Since Hamas’ tragic October attack on Israel that killed at least 1,400 people, the country’s retaliation in Gaza has led to more than 10,000 deaths, according to unverified claims from the Hamas-run Gazan Health Ministry, and broad destruction of the community's basic utilities and infrastructure. This includes its internet and communication systems, with dwindling connectivity largely cutting off 2.2 million Gazans from the outside world.
On October 27, Israel reportedly imposed a full internet shutdown in the area, cutting off the last remaining connectivity for about 34 hours as its troops moved into the Gaza Strip. After what’s left of Gaza’s internet access was restored—data shows it stands at around 15 percent or less of usual connectivity—the area has suffered two other, similar connectivity blackouts. The most recent lasted for about 15 hours on Sunday as Israel was carrying out an intense operation to cut off Gaza City in the north from southern Gaza
While researchers and technologists who monitor internet connectivity can’t conclusively say that Israel was behind the blackouts—or that they were imposed using technical controls rather than physical destruction of infrastructure—the fact that some connectivity could be restored so rapidly seems to indicate deliberate shutdowns over incidental destruction.
“In the last 10 days, there have been three periods of time that connectivity has gone to completely zero,” says Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at monitoring firm Kentik. He notes that from the data he is able to see, it's only possible to determine whether internet service providers in Gaza are communicating with the outside world and not the specific cause of an outage. One “aggressor in the conflict that's taking place in Gaza happens to have the ability to turn off service in the region that they're doing military operations in,” Madory says.
Throughout the Gaza Strip, there are around a dozen internet service providers and cell phone companies that get people online—although cell networks only use 2G technologies, as opposed to the faster 3G, 4G, and 5G connections available across much of Israel. These companies are heavily reliant on Israeli infrastructure to connect to the global internet, with open internet advocacy nonprofit the Internet Society classing Palestine as having “poor” connections to the wider internet. Since the start of the war, mobile and internet providers’ offices, cables, and cell towers have been destroyed. Many are now totally offline.
“Israel controls the telecommunication and internet that comes to Gaza,” says Husam Mekdad, a telecoms engineer living in southern Gaza in a message to WIRED. He says “most” of the main internet service providers are down, and the mobile operators that can still operate 2G connections have hugely congested networks.
“No company can repair or do anything right now,” Mekdad says. Many firms, he says, are waiting until the war is over to see the status of their infrastructure and evaluate it. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said last week that 65 percent of households and businesses have lost access to the internet and half of networks have been damaged.
The Palestinian territories’ biggest internet provider, Paltel, has retained the most connectivity, according to internet analysts. But during the three complete blackouts, even Paltel has been knocked offline. “When Paltel is offline, then I think everybody's down,” Madory says.
Paltel alleges that during the three blackouts its services were being “disconnected” by Israel. The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology of the State of Palestine has also claimed there has been “systematic targeting” of networks and urged countries to “put pressure on the Israeli government” to restore connections. Paltel has not returned WIRED’s multiple requests for comment in recent weeks.
The Israeli Defense Forces declined to comment when asked whether they were behind the recent internet shutdowns in Gaza. Israel’s Ministry of Communications did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment. However, on October 17, ahead of the total blackouts, the Israeli communications ministry published an update on the war that appeared to detail its plans. “There is an ongoing examination and preparation for the shutting down of cellular communications and internet services to Gaza,” the update said.
In recent years, internet shutdowns have become a dystopian reality for millions of people in India, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, and other countries. Last year there were 187 internet shutdowns in 35 countries, according to Access Now, a digital rights nonprofit. Internet shutdowns can do huge damage to a country’s economy as well as people’s ability to communicate with friends and loved ones and access medical care and other essential information. Typically, internet shutdowns are initiated by repressive governments trying to control protests, stop people organizing, and quell dissent. The approach is widely condemned by democratic countries, the United Nations, and human rights groups.
After internet service came back in Gaza the first time in late October, the White House wrote in a statement that “the restoration of communications in Gaza was critical. Aid workers, civilians, and journalists need to be able to communicate to each other and the rest of the world. Our Administration cared about this, worked on it, and are glad to see it restored.” The US State Department and White House National Security Council did not return requests for comment from WIRED about the implications of the two subsequent internet shutdowns in Gaza.
“Seeing intermittent shutdowns reiterates where the power to shut down actually lies,” says Helga Tawil-Souri, a digital communication and media researcher focused on Israel-Palestine at New York University. “Every major bombing campaign that Israel has taken on sees with it new strategies of what media or communication forms are allowed and what is not allowed, as in the 2008-2009 bombing of Gaza, where there was a crackdown on foreign journalists for the first time, and the 2014 bombing. The kinetic warfare, the starving, the lack of communication, lack of water, targeting solar panels—all of it just kind of works together for the total incapacitation of normal life on every possible level.”
For people living in Gaza, it’s likely that as the war continues there will be more total internet shutdowns. Some have been able to find spots of connectivity, people with access to expensive satellite phones can communicate with the outside world, and others have used eSIMs to access Israeli or Egyptian networks that reach into Gaza. These and other circumvention techniques, while a critical lifeline, have been unreliable, though, as the war rages on.
Mekdad, the network engineer in Gaza, says that with little electricity or fuel to use generators, some people are using small solar chargers to power their devices. He showed WIRED a photo of nine phones connected to a series of power outlets. “The situation is very bad. We are running out of electricity, clean water, food, and medical supplies,” Mekdad says. His relatives have fled from the north looking for safe shelter in southern Gaza. “We expected to die every second,” he says. “We just hope to stay alive.”