For a Palestinian technician in Israel, pride, frustration and a 4-hour journey

For a Palestinian technician in Israel, pride, frustration and a 4-hour journey

For a Palestinian technician in Israel, pride, frustration and a 4-hour journey

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


Moha Alshawamreh, 31, wore a button-down shirt and carried a computer. As many of his mostly male relatives and neighbors made their way to construction sites in southern Israel — providing 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 that day in January, with a mixture of sadness and empathy. “You don’t see any of them with a laptop or going to the office.”

Mr Alshawamreh, the son of a laborer and a stay-at-home mother, is an engineer for a company that uses artificial intelligence to improve retail websites – and one of the very few Palestinians working in the Israeli technology industry, considered one of the most innovative in the world.

He ended up there after a remarkable set of circumstances, including encounters with a Holocaust book, a university halfway around the world, and an Israeli pop star.

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

Mr Alshawamreh said Israelis should know that his years-long odyssey has been “emotionally and mentally exhausting on the verge of tears”. The Palestinians should see that “what I have done proves that it is possible”, he added.

Mr. Alshawamreh’s working week began in the village where he grew up, Deir al-Asal al-Fauqa, a sleepy hilltop community of about 2,000 Palestinians in the southern West Bank. The village sits just east of a gray wall, hundreds of miles long, that Israel built to curb Palestinian attacks from the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan during the Arab-Israeli war. from 1967.

To cross this wall and get to Tel Aviv, Israelis living in the nearest Jewish settlement – ​​built in 1982 and considered illegal under international law by most countries – can drive north through a nearby checkpoint off-limits to Palestinians. By this road, settlers can reach Tel Aviv in 75 minutes.

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

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

At sunrise, he was among hundreds of Palestinians from Meitar passing through an airport-style security system that aims to prevent gunmen from entering Israel. On the Israeli side, another carpool took him to Beer Sheva, the closest major city to southern Israel.

“It’s like going from the third world to the second world and then to the first world,” he said of his journey.

A chance discovery in Beersheba long ago set Mr Alshawamreh on his current trajectory.

Mr. Alshawamreh’s father, Meshref, 63, has worked as a day laborer in Beersheba for years. One day, about 15 years ago, Meshref brought home a book he had found in town. It was Viktor E. Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” – an account of the author’s experience 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 writings, Mr. Alshawamreh concluded that “it is up to us whether we want to perish from our trauma – or whether we want to make sense of it and thrive on it”.

Suddenly, Mr. Alshawamreh’s horizons widened, he said. Before, he simply expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. Now he imagined something bigger.

He won a scholarship to a university in Malaysia, earning his first degree in computer science. Then he got another scholarship in South Korea, acquiring fluent Korean and a master’s degree in behavioral economics.

Despite this resume, jobs were hard to find in the small Palestinian tech industry.

More than half of West Bank technology university graduates cannot find work in the field, according to estimates from the Palestinian Internship Program, which is based in Israel and trains future Palestinian entrepreneurs. Overall unemployment in the territory is around 13%, compared to 4% in Israel and 46% in the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Alshawamreh began to consider working in Israel. Although he grew up a few hundred meters from Israel, he first heard of its reputation as a “Start-Up Nation” while studying in South Korea. An idea germinated: Could he find work in Tel Aviv?

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

An Israeli settler in the West Bank has no legal impediments to working in Tel Aviv, but Mr Alshawamreh needed a work permit to enter Israel as well as an employer willing to go through the many bureaucratic contortions needed to hire a Palestinian.

Experts estimate that there are only a few dozen Palestinians among Israel’s 360,000 tech workers, in addition to a few hundred working remotely from the West Bank.

Then in 2018, a breakthrough: Mr. Alshawamreh won a three-month internship with an Israeli company developing cancer screening technology – and, with it, a work permit.

Full-time work proved elusive. So, with his permit still valid, he instead became a rare Palestinian student at Tel Aviv University. He pursued a third degree – a master’s degree in business administration, half-funded by the university, and lived in Tel Aviv.

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

One of Israel’s best-known pop stars, David Broza, responded unexpectedly. Moved by Mr. Alshawamreh’s plight, Mr. Broza let him stay at home and helped raise the school fees.

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

Shortly after, the suspension was lifted, allowing Mr. Alshawamreh to obtain the MBA. But even with three degrees, work was scarce.

It took another two years, dozens of rejected job applications and a bout of depression before Mr Alshawamreh finally found a full-time tech job at Israeli company Syte.

Her role is to talk with clients and resolve issues with their websites. He has bigger ambitions; he hopes to one day found a Palestinian version of Uber. But this work is a start.

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

For critics, working in construction in Israel is acceptable, given the high unemployment rate in the West Bank. Reaping the benefits of office life in Tel Aviv, however, is a step too far, in their view. They think these workers are normalizing the occupation by engaging too closely with the Israelis.

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

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

His own journey has already enlightened Israeli colleagues.

After taking a bus from Beersheba, Mr. Alshawamreh finally arrived in Tel Aviv shortly before 10 a.m., about four hours after leaving his home.

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

Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Jerusalem.


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