Thursday, January 26, 2017

Breakfast in Gaza, Dinner in Efrat: Impressions from my trip to Israel and Palestine

I first went to Israel in March 2016. I went at the invitation of a good friend who was teaching a class in Tel Aviv and went because I was longing to explore the ancient history of the area. I packed in a week of experience - as a tourist and as a mentor, across 3000 years of Jewish, Roman, Christian and Muslim history and I was hooked. Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the River Jordan, Beit She'an, Masada, Cesarea, Herodium... energy, culture, technology, history and food... fantastic.

But on the same trip I found family. My husband did not know he had a Jewish family of cousins living in New York until they found us in mid 2015 (he was not raised Jewish). First cousins, not distant cousins, and one of his cousin's sons is a orthodox settler in the West Bank. So on the same trip I visited his family in Efrat - after all they are family! As Fivel drove me around the West Bank, explaining what I was seeing, I saw the walls, and the settlements, and the Palestinians villages and while I saw with my eyes I could not really understand what I was seeing or the implications of what I was seeing on the lives of the people living there.

So I spent the last 10 months studying with a focus on the history of the region, trying to get some grasp of the complexity of the situation. I read books covering the last 4000 years of the Middle East, the last 150 years and the British mandate, the last 100 years and self-serving colonial interference, the last 70 years of the state of Israel, the last 8 years of the impact of Obama's policy, and I felt I barely scratched the surface of understanding.

2016 was my year of saying "yes" and so when, sitting in an outside cafe in Mountain View, I was asked if I could go to Gaza to mentor entrepreneurs I took a deep breath and said yes. I had the anchor for my next trip.

And so, on January 19th 2017, I found myself eating breakfast in the besieged town of Gaza City, with dinner plans in an Israeli settlement in Efrat in the West Bank.

Gaza Strip is a small area of Israel with close to 2 million people in it living under siege. The reasons are very complex, but the result is the people of Gaza are not allowed to leave without a permit and a special reason. They live with limited resources, limited access to electricity, youth unemployment at close to 60%, an oppressive local government, bombed out buildings, poverty and the continuous risk of renewal of war. Many told me they have no future, the future for Gaza is "black" and the young people want to leave.

And yet they survive and try to thrive. They go to university, get married, have children, take care of their parents, dance, eat, and now have the chance to build tech startups.

Gaza Sky Geeks is a startup accelerator in Gaza City, run by an amazing dedicated team from Mercy Corps, the only one of its kind in Gaza Strip. Once you are in through the door it has the feel of a typical incubator. Lots of young entrepreneurs, high energy, laughing, laptops everywhere, people camped out whenever they can get to a plug, and unlike Silicon Valley, 50% women. Most of the businesses are very early stage, most of the ones I talked to fall into the category of web applications or platforms to solve issues in the region. For example, a mobile phone app to connect distressed Arab mothers with online advice or a platform to connect freelancers in a more efficient financial model suitable for the Middle East.

But the Gaza startups have significantly more headwind than you'd find in Silicon Valley, or even in Tel Aviv. They have no access to PayPal payment systems (you can read about this issue here), they have very uncertain power at home (although GSG just successfully raised money to buy a generator for the office space), they have limited access to seed funding, limited access to legal support, need an education on what it means to run a business to make meaningful progress and yet, despite their significant challenges, they are creative and determined to succeed.

I spent only two days with GSG because of my schedule, and would have been happy to spend ten.  It's an exciting place to be and very much in need of mentors, especially in coding, product management and marketing.

It takes a permit from both Israel and Hamas to cross the border in and out of Gaza, and the crossing is not simple. It's Orwellian, and random, and I was disappointed to see that even Israel, the security technology leader of the world, did not have a system to analyze my history and digital footprint and determine I am not a threat. This is a business opportunity...

