The Palestinians Crossing Checkpoints and Societal Divides to Work in Startup Nation

Five young professionals tell Haaretz about the challenge of finding jobs in Israel’s high-tech sector and how they reconcile their work with the occupation

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Jeries Nassar standing near his company’s office in Sarona, Tel Aviv.
Jeries Nassar stands near his company’s office in Sarona, Tel Aviv.Credit: Aaron Cederberg

Hassan Abu Dalo looks out from the stage at the Israelis and Palestinians wearing jeans and zip-up windbreakers – the de-facto uniform of high-tech employees everywhere, it seems. Speaking confidently in flawless, unaccented English, he wants to leave the audience optimistic. “Hopefully there will be more cooperation and the reality on the ground will be changed,” he says.

The 23-year-old from East Jerusalem is talking at an event for Palestinians who work in the Israeli high-tech industry. Like others in this select club, he sees his job as a means to gain experience and connections – while not losing sight of his Palestinian identity.

Palestinian universities graduate over 3,000 students annually in computer science and engineering, but their unemployment rate is close to 20%. Some find employment in the West Bank’s small but expanding technology sector, where some Israeli companies outsource work.

Getting jobs in Israel’s lucrative high-tech industry is far more difficult, though, with Palestinians often facing legal obstacles, discrimination in the hiring process and having less opportunities to garner experience. These challenges constantly remind them of their status as outsiders as they wrestle with the political pitfalls of normalizing ties with Israel.

Lubna Abu Rmaileh working at Masschallenge, a shared work space in West Jerusalem, February 2019.Credit: Charlotte Beyss

Wrong address

Lubna Abu Rmaileh, a 27-year-old business developer from East Jerusalem, notes that the specific skills Palestinian developers learn both during their studies and while working in local companies don’t match what Israeli companies need. “They look more for machine learning, AI, computer vision and there’s no place to pick up these skills except for, say, online,” she says.

But Jeries Nassar, a 24-year-old software engineer from Bethlehem who works and lives in Tel Aviv, says even Palestinians who have these skills are often actively overlooked in the hiring process. Israelis in the high-tech sector, unfamiliar with working with Palestinians, are afraid the political situation might make it hard to cooperate or could result in legal difficulties, he says. “They’re just afraid to hire one. Like, how they can communicate together? What will the process be like? They’ve never done it before,” he adds.

Yasmin (who asked not to be identified by her real name), a 27-year-old business developer from the West Bank, agrees. “The fact that my résumé said ‘Ramallah, West Bank, Palestine’ meant I wasn’t even considered,” she tells Haaretz. “I would apply for a job in the States and would get an interview, but then I’d apply for a very similar job in Israel and wouldn’t get a reply. That was very frustrating for me.”

When Yasmin did get hired, her work permit required her to commute from Ramallah to Jerusalem every day – a 21-kilometer (13 mile) trip that, due to delays at the Qalandiyah checkpoint, took at least three hours each way.

For Mohammed Abboud, a 30-year-old developer from Ramallah, working in Israel means being away from his family, who are not legally allowed to live with him in Israel. “Of course I miss them, but you have to live with that,” he responds when asked about the costs and benefits of working in Israel.

Hassan Abu Dalo speaking at an event held by the Palestinian Internship Program in Tel Aviv, January 2019. Credit: Aaron Cederberg

For those like Abu Rmaileh and Abu Dalo, both of whom live in East Jerusalem and have an Israeli ID card and full citizenship, respectively, there are no legal obstacles to working in Israel. But for the three others, all from the West Bank, the process is far more complex.

West Bank Palestinians have to apply for Israeli-issued work permits, a process they describe as a convoluted, bureaucratic labyrinth. Only 300 to 350 West Bank Palestinians currently hold special permits allowing them to work in the high-tech sector. Applying without institutional support, which Yasmin repeatedly tried to do, is “almost impossible,” she says.

This is where the Palestinian Internship Program steps in. Founded by American-Israeli and Palestinian venture capitalists, the USAID-backed organization specializes in streamlining the permit process.

“I think if you’re coming with an organization applying on your behalf … it’s easier because you have a clear reason for why you want to have a permit and come to Israel,” explains its director, Anna Gol. Despite the difficulties faced by individual Palestinians in obtaining permits, the Civil Administration – the Israeli governing body that operates in the West Bank – has been very eager to work with PIP, she says. “There’s a value seen in helping young Palestinians gain experience and exposure to the Israeli high-tech sector,” notes Gol.

