For Palestinian tech workers in Israel, pride, frustration and 4 hour commutes

When hundreds of Palestinians passed through an Israeli checkpoint on a Monday morning, most were dressed for a day of manual labour. But there was at least one notable exception.

Moha Alshawamreh, 31, wore a buttoned shirt and carried a computer. While many of his relatives and neighbors, mostly male, were on their way to construction sites in southern Israel – to provide cheap Palestinian labor for some of Israel’s lowest-paying jobs – Mr Alshawamreh was on his way to a tech company in Tel Aviv.

“Look at all these people,” Mr. Alshawamreh said with a mixture of sadness and empathy on that day in January. “You don’t see any of them with a laptop or on their way to the office.”

The son of a worker and a stay-at-home mother, Mr. Alshawamreh is an engineer for a company that uses artificial intelligence to improve retail websites – and one of the few Palestinians working in Israel’s tech industry is said to be one of them the world’s most innovative.

He ended up there after a series of notable circumstances, including encounters with a book about the Holocaust, a college on the other side of the world and an Israeli pop star.

His journey to work – through the turnstiles and security scanners of Israeli checkpoints – highlights the injustices between Palestinians and Israelis living in the West Bank, which is currently experiencing some of the deadliest acts of violence in two decades. His life’s journey – from a squatted village to a skyscraper in Tel Aviv – highlights a rare exception to this imbalance.

Mr Alshawamreh said Israelis should know his year-long odyssey has been “emotionally and mentally draining to the point of tears”. The Palestinians should see that “what I’ve done proves it’s possible,” he added.

Mr. Alshawamreh’s workweek began in the village where he grew up, Deir al-Asal al-Fauqa, a sleepy mountain community of about 2,000 Palestinians in the southern West Bank. The village lies directly east of a gray wall hundreds of kilometers long that Israel built to stem Palestinian attacks from the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

To cross this wall and get to Tel Aviv, Israelis living in the nearest Jewish settlement — which was built in 1982 and is considered illegal by most countries under international law — can drive north through a nearby checkpoint, the Palestinians are not allowed to use. This route allows settlers to reach Tel Aviv in 75 minutes.

But Mr. Alshawamreh must enter Israel on foot, through a separate checkpoint at Meitar, 10 miles by road to the south. This restriction doubles the distance of his commute and more than triples its duration.

To reach the intersection, Mr. Alshawamreh got up at 5am and waited in the dark for a southbound carpool.

At sunrise, he was among hundreds of Palestinians in Meitar who went through an airport-style security system designed to prevent gunmen from entering Israel. On the Israeli side, another fleet of vehicles took him to Beersheba, the nearest large city in southern Israel.

“It’s like moving from the third world to the second world to the first world,” he said of his commute.

An accidental discovery at Beersheba set Mr. Alshawamreh on his present path long ago.

Mr. Alshawamreh’s father, Meshref, 63, has been a day laborer in Beersheba for years. One day about 15 years ago, Meshref brought home a book he found in town. It was “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl – an account of the author’s experiences in Nazi concentration camps.

Mr. Alshawamreh, then a teenager, picked it up. He found more than he expected – an introduction to the Holocaust, a topic sometimes dismissed or downplayed in Palestinian discourse, and a lesson in resilience.

Through Mr. Frankl’s writing, Mr. Alshawamreh concluded that “It is our choice whether we want to perish from our trauma – or whether we want to give it meaning and thrive through it.”

Suddenly Mr. Alshawamreh’s horizons widened, he said. In the past, he had simply counted on following in his father’s footsteps. Now he imagined something bigger.

He won a scholarship to a university in Malaysia and earned his first degree in computer science. He then earned another scholarship in South Korea, became fluent in Korean, and earned a master’s degree in behavioral economics.

Despite that résumé, jobs in the tiny Palestinian tech industry were hard to come by.

According to estimates by the Palestinian Internship Program, which is based in Israel and trains potential Palestinian entrepreneurs, more than half of the West Bank’s tech graduates do not find work in the field. Overall unemployment in the area is about 13 percent, compared to 4 percent in Israel and 46 percent in Gaza.

Mr. Alshawamreh started thinking about working in Israel. Although he grew up just a few hundred meters from Israel, he first heard about its reputation as a “start-up nation” while studying in South Korea. An idea sprang up: could he find work in Tel Aviv?

“Then I came home,” said Mr. Alshawamreh, “and reality hit me.”

An Israeli settler in the West Bank has no legal hurdles to work in Tel Aviv, but Mr Alshawamreh required a work permit to enter Israel and an employer willing to undergo the many bureaucratic contortions required to obtain a hire Palestinians.

Experts estimate that among the 360,000 workers in Israel’s tech sector there are only a few dozen Palestinians, in addition to a few hundred who work out of the West Bank.

Then in 2018 the breakthrough: Mr. Alshawamreh won a three-month internship at an Israeli company that develops technologies for cancer screening – and thus a work permit.

Full-time work proved elusive. With his residency permit still valid, he instead became a rare Palestinian student at Tel Aviv University. He was pursuing a third degree – a half-college funded master’s degree in business administration – and was living in Tel Aviv.

But without a job, Mr Alshawamreh struggled to pay his share of the fees and was suspended halfway through. He emailed dozens of prominent Israelis and Palestinians asking for help.

One of Israel’s most famous pop stars, David Brose, wrote back unexpectedly. Moved by Mr. Alshawamreh’s plight, Mr. Broza let him stay at his home and helped raise college tuition.

“I have no idea what took over,” Mr. Broza recently recalled. “But the next thing I know, I’m giving him the key to my house.”

The suspension was lifted soon after, allowing Mr. Alshawamreh to pursue the MBA. But even with three degrees, work was scarce.

It took another two years, countless rejected applications and a bout of depression before Mr. Alshawamreh finally landed a full-time technical job at the Israeli company Syte.

His job is to talk to customers and fix problems with their websites. He has bigger ambitions; he hopes to one day start a Palestinian version of Uber. But this job is a start.

Mr. Alshawamreh’s willingness to engage with Israelis has sometimes drawn criticism from fellow Palestinians.

For critics, construction work in Israel is acceptable given the high unemployment in the West Bank. In her opinion, however, taking advantage of office life in Tel Aviv is a step too far. They believe such workers normalize the occupation by working too closely with Israelis.

But for Mr. Alshawamreh, unless Palestinians and Israelis treat each other as partners, there will be little progress toward peace.

“My message is that we should learn more from each other,” he said. “Break down the walls, talk – and put yourself in each other’s shoes and see yourself as two traumatized peoples.”

His own trip has already enlightened Israeli colleagues.

After catching a bus from Beersheba, Mr. Alshawamreh finally reached Tel Aviv just before 10 am, about four hours after leaving his home.

“It’s more than commuting,” said one of his Israeli colleagues, Linda Levy. She added, “He made me aware of things that I had no idea existed in Israel.”

Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Jerusalem. For Palestinian tech workers in Israel, pride, frustration and 4 hour commutes

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