HOD HASHARON, Israel: Within the pastel walls of a modest suburban office, Israeli high-tech workers have accomplished a feat that still eludes their political leaders: They have created a partnership with the Palestinians.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks may be stalled, but that hasn’t stopped a small but steady trickle of Israeli technology companies from seeking to work with people on the other side of the decades-old conflict.
Israeli CEOs say it’s their way of bringing a little bit of peace to their troubled corner of the world. But the real reason they’re hiring Palestinians, they acknowledge, is because it simply makes good business sense.
Israel’s high-tech industry is among the country’s crowning achievements. Israel has the most start-ups per capita in the world and has helped produce such game-changing innovations as instant messaging and internet telephony. Many Israeli tech firms send work offshore to Eastern Europe, India or China.
In the past three years, however, some have turned to Palestinian engineers and programmers. They are cheaper, ambitious, work in the same time zone, and – surprisingly to many Israelis – are similar to them.
“The cultural gap is much smaller than we would think,” said Gai Anbar, chief executive of Comply, an Israeli start-up in this central Israeli town that develops software for global pharmaceutical companies like Merck and Teva.
At a previous job, he worked with engineers in India and Eastern Europe, but found communication difficult. So in 2007, when he was looking to outsource work at his new start-up, he turned to Palestinian engineers. He said they speak like Israelis do – they are direct and uninhibited. Today, Comply employs four Palestinians.
Palestinian engineers have also warmed up to the idea. “I doubt you would find a company who says, ‘I am closed for business,” to Israelis, said Ala Alaeddin, chairman of the Palestinian Information Technology Association.
If there is hesitation, it’s in marketing Israeli products under a Palestinian name to tap into larger Arab markets off-limits to them. “We’re looking for a partnership … not one side benefits from the other side,” Alaeddin said.
“We have a window of opportunity to demonstrate our skills,” said Murad Tahboub, CEO of Asal Technologies, a Palestinian outsourcing company that works with Comply and a handful of other Israeli-based companies. “The more people know about us … the more comfortable they will be in doing business with us.” This is easier said than done. Comply’s office in Hod Hasharon is only about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Asal Technologies in the West Bank city of Ramallah – but they are worlds apart.
A network of fences and concrete walls divides Israel from the West Bank, built by Israel earlier this decade amid a wave of Palestinian attacks. Travel restrictions make meetings between Israelis and Palestinians rare, and psychological barriers separate them as well.
Anbar says his company is proving skeptics wrong. One recent morning, Israeli project manager Gali Kahane chatted online in English with Palestinian programmer Mohammad Radad, sending him smiley emoticons while reviewing updates to the database software they are developing.
“At first it was a little bit strange” to work with Palestinians, but now it’s like working with any other Israeli developer, Kahane said.
“We are very curious what they think about us,” but they never talk politics. “The only thing we talk about is when the bugs will be finished, and reaching our deadline together,” she said.