Palestinian entrepreneur sees Israel as ally, not foe

Hani Alami knows all about both Israeli and Palestinian tech — and says the twain shall, and must, meet

Hani Alami (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Hani Alami (Photo credit: Courtesy)

A noted Palestinian businessman believes economic cooperation is the path to peace in the region.

It’s not too often that you find a prominent Palestinian agreeing with Economics Minister Naftali Bennett — but Ramallah-based entrepreneur Hani Alami is unique in that respect and many others. “There is plenty of blame to go around for the political situation,” Alami told the Times of Israel in an exclusive interview. “There are no men of vision on either side. But economically, there is no reason the two sides cannot cooperate, and in fact that would benefit both the Israelis and Palestinians.”

That is not far from the positions that Jewish Home and its leader, Naftali Bennett, profess. The right-wing Bennett supports Israel annexing the West Bank’s Area C, where most Jewish settlers live, while promoting civilian autonomy in the rest of the West Bank, with the Palestinian Authority in charge.

According to the party platform, Israel would continue to play an important role in the area. “Israel would make a massive investment to advance coexistence,” including Israel building highways, infrastructure and industrial zones — as well as promoting entrepreneurship, especially in the tech sector — among Palestinians, the Jewish Home platform states.

While Alami does not care for most of Bennett’s positions, he is in favor of advancing tech and economic cooperation. “On this I do agree with him,” said Alami.

Alami is well-qualified to discuss matters of high-tech cooperation. A self-made mogul, Alami runs Coolnet, a Ramallah-based internet service provider that specializes in bringing service to rural areas where broadband is afraid to venture. The Coolnet site unhesitatingly lists several Israeli partners, including Radwin, Radcom, RadVision and Ceragon. Last September, Alami rushed to rescue Israeli telecom firm Alavarion, a 4G communications company, from bankruptcy with a $10.5 million “care package.” Since then, Alami sold his stake in the company, he revealed, saying that he didn’t think the company would be able to solve its debt issues.

For Alami, partnering with Israeli firms — and with Israelis — is natural. He knows all the top Israeli tech figures, even tech guru Yossi Vardi, and is as at home in Tel Aviv as he is in Ramallah. Alami is most passionate about Jerusalem, especially East Jerusalem, where he says there could be an active entrepreneur scene that would benefit everyone in the city — Israeli or Palestinian, Jewish or Arab.

“The municipality has put a lot of money and effort into building the brand of Jerusalem as a tech center, but that has applied almost exclusively to West Jerusalem,” said Alami. “In East Jerusalem, it’s been much harder to get the assistance needed.” Jerusalem’s Arabs are Israeli residents and can travel anywhere in the city, and some have traveled across town to try out the hubs, incubators and accelerators that are cropping up all over Jerusalem, many of them supported by the municipality and designed to encourage students, women and ultra-Orthodox residents to form their own tech start-ups.

Inevitably, they return home, Alami said. The cultural divide is just too great, and East Jerusalem Palestinians “feel shy and uncomfortable working with their Israeli colleagues,” despite having studied at the likes of the Technion or Ben-Gurion University. Their own neighborhoods are no better, lacking incubator spaces and with a housing shortage just as severe as in Jewish areas.

“No beginning entrepreneur has the money for the very high rent the landlords want for even small spaces,” Alami noted, so they get a job in Ramallah at one of the high-tech companies that have opened programs there in recent years, many of them in partnership with multinationals like Cisco and Microsoft. A tech job in Ramallah is not like one in Tel Aviv, though: many of the jobs demand skills far below what Technion computer science graduates possess. Many of the tech firms do Bangalore-style back office data processing. “Add to that the difficulty of getting through from Jerusalem to Ramallah via the Qalandiya checkpoint, which is a major hassle, and you have a capable population that is underemployed. If they want a real job, their only option is to seek one abroad,” Alami said.

