Besan Wattad, a 25 -year-old Palestinian Israeli led 140 of her peers at last month’s hackathon on technological initiatives to combat the growing violence within Palestinian society. “Everyone knows a victim- a brother, an uncle, a friend,” says Besan. “And knowing we have the technology and the community that wants to do something about this was important.”
The aspiration to expand her own horizons came early for Besan. “Growing up with a twin sister by my side gave me a lot of self-confidence to develop my own interests,” recalls Besan of her childhood in the town of Jatt, near Haifa. Her mother is a pre-school caregiver and her father is a journalist for an international Arabic language media outlet. As an 18 year-old student at Tel Aviv University, studying communications and multidisciplinary studies, Besan entered a world of infinite possibilities.
“I enrolled in just about every extra-curricular activity offered, and developed an expansive network of friends,” she relates.
When Besan completed her BA in 2019, she participated in the US State Department US-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) Student Leaders Program, a five-week exchange in the United States for students from the Middle East and North Africa. “That’s where I made the connection between technology and social change” she says. When she returned from the US, she landed a job as community director at Tel Aviv University’s Entrepreneurship Center.
“I loved helping students flesh out their own ideas — the world of entrepreneurship holds so much potential for young Palestinians in Israel to increase professional opportunities, expand the employment pool, and promote economic growth in our communities.”
Her current position as “Hacking the Crime” Networks Manager at Hasoub — a movement of Palestinian citizens of Israel developing the next generation of tech leaders—has been a highlight of Besan’s career. She shares that preparing for September’s hackathon was exciting but stressful with so many moving pieces.
“Shatil, especially consultant Mohanad Berekdar, helped us every step of the way in developing content on the root causes of crime and violence in our communities, and with engaging panelists from NIF grantees Aman: The Arab Center for Safe Society, Women Against Violence, I’LAM, Sikkuy, and Abraham Initiatives,” relates Besan.
“We hi-techers and NGOs are from two different worlds – technology and social change – and speak two different languages. Shatil helped us create a common language. Shatil sees the big picture and knows just where to jump in and fill gaps.”
Besan shares that when the hackathon began on September 24, “It was so moving to see these 140 dedicated young people, who arrived from far-flung corners of Israel, from Beer Sheva to Nazareth, on public transportation. We worked together on 25 teams for nearly 36 hours straight, sleeping on chairs, tables and on the floor for an hour here and there…”
According to Besan, the hackathon was a rousing success: “The winning solution now being developed is an earring that a woman wears to record an attack in real time into her phone. The recording can be used as future evidence against her perpetrator.”
“Every team developed a product,” Besan is quick to add, “and the networking was amazing. Since the hackathon, so many people have asked me when the next hackathon will take place, and are disappointed when my answer is not next week… I realized that everyone really wants social change.”
Meanwhile, Besan is busy cultivating her own social enterprise, called “Finjan” (meaning small coffee cup in Arabic) that offers on-and-offline workshops for Palestinian-Israeli college graduates and alumni to learn new skills and network. “I wanted to create a cultural organization that brings all of us together regardless of political views – where we can share knowledge and support each other, from how to improve public speaking to connecting with Arabs throughout the Middle East.” Besan is particularly interested in supporting younger entrepreneurs in cottage industries who want to combine their products with their passion for social change, such as a group of women making textile bags from recycled materials.
Says Besan: “Young Palestinian-Israelis need to be made aware of all the possibilities out there, so we can continue to grow in many different directions.”