Salwa Ziada would like to keep learning about computers and the Internet, but Israeli-imposed curfews keep the Palestinian girl from reaching the community computing center set up for refugees like her.
“Our center is near one of the flash points,” said Zahid Nwor, chief executive of Enlighten, a United Kingdom charity that seeks to establish computer-aided learning centers in the Palestinian refugee camps of the Middle East.
“Because of the current situation, we had to cancel all of our classes because the children couldn’t actually leave their homes due to the curfews.”
In contrast to their Israeli neighbors whose techno-wizards begat the wildly popular ICQ instant messaging network, Palestinians are struggling to develop computer and Internet literacy in a nonexistent state with a lagging technological infrastructure.
But Palestinian boys and girls like Salwa Ziada are receiving the help of groups like Enlighten and Across Borders, another nonprofit advocating for technological literacy.
“It’s not just the skills they’re going to get at the center, but it’s also the hope and opportunity they’re going to get,” Nwor said. “These people have been disadvantaged for quite some time.”
The organization’s surveys show that the task of bringing the Palestinian people access to technology as well as computer and Internet literacy is a daunting one.
According to statistics compiled by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, only 11 percent of Palestinian households in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have computers. A mere 2 percent of households have access to the Internet.
Resources are also an issue. The typical cost on an Internet connection is $25 a month, while the average Palestinian worker makes $300 a month.
(Gathering these figures has become a bit more challenging since the Israeli army shelled the Bureau of Statistics office in Ramallah in November 2000.)
“We went to Gaza and we were quite shocked by the conditions in the refugee camps,” said Nwor. “We thought, ‘You could build a library there and put in lots of books,’ but a lot of that information is already on the Internet.”
Still, the nonprofit has a resource crunch of its own. Although leaders would like to teach Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, and how to find information on the Internet to all 9,000 children in the Bureij Camp of Central Gaza, their facilities only allow them to reach 70 students every two months.
“We have so much demand that it’s difficult to decide who should be in the courses,” Nwor said. “We hope to expand the center and set up two or three more centers in the next three months.”
The aspiring artists of the Palestinian community will have to wait while the computer-focused children seeking Information Technology (IT) careers get training first, he said. For now, no children are receiving training while the Intifada rages on.
Across Borders faces a similar plight. The nonprofit was spun off the IT unit of Birzeit University. Its mission is to connect refugees in disparate camps through technology and to promote technological literacy. Like Enlighten, some of its community centers are off-limits.
“The current events and the closure come at (a) very bad time,” said Marwan Tarazi, director of the IT unit. “It’s impossible to get into Gaza and once you get into Gaza you have to go through three zones that are blocked.”
“We need to get out trainers in there.”
Even with three centers located in refugee camps and more in the planning stages, Tarazi said the task at hand presented many challenges. “You don’t have much Internet access, you don’t have many computers — even at schools,” he said.
Still, Across Borders has had some success in establishing Internet cafes throughout the Palestinian territories. The cafes have been well-utilized by the Palestinian people, he said.
“If you give children computers and you give them Internet access, they start playing with it,” Tarazi said. “It’s not hard. They can learn this.
Ghassan Qadah, senior technology advisor to the Palestinian National Authority, agreed.
“Palestine is a young society,” Qadah said. “You have lots of people between the ages of 10 and 30. These are the people that can adapt quickly.”
The focus on children shows promise. Statistics show that of Palestinians over the age of 18, only 5.4 percent have access to the Internet. By contrast, 23 percent of Palestinian children aged 6 to 17 have access to the Internet.
But training and literacy needs can often be overshadowed by infrastructure concerns. Once again, politics is a deterrent to Palestinian progress.
“It’s forbidden by the Israeli government for the Palestinian people to have a direct connection to the Internet backbone,” said Ahmad Mousleh, a sales manager for Palnet, the largest Palestinian Internet service provider.
Because of this, Palestinian ISPs must lease their bandwidth through Israeli ISPs rather than purchase their virtual pipe straight from an Internet backbone provider, he said. Palnet resells the bandwidth it purchases through Barak Avital Information Systems.
Mousleh said the ban on outgoing telecommunications also applies to telephone networks. The Palestinian National Authority is in the process of modernizing its networks, said Qadah, who runs the PNA’s Government Computing Center. Disparate governmental ministries in the territories can now share data easily.
Plans are also underway to connect Palestinian educational institutions to the wide area network and to connect the network to the ultra-high speed European research networks by year’s end. Of course, such a network requires 24-hour care by computer engineers, Qadah said.
That’s a task made difficult when the geeks can’t get past Israeli checkpoints.
“We are developing an IT strategy across Palestine,” he said. “Of course, the Intifada doesn’t help; it slows things down.”