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Everyone benefits from Israeli tech companies, except the Palestinians

In an op-ed for a special annual edition of The Economist, Benjamin Netanyahu calls his country “Innovation Nation”. The Israeli Prime Minister writes that “people everywhere benefit from Israeli innovations in their mobile phones, car navigation systems, life-saving drugs, medical devices – even in the cherry tomatoes in their salads”.

Ever built a website using Wix, chatted with friends abroad using Viber, found your way across town using Waze? If you have asthma you might look to SmartAir, which helps patients with warnings about air quality, preventing potentially deadly asthma attacks. If you suffer from a debilitating stutter, therapy start-up Novotalk could help. Recently bashed yourself on the head? The similarly named BrainTalk can listen to a five minute recording of your voice and see if you have brain damage.

All of these technology companies are Israeli. “We leverage government spending on military intelligence,” Netanyahu boasts, “by encouraging veterans to form thousands of civilian IT and cyber-start-ups”. Indeed, all of these companies were created by veterans of the secretive Unit 8200, Israel’s equivalent to the United States’ NSA or Britain’s GCHQ. The unit dominates Israel’s so-called Silicon Wadi with many job advertisements requiring “a degree in computer science or a graduate of a technological unit” – that unit ideally being Unit 8200.

The argument put forward in Netanyahu’s article was not rare. The British government frequently emphasises the vibrancy of Israel’s startup scene, but has never – to my knowledge – acknowledged that so much of this is owed to an Israeli intelligence outfit which is not a purely defensive or traditional military intelligence organisation.

In September 2014 three active reservists and former commanders within Unit 8200 said they no longer felt the organisation existed to protect Israel from discrete and legitimate threats, like an Iranian nuclear strike or an assault by Hamas or Hezbollah militants.

Instead, Unit 8200 is a tool of occupation. One whistleblower’s father had suffered under the Argentinian junta and his son could see parallels. However excellent the products of Israel’s Silicon Wadi, it does put its products in a different light if the skills they are built with derive from military occupation. According to Forbes, more than 1,000 companies have been founded by Unit 8200 alumni.

Naturally Israel is entitled to its own signals intelligence outfit, as is any nation. Terrorist attacks have been prevented on British soil because of it. Eyal Waldman, currently CEO of Mellanox Technologies, served as a deputy battalion commander in the infantry and amongst his 1,900 employees are many Palestinians. There are other sporadic cases where the Israeli start-up scene is employing Arabs.

In general, though, when Netanyahu wrote that “people everywhere” benefit from Israeli technologies he was being misleading.

You only have to go a few kilometres into the West Bank or south into Gaza to realise “everyone but the Palestinians” is more accurate. That means that the same people who are being occupied using Unit 8200 technology are not even benefiting from the startups that have spawned from its members once they leave service.

Waze – the alternative to Google Maps founded by Unit 8200 veterans –does not give directions within the West Bank. It is not as if the political challenges are too great – a Belarus start-up, Maps.Me, has managed it. This begs the question as to why Waze won’t oblige.

Most mobile apps are impossible to use in occupied Palestine because under the terms of Israeli oversight, only 2G phone networks – painfully slow by modern standards – have been permitted. In contrast, Israel has the third best 3G and 4G availability of any country in the world.

The arguments put forward against allowing Palestinians access to modern smartphone have largely been based on security, with supporters of the occupation saying that 3G and 4G are harder to hack.

Not only is this technologically disputable and more likely being done to privilege Israeli telecoms operators, as argued in a Mondoweiss article published last week, it would be a major shortcoming of Unit 8200 if they could not hack Iranian or Lebanese telecommunications – where 3G and 4G penetration is rapidly growing.

One suspects serving Unit 8200 officers would be red-faced, rankled and rabidly keen to show off their abilities if challenged on this point.

We are left then with the commercial fruit of a fundamentally rotten occupation being popular around the world, used by Israeli premiers to whitewash their country’s controversial military strategy, praised by international allies, and lapped up by hundreds of millions of customers globally. Even BDS activists can’t seem to escape the reach of Unit 8200 success – in 2013 campaigning group Cornell Students for Justice Palestine were found to have used Wix to design their own anti-Israel web offering. Meanwhile Palestinians are left in the digital stone age. It sounds unfair because it is. The solution isn’t to reject all that is Israeli because it is Israeli though. We should benefit from the technologies being created there – but work to make sure Palestinians can too.

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