The economic damage to Gaza from the siege and the political and militaristic turmoil is hard to deny. According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 3,000 private-sector enterprises, including small factories and businesses, have shut down since the siege began. Shutting down businesses means job losses in pretty much all sectors, creating an unemployment rate of 44 percent, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza. While the tunnel smugglers do hire, few Gazans want part of living life on the edge.
While the siege has a harmful impact on all business sectors in Gaza, one sector might have suffered less than all the others. The Gaza Information Technology sector might have thrived due to the siege. Due to their limited movement and absence of many goods, Palestinians have turned to the Internet. On any given day, you can walk in any Gaza Strip neighborhood and you will likely run into an Internet cafe next to another -- imagine Starbucks stores on every corner. According to a recent study by the Palestinian IT Association (PITA) 70 percent of Gaza homes own a computer, 60 percent have some form of an Internet connection, making the IT sector a pillar of the Palestinian economy. Now many government agencies, schools and universities rely more than ever on the Internet, not only in taking forms and applications, but also to communicate to their constituents.
Recognizing the importance of the IT sector, the French Development Agency extended a grant to this sector. The project, "EnTeG" (Enable Technology sector Growth in Gaza), aims to help Gazan software developers use the Internet to get around Israeli export restrictions. The French Development Agency chose the IT sector because of viability and potential to export even with the siege on Gaza.
The grant will help Palestinian IT entrepreneurs to find markets beyond Gaza--a small market with a limited potential for organic growth. AFD will contribute 500,000 Euros toward this project. Mr. Tarik Saleem, Vice President of Palestinian IT Association (PITA) said, "the Gaza IT sector is looking forward to export to Arab and foreign countries" Mr. Saleem has announced a new project to empower the Gaza IT sector in partnership with the French Development Agency AFD in the IT sector. PITA has 78 IT and communication firms.
Palestinian IT Association (PITA) reports on the IT sector in Gaza, "We are able to export software and communication systems to the Middle East", "but the siege is our biggest obstacle" referring to the limitation on technologies Israel allows into Gaza. Since most computer technologies tend to be small items, the Rafah tunnels meet the demand by bringing in whatever technology and equipment is available in Egypt. Currently many Gazan computer engineers and web designers consult with local NGOs; many have done work with Arab companies and business based in the Gulf, but this has been limited to personal contact.
The president of Fusion Communication, a Gaza based IT company Khalid abu Hasna, stated the project will help local IT firms by offering them training and capacity development. Speaking to France Press, Abu Hasna said "Gaza IT companies can export much software especially in databases and food industries," he added, "We are currently exporting software to the Gulf market especially Saudi Arabia." He also touted the number of local experts in the VOIP technologies. Abu Hasna complained that the siege on Gaza prevented them from attending conferences and trade shows to showcase their products. Abu Hasna and his team take pride that his company, Fusion, has successfully connected all the UNRWA schools in an educational network that will benefit the 250,000 students attending those schools.
I know many Gaza Internet subscribers constantly complain of the lack of hardware and service providers. Take for example Hadara, Gaza's only Internet provider (founded in 2005 as a result of a merger) with 60% of Gaza's Internet connections; the company on its website gives itself credit for offering Internet solutions, database management, web hosting and mobile connectivity. Looking at their pricing, it's easy to see the frustration with the rather steep costs. Gaza businesses can get a fast Internet at speeds of 4 Megabyte download and 0.5 Mega upload for $270 a month. Homes can have an Internet connection of up to 2 Megabyte in download and 0.2 Mega upload for about $70 a month with a $40 one-time installation fee. But I learned that Palestinians in Gaza often share a line in an effort to reduce the costs, which makes the service affordable, but a lot slower. There is also a waiting list for modem and router rentals.
Since this is besieged Gaza we are talking about, none of this will matter if Gaza continues to struggle with frequent electrical shortages and relatively slow Internet connection. I know a number of Gazan Internet cafes own small power generators to help them stay open. Many Gazans are optimists when it comes to the IT sector, though, as the there are many Palestinians who have received training around the globe that are now officially locked up in Gaza. With nowhere to go and limited resources, innovation is their only option. After Israel had put wood on the banned item lists, Palestinians carpenters and craftsmen started converting pallets (which humanitarian aid groups use to bring in aid) into beautiful couches. Palestinians do not shy away from taking risks; the IT sector should not be any different.
[Hat Tip: Kellee Keoning]