|Palestinian IT thrives despite occupation|
|Hi-tech firms use Internet to circumvent Israeli checkpoints
Curfews, closures fail to paralyze Gaza, West Bank's information technology industry
Amid military occupation and daily bloodshed, there is at least one Palestinian sector experiencing economic growth - an industry that transcends the physical world of concrete barricades and intimidating checkpoints.
For the most part, curfews and closures paralyze the flow of business in what has become an archipelago of isolated hamlets that is Gaza and the West Bank. But not for the budding information technology (IT) sector, where Palestinian technicians enjoy free passage over the Internet and develop hardware and software solutions without leaving their homes.
"If you can't make it to the office, it doesn't mean it's a vacation," said Hassan Kassem, president and CEO of Arab Technology Systems, one of the largest software houses in the Occupied Territories.
ATS supplies Palestinian hospitals, universities and utility providers, recording a turnover of around $5 million last year, according to Kassem. And because his staff are confined to their homes for about 15 percent of the fiscal year, each is equipped with a personal laptop and high-speed internet connection.
There are at least 70 Palestinian hi-tech firms according to PITA, the Palestinian Information Technology Association. Kassem said ATS has survived by accepting payments in installments and alternating between work with the public and private sector, wherever funding is available at the time. But nothing is more important to the industry than the Web.
"We are forced to use technology" he said, explaining that unlike other Arab countries, email or video conferencing is not seen as entertainment but rather as an essential means of mobility.
On a recent trip to Dubai, it took 12 hours to travel from Jericho to Amman, normally a 45 minute trip by car, according to Palestinian IT professional Laith Kasis. He is the deputy general manager of PICT, the first information and communication technology (ICT) incubator in the Palestinian territories.
The $1.4 million project will help Palestinians entrepreneurs get started in the industry by providing them with offices, computers and a DSL line. It will also offer business development services and loans of $15,000 to $50,000.
"No country has ever developed an incubator under these circumstances," said Kassis who was promoting PICT at the GITEX trade show earlier this month. "We are not going to accept applicants just to fill space."
PICT is being funded mostly by the U.S. Agency for International Development, but Kassis says more indigenous investment will be encouraged in the future. "People were not hesitant ... they believe that when USAID puts money behind something it will not be wasted."
But enticing investment has proved a challenge in itself. PICT had to reproduce all its promotional materials in Dubai at three times the cost of domestic production. This is because Israel blocked passage of all of the group's plastic and paper materials, in addition to barring travel for its entire Gaza delegation.
"We will have problems getting it back so we will probably leave everything here," Kassis said, pointing to an array of posters, signs and stacks of brochures.
"It's just becoming part of our lives ... each day there is something new to face," he said. "We still have the will to say things will change and each one of us is trying to change what is going on. But some things are out of our hands."
For now the future appears bright for stay-at-home Palestinian programmers and designers, at least in the short run. "The ICT sector is least affected by the situation because we don't have any checkpoints on the internet" he says. "Well, we are thinking maybe Israel might start developing that someday. God knows."
Beirut,10 25 2004
The Daily Star