Although PIP has a relatively high success rate, not all the permits it applies for are granted. A number of applicants have been rejected because they were caught throwing stones as children, or because a relative or someone in their circle was previously involved in a “security-related incident.”

Anna Gol, program director of the Palestinian Internship Program, at an event held by the organization in Tel Aviv, January 2019.Credit: Aaron Cederberg

Normalize or optimize?

Beyond the logistical complexities of getting a job in Israel, helping develop the Israeli tech sector leaves Palestinian professionals constantly questioning their complicity in the occupation. “When I tell my friends that I work there, I am seen as normalizing and collaborating,” says Abu Dalo.

He reconciles this with the fact that "for the time being, the conflict is going to be here." He adds that the potential gains justify the possibility of him being scorned for working on the other side of the West Bank separation barrier. “If you can develop whatever it is you’re developing and bring those benefits, then, yeah, the benefits outweigh the costs,” he says.

Yasmin, who recently quit her job at a company in Jerusalem to work on her own project with an Israeli partner, describes working with Israelis as tiptoeing a political tightrope: “I always say it’s not normal that I had to go through a checkpoint every day to get to work,” she says. “I’m very pro-Palestinian. But it’s very hard for others to understand that this is something that can help us grow as Palestinians.” She says her new venture, which focuses on creating jobs for Palestinians, “could not have happened if I had not gone and worked for an Israeli company.”

Abu Dalo notes that developing the Palestinian economy, even if it means cooperating with Israel, is crucial to Palestinian empowerment. “The Israeli economy is going to keep expanding and Palestinians are going to lag behind. We’re going to reach a front where ... we want to reach a political settlement and we find ourselves at an economic disadvantage. Then we cannot talk on equal terms.”

Yasmin, standing in Yasser Arafat Square in downtown Ramallah, February 2019.Credit: Charlotte Beyss

Yasmin agrees: “You can call me normalizer if you want, but what I’m doing is more helpful than what you are doing: Just sitting there at your home and … gossiping!” She says that concealing her identity for this interview is not about protecting her personal reputation but rather that of her family. “If it’s just people around me, I can handle it,” she says. “But over here, one person’s actions can affect the entire family. So … I don’t like to put them in this situation.”

Personal insiders or political outsiders?

For the few Palestinian professionals who can secure jobs in the high-tech industry, working in Israel presents numerous professional and social advantages. But no matter what their individual success, they say they are constantly reminded of their status as outsiders.

Abu Dalo recounts that he has never felt singled out or ‘tokenized’ at work. “I’m not seen as some cultural anomaly there, I’m seen as an essential member of the team.” He contrasts this to experiences outside of his professional setting in Israel, and says that, despite having an Israeli passport, “It’s easier for me to feel stigmatized when I’m at a checkpoint or at the airport.”

Abu Rmaileh denies ever facing prejudice at work. On the contrary, she says, “It was a nice experience, I’ve never heard complaints.” Abboud concurs: “Working with somebody close, they don’t see me as just some Arab who can’t speak Hebrew.” Outside of work, however, he and Nassar cannot wholly escape their legal and social status: both recount being stopped by police in public spaces to check their permits.

Jeries Nassar and Mohammed Abboud playing chess at their shared apartment in Jaffa, February 2019. Credit: Aaron Cederberg

Nassar says the best part of his job is his work life. “I’m learning something new every day,” he says. “We have meetings every couple of days where we sit all together and try to teach each other about the different aspects of the product.”

In addition to professional advantages, working for an Israeli company offers a unique opportunity to interact with Israelis. Yasmin says that at her former company in Jerusalem, many people had never met a Palestinian. Some were surprised she didn’t wear a hijab or that she spoke excellent English. “I had never met a Jew, so I always thought they’re all wearing black suits and a kippa, or they were going to shoot me,” she says. “Working gave me this amazing capability to change a lot of my opinions.”

Beyond their individual experiences, all five developers emphasize the larger benefits of economic cooperation. “There’s high demand in high-tech in Israel and there are a lot of good developers in Palestine,” Abboud says, “and as two peoples we know each other more.”

Despite the challenges, collaboration “helps both sides work together and destroy that wall,” says Abu Rmaileh. It’s a sentiment Yasmin echoes when she notes that if she hadn’t met left-wing Israeli Jews at her former company, she would not have agreed to talk to Haaretz.

Abu Dalo is a passionate believer that economic cooperation can succeed where politics can’t. His message captures how Palestinians working in Israel see their role in the conflict. “Doing business together doesn’t mean you’re pulling out a map and drawing the borders,” he sums up. “It means you set aside the wrongdoings and just focus on one thing.”

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