Gaza: Coding in a conflict zone

By Yolande Knell
BBC News, Gaza

Image caption,
Gaza Sky Geeks is a tech hub set up by Google and NGO Mercy Corps, and backed by other big names in IT

On his laptop keyboard, Farah Zaquot taps out a string of computer code. He opens another browser window to show off the mobile app he has been working on.

"For a beginner, I think I'm really good," says Farah, smiling. "I've always been obsessed with problem-solving and technology."

The 26-year-old studied business administration at university, but with Gaza suffering one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, it was hard to find a job when he graduated.

Then, six months ago, he took a coding course at Gaza Sky Geeks. Now, he has already built one app for a British start-up, and is looking for more freelance work.

This tech hub was set up by Google and the NGO, Mercy Corps and is now backed by other big names in IT, like Microsoft, as well as international donors and regional businesses.

"Once you're into programming, you're essentially not bound by the boundaries of Gaza," Farah says.

Media caption,
There are severe water and power shortages in Gaza

With its bombed-out buildings and severe power and water shortages, Gaza seems a long way from the information superhighway.

Haggling in the market is the norm here, not e-commerce.

But that does not stop some young people from dreaming that they can turn this strip into the Arab world's Silicon Valley, or at least an outsourcing hub. Arabic is one of the fastest growing languages on the internet.

Image caption,
Shams Abu Hassanein now makes a living from infographics and says the training has given her new opportunities

Shams Abu Hassanein did workshops on freelancing at Gaza Sky Geeks and now makes a living from infographics. She designs flyers, brochures and social media posts in English and Arabic.

"This job has brought light to my future and my family's," Shams says. "Daily, I learn something new. Freelancing is a way into the wide and enormous world."

'Wasted generation'

Two-thirds of the nearly two million residents of Gaza are under 25. Most have never left this tiny territory just 41km (25 miles) long and 10km wide.

For more than a decade, since the Islamist movement Hamas took full control, Gaza has been kept under a tight blockade by Israel and Egypt, for what they say is their own security. There are controls on goods allowed in and out and on travel.

Israel, like the US and EU, sees Hamas as a terrorist group and says it acts to stop weapons getting to it.

"Gaza's educated youth are often referred to as a 'wasted generation' due to the lack of opportunities," says Wafa Ulliyan, director of programmes at Gaza Sky Geeks.

Its brightly decorated workspace in Gaza City has high-speed internet and constant electricity.

Already, the coding classes here have led to remote work for employers in the US and Europe. Dozens of freelancer training graduates have earned more than $400,000 (£305,000; €340,000) altogether.

It has helped nearly 30 start-ups to attract seed money and investment.

New entrepreneurs are now pitching online services for the local market - such as Palestinian wedding planning - and the region, with a platform for tourism in the United Arab Emirates, for example.

"Our international mentors are amazed at the great talent, passion and skills that our youth have," Wafa Ulliyan says.

"Many say they could run our start-up acceleration programmes in London or San Francisco given the quality of the products. This is the real image that needs to be tagged to Gaza."

'Bringing hope'

During the past six months, violent demonstrations on the Gaza-Israel border have been the focus of global attention.

At least 190 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire and one Israeli soldier was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper. Israel says its troops defend the border and stop the fence being breached.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Economist Omar Shaban says economic factors have been key in this year's unrest

The protests began with a demand for Palestinians to return to their ancestral land that now lies in Israel, but many believe they have been fuelled by the desperate situation.

"The economy was a key decisive element in 'the Great March' and this turmoil," says economist Omar Shaban.

Recent steps taken by Palestinian leaders in the occupied West Bank to try to pressure Hamas to give up power over Gaza are squeezing people's finances even more and there are new fears about the impact of cuts in US aid.

"To fix Gaza, it's about bringing hope to people, more jobs, lifting the siege and allowing exports to get out," Omar Shaban says.

The UN and Egypt have been trying to broker a long-term ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas that could lead to an easing of the blockade.

The deep rift between the main Palestinian political groups is a big obstacle.

Another block is Israel wanting Hamas to return two of its citizens held in Gaza and the remains of two soldiers killed in fighting in 2014. Hamas demands a release of Palestinians jailed in Israel in return.

Young adults in Gaza have grown up with constant hardships and three full-scale armed conflicts between Israel and Hamas militants.

While life remains extremely difficult, there are many who are determinedly using technology to work their way around the problems.

"I think the future is programming, you can find any job in programming," says 25-year-old, Marwa Hassanein, another coder.

"I told myself I can learn and nothing's impossible".