Building a bright career in Gaza and never wanting to leave

For those not yet in the know: Gaza is a wonderful place. No, not in a fantasized, distant future. Not in utopian visions of a Singapore on the Mediterranean. Not potentially — but in the present. In this day and age. That is to say: if you refrain from looking in the wrong direction. If for once you choose a different perspective. 

Here’s a scene this writer recalls vividly. It’s a beautiful autumn afternoon in 2000. We’re in the Gaza Strip. Near the impoverished town of Khan Younis, a few kilometers away, soot-black clouds are rising, and there’s the dull sound of fired tear gas grenades.

Life in Gaza probably is as hard then as it would be later. The Second Intifada has just erupted, and that day, two people will die of Israeli fire in Khan Younis. But right now, Khan Younis is, quite literally, behind me. I just came from there. Before me now, on a clean table, there’s a glass of grapefruit juice. It’s the most glorious grapefruit juice I’ve ever tasted. And that’s not all. Yesterday I had the most delicious fish dinner ever served to me. Which isn’t all that surprising really, since the Gazan kitchen is renowned.

All of them ignore the black smoke in the distance, the whipping sound of gunfire, the wailing of sirens. The sea and the beach stretch out before us

The grapefruit juice was brought to me by a courteous waiter at a large beach club. I’m not the only customer; though, apparently, the only western one. At other tables are groups of men who seem to be from here, but I also see families and couples. All of them ignore the black smoke in the distance, the whipping sound of gunfire, the incessant wailing of sirens. The sea and the beach stretch out before us, a bright sun glitters on the water, there is a semblance of peace. Yes, this truly is a different perspective.

But it’s an illusion, isn’t it?

Not exactly, according to Saady Lozon, who was born and raised in Gaza. It’s an image he would like to draw more attention to. “These pictures of devastation and upheaval that you see all the time will not help us forward, and they are one-sided. Gaza is also beautiful,” the IT-entrepreneur says during a visit to the Netherlands on the occasion of a Dutch-Palestinian forum held in The Hague. “We’re not victims. Well, sometimes we are, of course. But victimhood is not what defines us. We’re certainly not powerlessly waiting in our ruins for humanitarian aid to be handed out to us. That’s not what we want, believe me. Gaza needs trade more than aid: one of my favourite sayings.”

Trade with Gaza? But that’s hardly possible, is it, what with this blockade? Oh, but it is. Thanks to information technology, which basically travels through the air, making physical barriers much less relevant. Lozon (34) is one of the most shining examples that it is possible: making a career in Gaza without wasta, without smuggling, without tunnels. IT-courses were launched in Gaza in 1995, two years after the signing of the Oslo Accords which gave the region limited autonomy. The euphoria knew no bounds. It petered out quickly, but amidst all the despair and disappointment, the very young population of Gaza got better educated.

Some of the characteristics of this population: keen on everything digital, obsessed with education as a way out of the misery, trapped in a strip of land 400 square kilometres in size, and yearning for work. That the latter is not up for grabs in Gaza is the mother of all understatements, but IT can offer a solution through its aforementioned cross-border nature.

Saady Lozon — small, stout, jovial, and bursting with energy — completed his informatics training in 2005. By that time, he already was dreaming of a private business, which he started in a small room with an associate. Before long he was able to expand, and now his company Unit One, which offers outsourcing and web and mobile applications, is one of the largest IT companies in Palestine, with 90 employees, and clients in the Gulf region and in Europe.

One of these clients is Lighthouse IP, a Dutch company that operates worldwide and for which Unit One performs data entry. Cooperation with Unit One runs smoothly, according to Robert Fokkema from Lighthouse, which is truly remarkable, given the tragedy that visited Gaza in July and August 2014: a 55-day Israeli military campaign that killed more than 2,000 people and left many homeless and destitute to this day. Yet work was only interrupted for two weeks at the most, and that was because Israel had bombed the only power station in Gaza, leaving the entire area without electricity.

“There were times that I thought: now we’re finished. Who would want to work with us under such circumstances? Well, as it turned out: everybody.”

Every time the office had to stay closed, which was quite often, its mainly female staff worked from home without a hitch. Customers appreciated this very much. The gratitude was mutual. Lozon explains: ‘I’ve lived through two other wars with my company, in 2011 and 2008, but the last one was by far the worst. There were times that I thought: now we’re finished. Who would want to work with us under such circumstances? Well, as it turned out: everybody. I did not lose one single client. I cherish the support and understanding we received. It was special. This was more than doing business: it was friendship. And to think that, because of all the travel restrictions, I have never met most of these friends in person!”

Even if you don’t count the wars, Gaza of course is no picnic. “Here, you not only need a plan B, but a plan C and D. At times I lost faith. There’s the problem with electricity. I can’t run a business without electricity 24 hours a day, it’s as simple as that. But we only have power for about eight hours a day, so I have to work with generators, with batteries. Then there’s the import of equipment, which must, of course, pass through the one border crossing still in use, but which also closes regularly. All in all, it isn’t easy. But it does make one resourceful and that’s what Gaza has to offer: people who have a solution for everything. Who do not get discouraged quickly.”

Lozon has not for one moment envisaged to abandon the piece of land that is his home, despite all the challenges. “I have a social responsibility. I have to provide a livelihood. Tens of females are working for me. I offer them financial independence. I can’t take that away from them, can I? That would be uncalled for. Solidarity is what counts in Gaza.’’

Time to ask the one question that every ambitious Palestinian entrepreneur hates, but which is inevitable: what about the startup-paradise, the innovative beacon in the Middle East that borders Palestine, called Israel? Are business contacts with this entity possible, or even desirable? Would increased economic cooperation bring peace any closer? Or is the mere thought of this taboo?

“Oh, but I have several Israeli business contacts,” Lozon says breezily, “and we’re on good terms. Do you think that every Israeli agrees with the actions of his government? That’s not my experience. Does trade bring peace any closer? Let me put it this way. It would be nice if the Israeli political leaders allowed the notion in their minds that an economically thriving Palestinian community is best for Israel’s security. That is the taboo which should be broken, as far as I’m concerned. And I can tell you: I’m looking forward to it.”

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