By Miriam Berger
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Careem, a Middle Eastern rival to Uber, has become the first ride-hailing firm to operate in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Dubai-based Careem, whose name is a play on the Arabic word for generous or noble, launched in Ramallah in June, aiming to bring digital simplicity to the Palestinian territory.
There is certainly a market for easier ride-hailing among the nearly 3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, but the fact the mobile network is still 2G, that electronic payments are not the norm and that Israeli checkpoints are common, make using the service somewhat cumbersome.
Yet Careem is optimistic about the potential.
"We are planning to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars within the coming year in the (Palestinian) sector," Kareem Zinaty, operations manager for the Levant region said. "After the investment, it is also an opportunity to create jobs."
Careem, which launched in 2012 and now operates in 12 countries and more than 80 cities across the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, has said it aims to provide work for one million people across the region by 2018.
While a version of Uber [UBER.UL] and Israeli app Gett already operate in Israel, they do not venture into Palestinian territory. Drivers are excited to work with Careem, which they hope will help boost their incomes, especially with unemployment in the West Bank running at nearly 20 percent.
"It's a very wonderful opportunity,” said one of the more than 100 new drivers, known as "captains" by Careem. "Most of the people who use it are young and happy with the price."
Palestinians have limited self rule in parts of the West Bank, which they want for a future state alongside East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Israel captured those areas in the 1967 Middle East war. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but still occupies the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Under interim peace accords, Israel still controls 60 percent of the West Bank, where most of its settlements are located. Careem's drivers have Palestinian license plates, meaning they usually cannot enter Israeli-controlled areas.
In 2015, Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to expand 3G mobile access to the West Bank by 2016, but have yet to implement the agreement. In the meantime, the Ramallah municipality has set up public Wifi in parts of the city center, allowing Apps like Careem to be used more easily.
Despite 2G's slower service, Zinaty said their model was an opportunity for telecommunication companies to look into expanding services and technologies to better serve Palestinian start ups and businesses.
(Reporting by Miriam Berger; editing by Luke Baker and Alexander Smith)