Gaza City – Iman Hassouna and Asia al-Nemer are no strangers to innovation. The two Gaza-based computer engineers are among a new generation of youth forging a new path: designing and developing smartphone applications.
Last year, they designed an application to help people who are deaf learn sign-language; within a year, the two young Palestinian women had established Glocal Company, building Android applications upon request. They have so far designed 15 iOS – Apple operating system – programmes and games, and their applications have been downloaded hundreds of times by users across the globe.
“Our ambition is to produce an application that would be adopted or bought by a global company,” Hassouna told Al Jazeera, pointing to Facebook’s $19bn purchase of the WhatsApp messaging system earlier this year.
Entrepreneurial projects using modern technologies are relatively new in Gaza. They have become more prevalent among students and university graduates over the past five years, according to Tariq Thabet, a coordinator at Mubaderoon, a project hosted by the Islamic University in Gaza that provides financial training and consultancy support to start-ups.
As new graduates aiming to be pioneering, we were the first people in Gaza to design applications using iOS.
In addition to scepticism over their programming capabilities, young IT entrepreneurs in the besieged Gaza Strip face additional challenges due to the closure of crossing points, leading to a scarcity in materials and difficulties in moving people in and out.
Mubaderoon focuses on technology-based start-ups, Thabet said, “because they are able to overcome restrictions, crossings and borders”. Still, bringing materials – computers, mobiles and other electronics – into Gaza can be problematic.
In 2010, Thabet spent four months trying to import an iPhone and an Apple MacBook for Hassouna and al-Nemer.
“As new graduates aiming to be pioneers, we were the first people in Gaza to design applications using iOS,” al-Nemer said from her modest workplace, a room with three desks provided by a local NGO in Gaza City. Still, Hassouna said a laptop with swift internet access “is enough for any computer engineer to overcome obstacles and promote their product”.
Each year, up to 700 students graduate from the computer engineering and information technology departments at the Islamic University, the biggest university in the Gaza Strip.
In the past, many residents of Gaza found work in construction, agriculture and other professions, and many worked inside Israel. When the Palestinian Authority (PA) was created in 1994, following the Oslo peace accords, tens of thousands joined PA ministries, security forces and other government agencies.
Israel began sealing off its border with Gaza in the early 1990s. Since then, it has imposed stringent restrictions, only issuing exit permits in “exceptional humanitarian cases, with an emphasis on urgent medical cases”. In 2006, Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist movement, won the Palestinian legislative elections. One year later – after the election results were rejected by Israel, the PA and the US – Hamas took full control of Gaza. The Israeli-Egyptian blockade tightened further.
This closure has had a devastating impact on the Palestinian labour force in Gaza. In the fourth quarter of 2013, unemployment in the coastal enclave jumped to 38.5 percent, the highest rate since 2011, and 159,600 Palestinians were considered unemployed, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
Hamas has also been suffering from a financial crisis for the past several months, and is unable to pay the full salaries of its employees. “The problem is that unemployment has spread among qualified, skilful youths,” Thabet said, noting that 75,000 graduates applied to a government programme for temporary employment this year alone.
Coupled with restrictions on access and movement, this lack of employment has encouraged new graduates to consider establishing their own businesses. Five business and technology incubators have been established in Gaza in recent years to help students and recent graduates launch start-ups. With the help of these incubators, entrepreneurs can seek out investors or partners to expand their businesses.
In one case, entrepreneur and computer engineer Muhanned al-Nounou looked into why, when you search for Gaza in Google Maps, only sparse information is available. He discovered that the 360sqr km sliver of land he calls home was not a point of interest for international tourism firms, and therefore, interactive map developers did not invest in it.
So far, none of Gaza’s start-ups has tasted major international success. But this has not stopped Palestinians from generating new ideas.
Al-Nounou subsequently launched a website in 2012 called Fos’ha (“tour” in Arabic), incorporating a navigable, web-based map of Gaza. Later, al-Nounou secured a $4,000 grant from the Mubaderoon project, which allowed him to enhance the map with points designating parks, restaurants, taxi services and shopping centres.
He now has more than 200 subscribers, and has created a navigation service that allows users to tour up to 50 places in Gaza. In its most recent addition, Fos’ha provided users with an interactive, web-based tour of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
“This is part of our social responsibility,” al-Nounou said, “to prove the Palestinian identity of the sacred and historic places in Palestine”.