I left Gaza City at 1pm, crossed the border at Erez finally at 3:30pm, and arrived in Jerusalem by 5:30pm. Since I stayed in West Jerusalem last time I chose to stay in East Jerusalem this time, at the American Colony Hotel which is over a hundred years old and built in colonial times. I felt right at home.

Off to dinner with family that evening, we drive to Efrat as Fivel gives me a running, highly educated commentary of what I am seeing. There are about 400,000 settlers in the West Bank, another ~300,000 in East Jerusalem, and many are American so it makes sense that the settlements look like US suburbia. Nice white houses with red roofs, gardens and often on hilltops (for defensive reasons). You could be in the Midwest, except for the barbed wire protection around them. The Palestinian villages look similar, but different. They are white houses, with white roofs, black water tanks, and a mosque in every village. And big red signs at the entrances saying Israelis are forbidden to enter. And while the settlers have easy access to Jerusalem for work, the Palestinians do not. They must go through a crossing point and be checked.

But family life in Efrat, and the Palestinian villages, is not unlike family life anywhere else in the world. Kids go to school, people run small businesses, their kids won't go to bed, they worry about their kids future... but they also all worry about what the long term looks like for peace and financial prosperity. And obviously there is no comparison between the difficulty of life in Gaza and the challenges of the two communities living in the West Bank.

I won't take sides in this conflict - I don't know enough, both sides seem entrenched and politically responsible for this terrible situation but who am I to judge? But I asked questions. During my trip I spoke with a Palestinian business leader who just wishes the Israelis would leave her country. And I was reminded of the Gazan entrepreneur who told me she just wished they had the quality of life of the Palestinians in the West Bank. I spoke with Israelis who feel strongly that security is the top issue and they are determined to ensure Jews never come close to extinction again, and Israelis who long for a democracy and peace with their Arab neighbors.

After my surreal day spanning the two worlds I spent the next few days mentoring and teaching. I met with women entrepreneurs in Tel Aviv at Startup Nation Central and was very impressed by their businesses, drive and intellect. I taught an EMBA class on being a CEO at Hebrew University to wannabe VCs who were intense, and funny and a joy to talk with - and interested in how they can help Gaza. This is a small place, and everyone's lives are, in the end, intertwined.

For me, the small way I can help is on the ground with women and entrepreneurs. I have believed for many years now that our world will only become sane when women hold equal power to men. Most women are not as violent; when most women make money they invest in the family and education. The long term solution is women also having financial power, investing in a peaceful future.

I also believe in the state of Israel and the need for it to exist and thrive. Whatever the past, it is here and here to stay. But the long term path to peace is that the people living on Israel's borders, in Israel's occupied territories of Palestine, and in Jordan, have jobs and a future and hope. They need a healthy economy. So I have decided I will, to the extent I am permitted to, help on the ground mentoring entrepreneurs and women in Israel, Gaza and Palestine.

The Middle East and Islam dominates so much of our global and US politics, and it's so complicated that I encourage you, if you have not done so already, to go and see for yourself. And, if you're willing, volunteer mentor for Gaza Sky Geeks.

Reading resources:
HuffPo article on Gaza Sky Geeks
TechCrunch article on the fundraiser for a power generator and coding academy at GSG
The Silk Roads - Peter Frankopan - a retelling of world history 
The Kingmakers: The invention of the modern Middle East - Shareen Blair Brysac and Karl E Meyer
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel - Ari Shavit
The Two State Delusion - Padraig O'Malley
Jerusalem - Simon Seabag Montefiore
and there are many more...

 Fishing boats in the Gaza city harbor
 Christian (Greek Orthodox) church built in 407 AD in Gaza City
The Great Mosque in Gaza City - on a site from the 5th century but destroyed and rebuilt as a cathedral or a mosque many times in the last 1500 years
 The port at Gaza, growing the harbor walls with the debris of the shellings
 Creativity bursting out in Gaza as graffiti
Walking out of Gaza
 Beautiful Judea (West Bank)
 A fence winding between Israeli settlements and Palestinian villages
Dense, intense, Jerusalem

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