Opinion

Why Isn't Startup Nation Tapping Palestinian Talent?

Mellanox employs 130 Palestinians, which not only provides badly needed jobs but fosters a dialogue of equals between the two sides

Students at the Arab School of Science and Engineering, March 10, 2919.
Ofer Vaknin

Mellanox Technologies became the second-largest high-tech exit ever in Israel when Nvidia agreed to buy it for $6.9 billion thanks to its place at the forefront of emerging technologies of artificial intelligence and parallel computing conducted at giant server farms.

Mellanox’s success is due to its employees’ dedication and enthusiasm no less than it is the result of the imagination and vision of its longtime CEO and co-founder Eyal Waldman.

Over the years Mellanox invested in areas that outsiders regarded as too ambitious or in segments regarded as unattractive. The company’s technology is an inseparable part of nearly every supercomputer or giant computing center. Last year, our sales exceeded $1 billion and there’s still a lot of room to grow.

>> Read more: The Palestinians crossing checkpoints and societal divides to work in Startup Nation

It’s that same tendency to think outside of the box that led Mellanox to cross the Green Line. A decade ago we realized that every year more than 3,000 young Palestinians complete their studies in engineering and technology at institutes of higher education in the West Bank and Gaza.

Some of them are hired by Palestinian, Israeli or multinational companies, a few try their luck in the Gulf and others go further afield. But three quarters of them remain unemployed. In the best case, they remain idle; in the worst, they become part of the conflict with Israel.

In cooperation with the Palestinian outsourcing company ASAL, Mellanox began hiring a few software checkers in the Ramallah area. The joint recruiting drive with ASAL opened the door for the most talented graduates in the territories. In 2015 we were employing 25 and last year the figure reached 130. They are involved in scores of different activities, including research and development, quality assurance, hardware, customer support and operations.

Young Palestinians have proven to be highly motivated and keen to contribute to Mellanox’s development. In return they have found the company to be a welcoming workplace that enables them to grow and develop personally. As employees of an international tech company, they work with customers from around the world, get world-class training and enjoy excellent salary and other work conditions, including stock options.

The joint teams that comprise employees from both sides of the Green Line have created a technology bridge based on day-to-day phone calls and emails. Mellanox’s Israeli employees benefit by working with people in the same time zone as they are in. If Palestinian workers can’t always travel to Israel, online communications help lower barriers. Mellanox’s Gaza employees have never been hampered by the area’s frequent brownouts and have completed their projects without fail.

From time to time, Mellanox’s Israeli and Palestinian staff meet face to face at the company’s headquarters in Israel or in ASAL’s offices in the West Bank town of Rawabi. During breaks they have coffee and meals together and discover that the man or woman they deal with by telephone on the other side of the Green Line faces the same daily challenges as they do.

Israeli managers who visit the offices in Rawabi get a firsthand look at daily life in the Palestinian Authority that most Israelis never see.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of these informal relations between ordinary people as a way of bringing down barriers, overcoming fear and laying a foundation for a dialogue of equals without violence.

Israeli politicians talk about an economic peace and regional development and at the same time bemoan the shortage of high-tech workers, but they ignore the trained engineers who live just around the corner.

The Israel Innovation Authority claims the country is short 10,000 trained professionals in high-tech. That shortage has led to ever-higher salaries to the extentt that the Israeli industry is losing some of its competitive advantage.

Mellanox’s solution not only has implications for coexistence but for coping with Israel’s tech labor shortage and for boosting the Palestinian economy. The company’s Palestinian staff work in offices close to their homes and don’t have to spend hours coping with checkpoints to and from work. Technology is a bridge that easily passes over physical borders and brings people together for a joint mission that benefits them all.

Mellanox has demonstrated the power of defying the consensus. The Palestinian economy is desperately in need of investment and technology. Hundreds of Palestinian engineers and technicians are waiting for the phone to ring. Israel’s high-tech sector shouldn’t hesitate to make that call.

David Slama is Software Senior Director, Cloud & Network Solutions at Mellanox and is responsible for its operations in the Palestinian Authority.