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Gaza's tech 'window to the world' shattered by Israel-Palestine war

November 23, 2023 at 6:55 pm

Smoke rises over the buildings after Israeli attacks hit the different parts of Gaza City, Gaza on November 22, 2023. [Abed Rahim Khatib – Anadolu Agency]

If the internet was once Gaza’s window to the world, that window has now slammed shut and the Strip’s nascent tech industry has gone from incubator to grave in six weeks of all-out war.

Some of Gaza’s brightest brains have died in the punishing Israeli bombardment, much of the Strip’s fledgling digital infrastructure has been destroyed and hope for a better future obliterated. Many now fear that local, tech-savvy talent will also rush for the door.

[The tech sector] was the fastest growing portion of the economy and really one that Gazans can … rely on

said Ryan Sturgill, who worked in Gaza’s tech sector and now advises companies in the region.

“This is actually the first time that the internet has ever been, like, really destroyed. In all of the previous wars over the years, the internet never went down.”

Before Hamas launched its shock attack on Israel on 7 October, the tech industry – young and whip smart – had offered promise for many Palestinians, fostering investment, jobs and a brighter future far beyond their small and isolated homeland.

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No longer.

The Hamas raid prompted Israel to invade Gaza to annihilate the group that has ruled there since 2007.

Gaza’s government says at least 13,300 Palestinians are confirmed killed in a bombardment that has turned much of Gaza, especially its north, into a wasteland.

Last month, Palestinian tech worker and innovation champion, Tariq Thabet, joined their ranks, killed along with 15 members of his family in an air strike on their Gaza apartment.

Thabet was a senior manager at UCAS Technology incubator, an innovation hub that was set up in 2010 to mentor Gazan tech talent and support budding entrepreneurs.

“He was a pillar of the tech community,” Dalia Shurrab, a one-time colleague who left Gaza for Jordan in 2021, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The (tech) sector lost a man … who helped thousands of young men (and women) come up with ideas and transform them into website and mobile applications

the 41-year-old said by phone.

“He was a mentor and a guide.”

His death deprives the Strip of a true talent, Sturgill said. The bombing is also destroying key tech infrastructure, he said, along with Gaza’s universities and precious human capital.

“The science faculties that existed to train people are not there anymore,” he said in a phone interview from Jordan.

“If people are actually allowed to leave Gaza, every single person is going to leave. Every single person that I talked to is just desperately trying to leave.”

Growth story

The Strip’s tech sector had been growing at a clip: a rare bright spot in what was a heavily constricted economy.

Unemployment was high and opportunity low in a densely populated and heavily blockaded piece of land.

Yet there were bright spots.

A Palestinian venture capitalist fund called Ibtikar – or innovation in Arabic – was set up by Palestinian executives in 2016 and had recently raised its second round of funding, a pot totalling $30 million.

The group has funded 29 start-ups, spanning the businesses of motherhood and meditation, gaming and AI.

Besieged Gaza is the open-air prison resisting Israel’s colonisation of Palestine - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Besieged Gaza is the open-air prison resisting Israel’s colonisation of Palestine – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

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According to a 2021 World Bank report, Palestinian tech and communications industries injected an extra $500 million into the economy and accounted for some 3 per cent of gross domestic product.

Without connectivity, none of that growth and opportunity would have happened. And few see it happening again now.

“The (Israeli) siege started at the end of 2006, so the only window to the world for the people of Gaza was the internet,” said Shurrab, 41.

“So, with this asset … we can learn a lot of new things to communicate with companies abroad, find freelance jobs abroad and provide for our families.”

Skills under siege

The World Bank report said Israeli restrictions on imports limited Gaza’s network to 2G – far slower and clunkier than successor generations – and described them as the “key constraint to improvements in digital infrastructure.”

Other impediments – a lack of regulation and of competition, the Bank said, which “delayed network connectivity within the Palestinian Territories and with the rest of the world”.

The tech sector not only connected the city to the outside world, but it also gave young people a place to learn new digital skills to find a job and make ends meet, said Shurrab.

Unemployment in Gaza was about 45 per cent in 2022, the Bank said.

Shurrab left Gaza in 2021 after more than a decade working with Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG), a tech initiative partly backed by Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

Since its launch in 2011, GSG has helped more than 50,000 people, GSG Director, Alan El-Kadhi, said in emailed comments.

Last year, 4,500 participants completed its training program and another 4,500 are expected to do so in 2023, he said.

On average, its graduates make $700 each month within a year – and those with technical skills, such as coding and data analytics, can earn an average of $1,500 per month during the same period, Kadhi said.

“Digital work is one of the few viable opportunities for sustainable and inclusive economic growth,” he said, pointing to Gaza’s lack of natural resources and its excess of restrictions.

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Now, its main office is severely damaged, he said.

“At the moment, we – in common with other organisations – are not currently able to operate safely,” he said.

Omar Al-Rabi – a GSG alumnus turned employee – has now fled the bombing in Gaza for the safety of Jordan, crediting GSG for his life switch from English major to tech enthusiast.

“I wanted to get into tech and learn more about tech and they were my gateway,” he said. “They taught me a bit about HTML, CSS, and JavaScript (coding languages), so they were my gateway to learn the fundamentals of web development.”

Global pressure

The Palestinian tech Diaspora is also mourning the heavy losses suffered by fellow Gazan techies.

“She was one of our own,” Google software engineer, Mohammad Khatami, said of Mai Abeid, a Gazan tech worker and GSG alumna who was killed in an Israeli air strike with her entire family, according to an obituary written by a former colleague.

Khatami, an active member of the “No Tech for Apartheid” campaign, a group of Google workers who want Google to cancel its $1.2 billion contract with the Israeli government and military, is helping to organise a vigil for victims of Israeli strikes in Gaza.

“Her death has stung,” he said. “We don’t want the products we are working on to be contributing to this violence.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.