Smoke billows after an Israeli strike on Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on Nov 23, 2023. — AFP

Gazans’ ‘tech window to the world’ shattered

Bombs destroy a fledgling industry.
Published November 24, 2023

BEIRUT/LOS ANGELES: 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 Israeli aggression.

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.

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, said.

Bombs destroy fledgling industry

“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.

Growth story

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

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 startups, spanning the businesses of motherhood and meditation, gaming and AI.

According to a 2021 World Bank report, Palestinian tech and communications industries injected an extra $500m 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 45pc 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.

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.

Header image: Smoke billows after an Israeli strike on Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on Nov 23, 2023. — AFP

Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2023