Palestinians Plunged Into Digital Darkness in Gaza

From a Washington Post story by William Booth, Miriam Berger, and Hajar Harb headlined “No text, no talk. Palestinians plunged into digital darkness in Gaza.”:

Cutting off an enemy’s communication lines is an ancient tool of war. But the near complete communications blackout in Gaza, as Israel expands its military campaign, has plunged residents into a deep digital darkness.Before Friday night — when phone and internet connections were abruptly severed — you could be poor in Gaza, you could struggle to charge a battery, but if you had a mobile phone with a few minutes of credit, you could still make a call. Now those minutes are useless.

More than 2 million people in Gaza now have little or no ability to text, talk or scroll. They can’t hail an ambulance. They can’t check on loved ones. No Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram. No news. Just as worrisome, people cannot call in. Now there is a terrifying silence.

Rana Khalil is 27 years old and works in a human rights office in Ramallah in the West Bank.

She has been in daily contact with members of her extended family, who live in northern Gaza, throughout the war. They haven’t spoken or texted since the blackout began on Friday night.

“How do we feel now? I don’t know if anybody from the family is alive,” she said.

She is not alone. “No one, no one can reach anybody in Gaza,” she said. “There is no connection.”

There are exceptions. Some satellite phones and dishes. And Gazans who have SIM cards from foreign mobile companies can sometimes get a line out, she said. “But nobody has those in Gaza.”

Khalil asked: “Can you please ask for any help getting news from Gaza about the families there?”

Israel knocked out cell towers, cable lines and infrastructure with strikes culminating on Friday night, creating the near-blackout of connectivity. The main Palestinian telecom provider, Paltel, blamed Israel for a “complete disruption” of internet, cellular and landline services.

Communication lines in Gaza were already tenuous before Friday. A charged phone became a luxury, and few Gazans had spare money to put toward minutes and internet plans after Israel ordered a “complete siege” and cut off electricity, fuel and water on Oct. 9.

Before the blackout, calls to local Palestinian numbers frequently dropped or would not connect. Internet access through phone plans or WiFi was intermittent and slow. The boom of explosions frequently sounded in the background during calls.

Palestinians in Gaza told The Washington Post they avoided answering Israeli numbers they did not know, fearful that it could be the Israeli military calling to warn of an impending strike — though most hits, people said, came without prior notice.

A Post reporter received a text from a mother in Gaza on Friday evening, right before the blackout: “Thank God, I am ok. How are you? Just we are very tired.” It was the last message.

Over the past 24 hours, The Post has connected with few people in Gaza. Abdul Raouf Shaath, a Palestinian photojournalist, was reached through a Messenger application and responded with a voice message.

“We are talking to you with great difficulty through the use of a weak internet network and an international subscription, and communication is very slow,” Shaath said.

Gaza, he said, “is now being annihilated from the eyes of the world” and “removed from the noise of the world.”

He said it was impossible to place calls or texts inside Gaza, or to phone an ambulance service for help.

Soon after that voice message, communication between the photographer and The Post ended and could not be restored.

The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement expressing alarm that mobile phones and internet service are down in Gaza. “A communications blackout is a news blackout,” the CPJ said. “This can lead to serious consequences with an independent, factual information vacuum that can be filled with deadly propaganda, dis- and misinformation.”

The statement continued: “As news bureaus lose contact with their crews and reporters in Gaza, who are independently bearing witness to provide information about developments and the human toll of this war, the world is losing a window into the reality of all sides engaged in this conflict.”

On Saturday evening, Bassem Nasser, an aid worker for Catholic Relief Services in Rafah, in southern Gaza, got out this WhatsApp message: “Communication crisis continues. Limited access and limited information about the situation outside my own location. Sounds of air strikes and unprecedented artillery bombardment. No internal communication between team. Can’t confirm safety of any staff.”

Since Friday night, almost all calls to Gazans haven’t gone through. “The mobile number you dialed cannot be reached at the moment,” a recording responds instead.

Dalia Shurrab, 40, is a Palestinian from Gaza living in Amman, Jordan. For many years she worked with the humanitarian group Mercy Corps.

“On Friday morning we were all together in a video call. My nephew wanted to play an online game with me. Then the line went dead,” Shurrab said.

She has tried now for 24 hours to reach her family in Khan Younis in southern Gaza — via mobile phones, internet, landline. Nothing.

Shurrab began to cry, apologizing. “My mom’s voice was always the thing that comforted me, you know? We speak every day. She is always calming me down, always thinking of hope,” she said. “It is so hard now, I am sorry.”

She didn’t want to end the call.

Berger reported from Tel Aviv and Harb reported from London.

William Booth is The Washington Post’s London bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Jerusalem, Mexico City, Los Angeles and Miami.

Miriam Berger is a staff writer reporting on foreign news for The Washington Post from Washington, D.C. Before joining The Post in 2019 she was based in Jerusalem and Cairo and freelance reported around the Middle East, as well as parts of Africa and Central Asia.

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