Israeli tech firm urges others to tap pool of Palestinian talent

Move would benefit Palestinian economy, Israeli-Palestinian interaction, and employers’ bottom lines, says CEO of Mellanox computer networking company

Representatives for Mellanox, Rawabi and ASAL discussed the prospects for Israeli and Palestinian tech partnerships, in Tel Aviv. 12  July 2017 (Courtesy)
Representatives for Mellanox, Rawabi and ASAL discussed the prospects for Israeli and Palestinian tech partnerships, in Tel Aviv. 12 July 2017 (Courtesy)

Israel’s Mellanox Technologies Ltd., a maker of high-speed computer networking products that employs Palestinian software developers in the West Bank and Gaza, is urging other Israeli and multinational software companies to consider doing the same in order to help their bottom lines as well as the Palestinian economy.

“There’s a great potential, and they’re unutilized in terms of what we think we can do, or they can do, in terms of developing their high-tech skills and helping us achieve our targets and meet our goals, with a cheaper workforce than we pay here in Israel,” said Eyal Waldman, CEO of Mellanox.

Extra chairs had to be brought into a large room at Mellanox’s Tel Aviv headquarters last week, where representatives of leading Israeli tech companies heard Waldman say that they could save money and have stronger partnerships with their outsourced employees if they employ Palestinian software engineers. Instead of training developers in other time zones, an available workforce exists right next door, he said.

Such partnerships would inject money into the Palestinian economy and set the stage for a startup ecosystem there, he added. It’s also a way to bring Israelis and Palestinians closer via shared interests in spite of the ongoing political conflict.

“I think it’s a very effective and very efficient way to get good friction between the people, and get them to understand and work together,” he said.

Mellanox outsources 100 software development jobs to Palestinians via ASAL Technologies, a Palestinian tech company it partnered with seven years ago. ASAL was based in Ramallah but is now located in Rawabi, a new West Bank city in an area controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Rawabi hopes to become the center of an emerging Palestinian high-tech economy, according to Sari Taha, the city’s tech hub program manager.

ASAL had reservations about making a public appeal for partnerships across the Green Line and inviting the press, Waldman said. There is strong resistance in Palestinian society against “normalization” with Israel, he said. Many Palestinians believe that working with Israelis means complicity in Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian Territories. Waldman said that “this is something we need to overcome.”

After he addressed the crowd, speakers from Mellanox and ASAL discussed the finer points of how their partnership works and how it benefits all involved. Palestinians’ proximity to Israel is a big selling point: there are culture and language commonalities, they said, and the shared time zone and weekend days all contribute to work cohesion. A team of engineers in India will develop a project on its own, whereas engineers an hour’s drive from Israel can have daily contact and meet face-to-face regularly or when needed, the speakers noted.

ASAL Managing Director Murad Tahboub praised attendees for being “leaders who want to make change, who are looking for a different perspective and they are willing to do something about it.”

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

About 3,000 Palestinians earn IT and engineering degrees each year, but only 30 percent get jobs in the industry, according to Ibrahim Tannira, ASAL’s sales and marketing manager. That leaves an abundance of people with the skills that Israeli tech companies can’t find enough of in Israel. Taha said that 400,000 Palestinians are unemployed, a quarter of the eligible population. “Unemployment in Palestine is among the educated,” he said, “because everyone goes to university.”

Waldman said that salaries considered cheap for companies are significantly higher than what Palestinians make on average in their current job market. He predicted that partnerships with Israeli companies would do for the Palestinian startup economy what partnering with US companies did for Israel’s.

Israel, where some 1,000 new startups are sprouting every year, needs to tap into new populations to meet the shortage of skilled workers it will be facing over the next decade. Israel’s high-tech sector, which has been a growth engine for the economy, is facing an acute shortage of engineers and programmers as students shy away from studying computer science, math and statistics.

Tannira said the Palestinian tech scene has plenty of fresh minds but few leaders. Many startups are set up by businessmen who know what the problem is and then implement a technical solution, he said. The entrepreneur is generally “not a technical person who wants to fix something.”

An audience member asked about problems from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign or the anti-normalization movement, but Taha said there were none. “Up until this moment, not a single Palestinian IT company has been addressed by the BDS for working with Israeli partners, and I don’t think it ever will because they know they will do more harm than good,” he said.

Tahboub concurred. “The issue is about doing good for the Palestinian economy and doing good for the Palestinian/Israeli high-tech sectors,” he said.

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