Gaza communications blackout, the longest of the war, hits one-week mark

A near-total communications blackout in Gaza, the longest of the war, has now lasted one week with no signs of abating, preventing humanitarian and emergency services from operating effectively in the territory.

It is the ninth such outage since Israel’s war on Hamas began following the group’s attacks in Israel on October 7, according to the Internet monitoring site Netblocks. The blackout affects both physical and wireless data connections, as well as mobile phone usage.

“It’s almost impossible to do the work that we’re supposed to do,” Juliette Touma, director of communications for UNRWA, the largest UN agency operating in the Palestinian Territories, told CNN by phone from Jerusalem. “It’s something that is very difficult to imagine in this day and age.”

“When a bombing happens, especially in the night, you cannot reach ambulances,” Jamal al Rozzi, an aid worker near Khan Younis, said in a voice message to CNN. “If you have any kind of emergency case concerning health, you cannot move because it’s very, very dangerous.”

Some journalists and aid workers have limited communications by using international or electronic SIMs, near the Israeli or Egyptian borders. It has been difficult for CNN to reach regular contacts in Gaza over the past week.

Thursday is the seventh day of the blackout, which began on January 12.

Israel has in the past faced accusations of deliberately severing Gaza’s communications – charges on which it has not commented. And while it is not possible to say definitively what caused this outage, signs point toward physical damage to the fiber lines connecting Gaza to Israel, Alp Toker, the director of Netblocks, told CNN.

“We have been trying to make sense of what’s going on with these outages, the same as everyone,” he said.

Oredoo, one of the main telecoms providers in Gaza, at the beginning of this outage said that “the main lines feeding telecommunications and internet companies have been repeatedly damaged. This has resulted in the cessation of all our services in the south and center of the Gaza Strip.”

Two telecoms workers were killed while trying to fix communications lines in Khan Younis when a shell struck their company car, Jawwal, another mobile phone provider, said in a statement on January 13. The company blamed Israel for the attack. The IDF told CNN that it was aware of the allegation, and that the incident was under review.

A Palestinian man produces electricity with solar panels in a makeshift tent in which Palestinians charge their phones cheaply, in Rafah, Gaza, January 17, 2023. - Abed Zagou/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A Palestinian man produces electricity with solar panels in a makeshift tent in which Palestinians charge their phones cheaply, in Rafah, Gaza, January 17, 2023. - Abed Zagou/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“Without information and telecommunication, people don’t know where to go for safety,” Hisham Mhanna, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross who is in Rafah, southern Gaza, told CNN by text message.

“Humanitarian organizations cannot operate. Since the morning, our teams are trying their best, despite immense challenges, to deliver some supplies to hospitals in Gaza. However, without phone lines and internet, our mission is extremely complicated.”

“When you try to plan for any mission during a blackout, you cannot predict the surprises or challenges that the team may face on their way — it’s hard to maintain real-time communication with the team. This is where it becomes dangerous.”

Al Rozzi, who is executive director of the National Society for Rehabilitation, told CNN that he struggles to get even a trickle of a connection.

“What I’m using now is an e-SIM that people have sent to me from abroad, and it’s working, but not all the time, not everywhere, not in each place. So I have to walk three kilometers to catch a point where we can have a signal.”

CNN has in the past reported on efforts by activists abroad to provide people in Gaza with e-SIMS.

The blackout also means that Palestinians both in and outside Gaza have no way of knowing whether family members from whom they are separated are alive or dead. More than 24,000 people have been killed in Gaza since October 7, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health.

“My brothers and sisters are not so far away from me, but I cannot reach them,” al Rozzi said. “I cannot reach them to know if they are well or not.”

Paltel, which owns Jawwal, has in previous incidents (for example, on November 1 and November 5) alleged that Israel purposefully turned off Gaza’s communications lines, often coinciding with large military operations. A senior American official has in the past told CNN that the U.S. applied pressure on Israel to restore connectivity in Gaza when it was severed. The IDF did not at the time comment on those allegations.

In response to this latest outage, the IDF said in a statement: “It is important to remember that the Gaza Strip is an active war zone and thus can experience temporary disruptions to internet connectivity due to the ongoing conflicts.”

Toker told CNN that the outages have many possible causes.

“We also know that such incidents have happened because of power outages in the past. We know that they’ve happened because of physical damage to lines and fiber as well. So we know that those can cause this kind of outage. Therefore we can’t say with certainty for example that Israel is flipping a switch – although that means is certainly there.”

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