The blockade already inhibited Gaza’s telecom infrastructure—then the bombing started

 

By Issie Lapowsky

As the war in Gaza drags on, the region’s telecommunications infrastructure has repeatedly buckled under the weight of bombings, fuel shortages, and apparent efforts by the Israeli military to cut off internet access in the region. These blackouts have, time and again, thrust the more than two million people in Gaza into a communications black hole, threatening to exacerbate the already dire humanitarian crisis. Just last week, the United Nations announced it was halting humanitarian operations in the region, after Gaza’s last remaining internet service provider, Paltel, ran out of fuel. 

But while the war has shone a light on the frailties of Gaza’s internet infrastructure at this moment, the reality is that its infrastructure has always been uniquely vulnerable—and ready solutions have always been in short supply.

Gaza has more than a dozen internet service providers, according to a recent report by the digital rights group Access Now. But most of them are downstream providers of the same three companies—Paltel being the biggest—and none of them control their own infrastructure. Instead, ISPs in Gaza rely on Israeli networks, including a fiber optic cable that runs through Israel and electromagnetic spectrum that is controlled by Israel. This has, for decades, inhibited Palestinian connectivity. Last year, the World Bank published a report calling for more investment in the Palestinian digital economy and noted that “[a]s a result of the [Government of Israel’s] policies, the bandwidth in Gaza is still limited to 2G.” (For context, that’s more than 50% slower than what many American cities experience.)   

“Under Israel’s 16-year military blockade of Gaza, it has historically denied access to telecommunications equipment into the Gaza Strip under allegations of dual-use concerns,” says Marwa Fatafta, Middle East and North Africa policy and advocacy director for Access Now. By “dual use,” Fatafta is referring to the concern that such equipment would be used by both civilians and Hamas. “This is why Palestinian telecom providers cannot upgrade their mobile network systems and Palestinians in Gaza only have access to 2G mobile networks,” Fatafta says.

In addition to controlling the pipes that underpin the internet in Gaza, though, the Israel Defense Forces have over the years attacked the region’s internet infrastructure in military operations. Just two years ago, Israeli air strikes on key towers housing internet infrastructure and media companies caused outages across a number of ISPs in Gaza. A decade before that, Paltel accused Israel of using bulldozers to sever its fiber optic line, causing a 12-hour phone and internet blackout in the region. Israel denied the charges at the time. 

But none of those shutdowns compare to the devastation that Gaza has faced since last month. In the six weeks since, more than 13,000 people have been killed inside Gaza, more than 1.7 million have been displaced, and the area has experienced several complete internet shutdowns. 

These communications blackouts don’t just cut Palestinians off from the outside world, says Helga Tawil-Souri, associate professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University, who focuses on Palestine and Israel. They also interfere with people’s access to potentially life-saving resources. “Sometimes, when we talk about things like communication, it’s like, Oh, does it really matter when we’re talking about people dying and starving and dehydrating to death?” Tawil-Souri says. “But they’re all interconnected.”

Groups like Access Now have called for a “digital cease-fire,” in addition to a physical one, and have pushed foreign governments to ensure connectivity is restored in Gaza. “We call on the international community to take all necessary steps to support the immediate restoration of telecommunications, electricity, and other essential services in Gaza and any other affected areas, and to ensure that international and humanitarian law are respected,” a coalition of advocacy groups called the Arab Alliance for Digital Rights wrote in a letter late last month during one total blackout. And yet, thus far, such interventions from other governments and even private actors have not been forthcoming. 

Last month, Elon Musk said that his company SpaceX, which runs Starlink satellite internet service, would provide “connectivity to internationally recognized aid organizations in Gaza.” But the announcement drew immediate scorn from Israel’s communications minister, Shlomo Karhi, who posted on X, that “Israel will use all means at its disposal to fight this” and threatened to “cut any ties with Starlink.” Musk replied that any deployment of Starlink service would go through “a security check with both the U.S. and Israeli governments.” But it’s unclear what, if anything, has come from that announcement, and neither SpaceX nor the Israeli Ministry of Communications replied to Fast Company’s requests for comment.

This kind of intervention by Starlink wouldn’t be unheard of, of course. In Ukraine, Starlink service has been a crucial lifeline (though Musk has refused to activate the service in Russian-occupied Crimea, despite the Ukrainian government’s request to do so). But, of course, Gaza is not Ukraine. Gaza is a fraction of Ukraine’s size, meaning there is a substantially smaller (and poorer) market for any satellite provider who might have been driven by commercial opportunity before the war, according to Tawil-Souri. In addition, she says, global alliances with Israel make even humanitarian efforts of this kind geopolitically unfeasible. “I really have a difficult time imagining any U.S. firms providing any such system for Gaza, given the larger stance of the U.S. government,” she says.

 

Access Now and Human Rights Watch have applied pressure on the Egyptian government, in particular, to act, given its proximity to Gaza. But in response to a letter from Access Now and Human Rights Watch, Paltel explained why providing mobile service to Palestinians in Gaza is not as easy as simply setting up more cell towers on the border and enabling people to access Egyptian mobile networks. For starters, Paltel wrote, such a move would be “unprecedented anywhere in the world.” But even if it were hypothetically possible, such an approach would be “capable of covering a limited area in southern areas only and to a small number of people,” Paltel wrote. 

In any case, such an arrangement would require approval “from respective authorities” in Egypt, and Paltel wrote, “This consent is not there.”

There is no extricating Gaza’s telecommunication challenges from the broader humanitarian crisis in the region. Ensuring mobile and broadband networks are functional only accomplishes so much when people are withstanding continuous bombings, fleeing their homes, and may not even have a device or means of charging a device to connect to the internet. “It’s kind of inseparable from the larger conditions of what’s going on,” Tawil-Souri says. 

But that doesn’t mean that internet access is an unnecessary luxury in moments like these, experts say. Far from it. “Internet access, particularly in times of war and disaster, can be the difference between life and death,” says Fatafta. “No authority should have the right to disconnect a population, further thrusting them into chaos and turmoil. The world needs to witness what is happening on the ground in Gaza.”

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