israel-based companies have high standards for their technical roles, regardless of whether the role is entry-level or internship. Young Palestinian graduates in tech often are not at the same skill level as an Israeli tech graduate. However, they have the potential, and PIP shares opportunities for interns to get further training” by connecting them to technical training courses, arranging technical mentoring and workshops.

Other challenges young Palestinian interns face in Israel include basics like finding a place to live and adapting to a higher cost of living. “Culturally, it can be an adjustment for an intern from a Palestinian village moving to Tel Aviv for an internship. However, PIP staff have developed a very supportive network to assist in settling interns into a comfortable environment,” says Gol.

That’s not to mention the political climate and recent troubles in Gaza. Yet Gol says that the tech community is generally unfazed by tensions. Indeed the program’s first cycle,which took place during the 2014 Gaza war, was a runaway success.

PIP is an apolitical organization that’s not affiliated with either the Palestinian Authority or the Israeli government. Currently funded by MEPI (Middle East Partnership Initiatives) managed by the US State Department, it does work with a branch of Israel’s Defense Ministry that administers the West Bank — COGAT, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories — providing PIP interns with security permits and assistance with cross-border transportation.

A Palestinian Startup Nation?

Of course, Palestinian tech partnerships and cities like Rawabi are not without their critics such as the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and other groups, who accuse them of “normalization” with Israel.

“Our goal is to help young Palestinians develop their skills in a professional manner, and help them jumpstart their careers in high-tech,” says Gol. “Once they have been able to develop their skills, they can begin to move into leadership positions. In PIP’s 5 years of activity, we have seen alumni go on to complete higher education, manage Palestinian tech hubs, and start their own companies, all of which contribute to the growth of the Palestinian tech sector.”

So, can Palestinians create their own startup nation? “They are already on their way to doing so,” says Gol. “But to continue down this path of success, there needs to be increased confidence in investing in a Palestinian tech-based economy. More young people need to step into leadership roles, and we hope to see more Israeli and multinational companies involved with PIP in 2019.”

Besides providing employment and opportunities for young Palestinians, programs like PIP are also breaking down social barriers. “Young Palestinians, who have only known Israelis as soldiers and politicians, have developed personal and professional relationships with Israelis during their internships,” says Gol. “Young Israelis who have known Palestinians only from the negative portrayals in media learn firsthand about Palestinian culture and society — their Palestinian colleagues are real people, with real experiences to share and learn from. True friendships have been formed through this economic collaboration.”

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