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The cool new Palestinians: geeks

The West Bank and Gaza Strip is home to hundreds of tech companies, creating everything from websites to smart phone apps.

By Jackie SpinnerCorrespondent / February 18, 2012

Yousef Ghandour, who is fostering a new community of Palestinian tech entrepreneurs, works on his social networking site at a Ramallah coffee shop.

Jackie Spinner

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Ramallah, West Bank

In the hip Ramallah coffee shop ZAMN, Yousef Ghandour laments the slow Wi-Fi as he launches the beta version of one of his many start-ups, a social networking site that allows users to travel through time to find connections.

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Mr. Ghandour, who never wastes a moment, shares the e-books he is currently reading on his iPhone (among them, "Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don't"), shows off his blog, and lingers for a moment on his latest vision for a social networking site for Muslims called AnaBasili, or "I'm praying."

"People are really passionate about entrepreneurship and putting Palestine on the map using technology," says Ghandour, a software engineer who is helping to create – and brand – an emerging community of technology entrepreneurs in the Palestinian territories. They call themselves Palestinian geeks, or peeks.

Until now, the primary Palestinian contribution to technology has been outsourcing programmers and engineers to firms in the United States and Israel, including Google and Cisco Systems.

But these new entrepreneurs want to do more. They want to create companies based on their own ideas and hire people to implement them. Already their ventures range from smart phone apps to Web design.

Crucially, the community is now beginning to attract investors. The Sadara Fund, the first venture capital fund focused on the Palestinian territories, launched last year with an initial $28 million to invest in Palestinian start-ups. At the time, Sadara estimated that more than 300 tech companies were operating in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, employing about 3,200 people.

"We're starting to see some green spots here and there, but not by any stretch of the imagination do we have a mature ecosystem," says Saed Nashef, a Palestinian-American software entrepreneur who lives in East Jerusalem and is a managing partner of Sadara. "But the entrepreneurs have started to think they can go out there and do something of value. If you get one or two of these guys going, you get things going."

From Microsoft to Ramallah

In booming Ramallah, the administrative seat of the Palestinian Authority, cranes and new high-rise office buildings jut from the rolling hills, with new names like Asal Technologies and PalTel emblazoned on the buildings. Many were started with seed money from local nongovernmental organizations.

The potential here prompted Mr. Nashef to return home from the US, where he went to college and worked as a software engineer for Microsoft. Now he has teamed up with Yadin Kauffman, a New York lawyer who was a partner in the first venture capital fund in Israel in the 1980s.

"It was one simple reason that motivates most of what I do here. I can come here and have an impact," Nashef says. "There's no reason not to try to make a difference."

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