For the legions of tech startups in Israel, access to capital, talent, and advice is easy. Not so in the West Bank. Tech companies exist in the nascent Palestinian state, but keeping a business together is full of challenges.
Some are the normal growing pains of any startup, but startups in Palestine face a whole other set of political, social, and economic challenges, all stemming from its deeply troubled relationship to Israel.
One tech company there, the mobile studio PinchPoint, contacted VentureBeat about one of its games a few weeks ago as the violence in the Gaza Strip was escalating. An email exchange followed, with PinchPoint painting a picture of what it’s like to be a game developer in Palestine.
Launched in 2013, PinchPoint is not the first Palestinian game studio, but it is the first venture-backed Palestinian developer doing only games, the company’s CEO Khaled Abu Al Kheir points out. A few other West Bank companies develop games as side projects, he says.
PinchPoint is headquartered at “8 Struggle Street” (really) in the city of Ramallah in the West Bank, which is on the other side of Israel from Gaza. That’s why Ramallah has not been the target of the recent Israeli attacks, which have stopped as part of a cease-fire that began Tuesday.
“The current Israeli airstrikes are focused on the occupied Gaza Strip, so we’re not very close to the current aggression, although Ramallah and other West Bank cities did get its share of military incursion a few weeks ago,” Al Kheir said before the cease-fire. “But it’s relatively calm in the city right now.”
The Israeli army was conducting door-to-door searches of Palestinian homes during June, looking for a rumored “Hamas terrorist” who kidnapped three Israeli teens.
Happy games from an unhappy place
PinchPoint now has five games in the apps stores and another one on the way. These are light-hearted, funny, and addictive mobile experiences.
One, “EggHead Runaway,” is an “endless runner” in which you guide little EggHead on its adventure to break through walls and collect colorful candy pieces. In another, “Spermania,” you help little colored sperms reach their egg (“There is no going back, no surrender, and only one winner.”) In the upcoming “City Cafe” game, you play local Middle Eastern card games and smoke a hookah on the side.
In addition to its own proprietary games, PinchPoint publishes mobile games for other Palestinian and Middle Eastern game developers.
The company has backing from Palestinian venture-capital group Sadara Ventures (which gets funding Cisco), Google (via the Google Foundation), The Soros Economic Development Fund (and affiliated individuals), The European Investment Bank (EIB), and the Skoll Foundation.
“PinchPoint has a fantastic team, and have demonstrated a unique ability to come up with engaging, genuine gaming concepts for mobile and desktop,” said Sadara founding partner Saed Nashef in a statement after his firm made its original investment in PinchPoint. “We’ve made this seed investment to help them demonstrate early traction, and execute on their game design and technical potential.”
The gaming space in Palestine consists of just a few companies, and none are making much money from selling the games. Until just six months ago Palestinian developers were unable to receive payments from the Apple App store, so they couldn’t make money from iOS apps. There’s no iTunes store for Palestine, and Apple does not accept Palestinian credit cards.
Welcome to the West Bank
Compared to businesses in the Gaza Strip, PinchPoint’s problems are more subtle and functional, but they still very much the result of living under Israel’s shadow.
In the West Bank, Israeli security forces control everything, Al Kheir says, which makes getting in contact with potential investors and internationally experienced advisers difficult.
“Israel controls the borders, and they won’t allow anyone who wants to go to the West Bank into Israel,” Al Kheir says. “Some visitors lie about the goal of their visit, but on their way out they go through a rigorous interrogation, and if the Israeli forces find out that they were in Palestine, it would probably be their last visit.”
It’s almost impossible for Palestinian entrepreneurs to meet potential investors in Israel, because most Palestinians cannot go into Israel without a permit, and the permits are difficult, if not impossible, for young Palestinians to get.
The last option is to travel, which is equally difficult. To fly anywhere, West Bank people must leave from Jordan. The border with Egypt has been closed.
“The only way for Palestinians to travel is over the King Hussein bridge to Jordan, which is controlled by Israel, who make sure you are not having a pleasant trip,” Al Kheir says. Taking the bridge adds an extra two days to any journey, and a lot of extra cost, since the bridge operates only during business hours on most days and only until noon on Fridays and Saturdays. And flight times often don’t sync up with the times the bridge is open.
The Israelis also impose limitations on what Palestinian companies can work on — especially IT companies. They fear that what’s being developed could be used for against Israel. “Of course, if a company needs to export or import hardware, it’s complete hell,” Al Kheir says.