Palestinian High-tech Workers Plugging Shortage of Israeli Tech Staff

'For the price of one Israeli engineer, an [Israeli] company can hire three Palestinians in the West Bank, and they have very high motivation'

File photo: A Palestinian high-tech worker in Israel.
Ofer Vaknin

With a shortage of high-tech workers in Israel, some Israeli companies are turning to the West Bank and Gaza Strip and hiring Palestinian employees.

Dudu Slama, an executive at Mellanox Technologies, told last week’s Startup Neighbor’s conference in Tel Aviv sponsored by TheMarker that collaboration between Palestinian and Israeli high-tech engineers is one of the keys to successful cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians more generally.

Prior to the conference, however, Palestinians opposed to normalization of ties with Israel lobbied through social media to persuade Palestinians not to attend the conference. Palestinians who did attend said their primary interest was looking after the well-being of hundreds of workers in the high-tech sector in the Palestinian Authority who earn a living working for Israeli tech firms.

At a time when Israeli high-tech companies are outsourcing their work to countries such as Ukraine and India, the Palestinian Authority, where about 3,000 students a year graduate from computer science and engineering programs, provides a workforce that can be hired for less than is generally paid in Israel. There are several Palestinian manpower firms operating in Palestinian West Bank cities such as Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron and the new planned community of Rawabi that provide high-tech placement services.

“For the price of one Israeli engineer, an [Israeli] company can hire three Palestinians in the West Bank, and they have very high motivation,” Slama said. Mellanox itself, which is based in Yokne’am, southeast of Haifa, employs more than 100 Palestinians, including 20 engineers who work in the Gaza Strip. The other 80 employees are based in Rawabi.

Guy Shemesh, the vice president of Nokia’s cloud computing unit, said his company employs 100 Palestinians. He told the conference that the Israeli high-tech sector is currently short 10,000 workers and hiring Palestinian employees provides a way to address the problem. “Some of the work is already being outsourced [overseas] due to the cost of engineers in Israel,” he said. “Currently if a company wants to hire 100 workers, it will take it a year to recruit them. There is an opportunity here to reach a lot of talent,” he said, adding: “The more diverse a company is, the more successful it is.”

For his part, Tareq Maayah, the CEO of Exalt Technologies, a Ramallah-based software development firm with a workforce of about 100 engineers, said the Palestinian labor force offers two things. The first is skilled personnel with the right training. The second is experience. It’s nice to talk about how a number of companies from Israel have been employing Palestinians for many years, Maayah said, but he expressed displeasure that many Palestinians work in Israel as laborers. The approach needs to be to create an employment ecosystem in the Palestinian territories, he asserted.

Also addressing the conference was Eytan Buchman, the vice president for marketing of Freightos, which has developed an automatic pricing and management system for the shipment of goods around the world. It has a global staff of 160, mostly engineers, and they include 40 employees in the Jerusalem area and 70 in Ramallah. Buchman told the conference that, after trying to outsource work to India and Ukraine, the company decided to look closer to home and hired Palestinians. “They earn high salaries and receive a lot more than is the norm for salaries in the Palestinian Authority. We relate to workers in Miami the same as we do workers in the Palestinian Authority,” he said.

Slama of Melllanox described the work of his staff of 20 engineers in Hamas-controlled Gaza, which has been under a blockade by Israel and Egypt and where electricity supplies are sporadic. “They work 24 hours a day. They provide customer support throughout the day and also write code. They work through Bezeq [Israeli] optic fiber and with two generators to maintain the electricity. My only problem is that we can’t meet them. We frequently meet with our colleagues in the West Bank, but have never met the Gaza team. We’ve done our job interviews with them by Skype,” he said.