The Israeli government approved a pilot project on Sunday that would see Israeli work permits issued to 500 West Bank Palestinian tech employees over a period of three years.
Until now, the Israeli government has largely only approved permits for Palestinian workers in construction and agriculture. Around 130,000 Palestinians work in Israel and West Bank settlements, according to Defense Ministry statistics.
Some Palestinians are already employed in Israel at technology firms, but largely on a case-by-case basis, rather than as a matter of government policy.
“There are plenty of young Palestinians from the West Bank at Google and Amazon and Mobileye… so the phenomenon already exists, but on an individual basis,” said Palestinian entrepreneur Mahmoud Khweis, who co-founded 50/50, a joint Israeli-Palestinian tech accelerator.
The Israeli technology sector is facing a serious labor shortage, leading firms to seek programmers abroad in Eastern Europe and India. Khweis said that Palestinians could fill some of that gap, and that some Israeli firms already outsource labor to Palestinian coders in the West Bank and Gaza.
“In the West Bank, we have 3,000 to 4,000 tech graduates every year. Many work for Palestinian firms that contract with Israeli companies,” said Khweis, who called Palestinians “more culturally close” to Israelis than other potential partners.
According to Khweis, a senior developer in Tel Aviv could make a monthly salary of anywhere from NIS 30,000 ($9,650) to upwards of NIS 45,000 ($14,470). In Ramallah, the same high-ranking coder might get around NIS 14,000 ($4,500).
“The salaries that those Palestinian programmers get are quite low, and the working conditions could be better, to put it politely,” he added.
According to the framework approved by the cabinet on Sunday, the tech workers will be paid no less than 150% of the average Israeli national wage.
Although the tech industry in Israel generally pays wages at a rate higher than other sectors, the national average gross salary stood at NIS 11,799 (approximately $3,790) in August, the most recent month for which statistics were available, the Central Bureau for Statistics said last week.
The number of tech worker permits to be issued is small: only an initial 200 will be issued in 2022. The quota will rise by another 200 in 2023 before maxing out at 500 total permits in 2024.
That amount is dwarfed by the 130,000 Palestinians who currently hold work permits for inside Israel and in West Bank settlements, the majority of whom work in blue-collar jobs. The day laborers include many Palestinian college graduates, drawn by the lack of white-collar job opportunities in the impoverished West Bank.
“This will open the gates not only to low-wage workers, but to white-collar employees in a leading industry,” Regional Cooperation Minister Issawi Frej (Meretz), who worked on the project, said in a statement.
The Israeli government — which ranges from pro-settler Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to left-wing Meretz plus an Arab party — has vowed to take steps to prop up the Palestinian Authority. Earlier this year, the cabinet approved around 15,000 new permits for Palestinian workers in construction.
At the same time, the cabinet on Sunday raised the number of standard work permits for West Bank Palestinians in Israel by 8,600, to take effect in January 2022. Another 3,600 permits will be issued for the Atarot Industrial Zone, which lies north of Jerusalem in the central West Bank.