In a rare show of cooperation, a team of Israeli and Palestinian software developers came together Tuesday in the shadow of Israel's West Bank separation barrier to launch a product they hope will revolutionize personal computing and perhaps improve communication between the two conflicted sides.
Israeli entrepreneur Zvi Schreiber partnered with Palestinian engineers to launch G.ho.st Virtual Computer, a Web-based operating system that recreates the attributes of a personal computer's desktop from any computer with an Internet connection.
"Our idea is simply to use the Internet to give people a computing environment that is not just stored on a physical device, but is available on a Web page or any mobile device and gives you everything you need: your desktop, your files, your programs," G.ho.st CEO Schreiber said at the launch, in the West Bank town of Beit Jalla, close to Jerusalem's southern edge.
The company started more than three years ago after Schreiber sold his second high tech startup. He had never worked with Palestinians and knew very little about the fledgling software industry in the West Bank.
"I wanted to combine my technological interests with my social interests. I always wanted to do something to help resolve the complete mess that we've all made of this part of the world," he said.
The company's name refers not only to the virtual computer's ability to float through the boundaries of a physical computer, but also to the G.ho.st team's cross-border collaboration.
The Palestinian staff of nearly 30 workers confers with its Israeli counterparts mostly by video conference or at meetings in a roadside coffee shop in the desert between Jericho and Jerusalem. Many of the engineers living in the West Bank aren't able to get the permits needed to get into Israel, while Israelis are barred from most Palestinian areas in the West Bank due to security concerns.
Schreiber has never been to the G.ho.st main office, in the West Bank town of Ramallah, though it's only 9 miles (14.5 kilometers) from his house.
'We need a political solution'
The site for Tuesday's launch was chosen deliberately; a wind-swept hilltop crossed by a section of the nearly 500-mile (800-kilometer) barrier that stretches along the frontier between Israel and the West Bank.
"Ghosts go through walls and the very first wall that G.ho.st goes through is the ... wall and fence that Israel is building in the West Bank between itself and the Palestinians and which physically divides the G.ho.st team into two," the firm's Web site says.
Israel began building the fences and walls that make up the barrier early this decade in the midst of a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings targeting Israeli cities. It maintains the structure is a crucial security measure.
But the Palestinians say the barrier severs them from their land, disrupts their lives and cripples their economy. The barrier frequently juts into the West Bank, placing nearly 10 percent of the area on the Israeli side.
International Mideast peace envoy Tony Blair, who attended the launch, commended G.ho.st's initiative and call for more such partnerships across the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
"One thing we know is of course we need a political solution, but we also know it's not just about politics. It's about business," Blair said.
G.ho.st does not charge to use the virtual computer, which can be translated into more than 20 languages and has been tried out by more than 200,000 users in its test phase.
The virtual desktop comes with 15 gigabytes of free file storage, file sharing capability, instant messaging and an open directory of free Web-based applications. Schreiber said G.ho.st plans to charge for more storage or subscriptions, but he would not list prices.
G.ho.st makes money from the service providers, like Google and Amazon, which can be accessed from the virtual desktop.