It’s neither fair nor just. “We both see Jerusalem differently, and we have that right — Israelis can see it as their capital and Palestinians can see it as theirs. But that has nothing to do with providing opportunities for all residents. If you say that the city is one unified unit, then providing equal treatment and equal opportunity is an obligation.” Alami said he held a meeting with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and told him exactly that. “If we are one city, help us,” Alami recalls telling Barkat. “If not, let us go our way.” Barkat got the message, Alami added, and a number of programs are being formed, many involving Israeli and multinational companies and support from the municipality.

The better off Palestinians are, the better off Israelis will be, Alami said. “It’s in Israel’s interests to promote economic stability, regardless of the politics.

“The only thing to be gained by not promoting economic growth is the increase of a restive population that will seek to vent its frustrations. When a person has a home and a job and has to pay off a mortgage and a car loan, they very quickly realize the benefits of economic and political stability.”

Alami cites the example of Salam Fayyad, the former PA prime minister who resigned last year. Fayyad promoted private enterprise, education and economic opportunity for Palestinians. The reforms he undertook had a profound impact on life in the PA — at least as much a factor in the relative stability Israel has enjoyed in the West Bank over the past several years as Israeli security efforts, Alami said. The calm goes beyond Ramallah, reaching even into areas where Hamas and other Islamist groups have a strong presence, like Nablus. “For Palestinians, Ramallah is like Tel Aviv, and the tech workers come from all over, bringing the message of economic progress back home,” he said.

Alami realizes that his ideas contrast sharply with those of the radical groups, some of which prefer to see the Palestinians remain in a constant state of “struggle,” rather than build successful lives without an independent Palestinian state. He notes that Fayyad’s reforms and the growing Palestinian middle class have not diminished their drive for self-determination. “Even though things are much better economically than they were, people are no less interested in the politics of the region.”

Many of those radical positions are espoused by foreign groups, some represented by NGOs that operate in the PA. Alami emphasizes the foreignness of those groups. “Their agendas are not always our agendas,” said Alami. “I have even been approached by governments for support of ideas for projects that they apparently feel strongly about, but that, in my judgment, will not benefit Palestinians. I tell them politely but firmly, thanks but no thanks.”

Israel has its own agendas and interests. In the tech field, though, Alami thinks they are closely aligned with the Palestinians’. “I strongly agree with the Israelis who see the region as having a great tech potential,” he said. “The Palestinians need help and Israel has the resources to provide it, and many in Israel have told me that they want to help.”

Many Israeli tech executives already work on projects to raise the level of technology education and entrepreneurship among Palestinians. All of them work “under the radar” in order to prevent bad publicity — or worse — that would ruin the delicate ties that many in the tech industry on both sides, Alami included, have struggled to build. “It’s a matter of time,” he said. “We’ve come a long way since we started and we have a way to go, but the idea of tech cooperation with each other is something we all want and will eventually come to the fore.”

Among the groups that don’t seem to want it are the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) groups around the world that advocate boycotting products made in the West Bank, or even Israel proper. As an advocate of Israeli cooperation to help Palestinians economically, Alami would support companies such as SodaStream, a favorite target of BDS groups which employs a large number of Palestinians. SodaStream claims that it pays the workers at its Ma’ale Adumim factory better salaries, and provides more benefits, than they could get anywhere else, and Alami does not disagree.

The problem is SodaStream’s location. The ever-practical Alami has a solution for the company. “I don’t see SodaStream as a ‘colonial power’ taking advantage of Palestinians,” he said. “I have been to their factory, and have no problem with their policies.” Nor does he object to the fact that its owners are Israeli and take the profits home. “That’s what investment is all about,” he added.

“But why does the factory need to be in Ma’ale Adumim? If most of the workers are Palestinian, why not locate it in the PA? I promise that if they were willing, they could in one day find a foreign government that would build them a factory in Jericho, for free,” said Alami. “They would be heroes instead of goats, praised for developing the Palestinian economy. And they could even sell in Arab countries, expanding their market. They are already busing in most of their workers from Jericho. Instead, why not build the factory where the workers are? That would, I guarantee, solve all their problems.”

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