As Gaza experienced an almost total communication breakdown on Friday, a campaign started trending on social media platforms, calling on billionaire tycoon Elon Musk to power the bombed enclave with Starlink internet.
The satellite internet venture operated by SpaceX consists of a “constellation of thousands of satellites” orbiting very close to Earth at around 550 km (340 miles) from the surface, making it easier to provide internet services in rural and isolated regions of the world where internet terminals and cables are not strong.
SpaceX CEO Musk initially responded to a post calling for Starlink support for Gaza, saying it was not clear who had authority for ground communications in the besieged enclave and that “no terminals from Gaza have attempted to communicate with our constellation.”
After calls for Musk to support communications in Gaza through Starlink gained momentum, the billionaire announced that “Starlink will support connectivity to internationally recognized aid organizations in Gaza.”
Can Starlink work in Gaza?
While Starlink’s tagline is the promise of “connection where you least expect it,” Marc Owen Jones, associate professor of Middle Eastern studies at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha, is unsure whether it can work in Gaza.
“We’ve seen 500,000 posts on X saying Starlink should operate Gaza. But people don’t actually realize that ‘Starlink for Gaza’ is an impossibility,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Starlink terminals or dishware in Gaza would be difficult to smuggle in and distribute on a large scale. The Israeli government is unlikely to allow legal importation of it, Owen Jones told Al Jazeera.
“But let’s say Starlink came in. How will it be powered? There’s no fuel in Gaza right now.”
The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007. Israel controls Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters and regulates all goods and services entering and leaving through two of Gaza’s three border crossings. The third crossing is controlled by Egypt.
Owen Jones also noted that the Starlink network relies on ground stations that would need approval within Gaza, which he says is unlikely to happen under the current situation.
“Owning a Starlink terminal with two-way transmission could endanger Gazans if discovered by Israeli authorities,” he said, adding that the Internet access would likely face opposition from the US and Israeli administrations.
On Saturday, Israeli Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi lashed out at Musk on social media platform X for considering providing Starlink to aid organizations in Gaza. Karhi said Israel will cut all ties with Starlink.
“HAMAS will use it for terrorist activities. There is no doubt about that, we know that, and Musk knows that,” Karhi said.
Musk responded by saying his company is “not that naive” and would do “a security check with both the US and Israeli governments before turning on a single terminal”.
Has Starlink been used in other war zones?
This is not the first time Musk has been asked to provide Starlink internet services in war zones.
In February 2022, after Russia invaded Ukraine, Musk immediately ensured that Starlink terminals would be made available to help people and the army in Ukraine after internet services were disrupted due to the war.
But a year into the conflict, concerns have been raised about Starlink’s aid to Russia’s military.
In September, Musk faced criticism from leaders in Ukraine for refusing to have Starlink services in Russian-annexed Crimea.
On social media platform X, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak also claimed that Starlink allowed Russian drones to hit Ukrainian cities.
“Sometimes a mistake is much more than just a mistake. By not allowing Ukrainian drones to destroy part of the Russian military (!) fleet via Starlink interference, Elon Musk allowed this fleet to launch Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities”, said Podolyak on X.
Musk responded by saying he had no choice but to turn down an emergency request from Ukraine “to activate Starlink all the way to Sevastopol” – a response that has been praised by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Meanwhile, despite problems with its use in Crimea, Starlink is still used on all other fronts in Ukraine.
What are the other means of communication?
After a communications blackout that lasted nearly 36 hours, the Paltel Group, which provides communications services in Gaza, said telecommunications services were “gradually restored” in the Gaza Strip.
But with Musk’s Starlink proposal for Gaza only aimed at catering to international aid organizations, efforts continue worldwide to ensure that ordinary civilians in Gaza can continue to communicate with each other should telecommunications services be disrupted again.
Egyptian journalist and author Mirna El Helbawi started a social media campaign to collect eSims from around the world to help people in Gaza.
An eSim card allows users to activate a mobile network’s mobile subscription without using a physical SIM card.
“Until we fix the Starlink problem with Egyptian and Palestinian Red Crescent; If anyone in Gaza needs a European e-SIM to activate their internet connection, let me know,” Helbawi said.
Until we fix the Egyptian and Palestinian red crescent starlink issue; If anyone in Gaza needs a European E-Sim to activate their internet connection, please let me know. I have my European followers on instagram who are willing to help. pic.twitter.com/VUn9nryhNf
– Mirna El Helbawi (@Mirna_elhelbawi) 28 October 2023
Since then, El Helbawi expressed on X that she has managed to send free eSims to several journalists, people and some doctors in Gaza.
She added that she has now teamed up with telecommunications startup Simly to ensure “everyone gets stable and consistent internet access there (in Gaza)”.
Some social media users who have sent eSims to help people in Gaza suggested using applications like Nomad to buy eSim cards.
After selecting the “Middle East” mobile data plan in the app and paying for the chosen service provider, people receive a QR code.
This code can then be sent to civilians in need in Gaza through organizations or people on the ground who help distribute eSims.
I sent mine to @BasharChaheen btw https://t.co/RlXlpUnlWq
— Hashashin (@HashashinTag) 28 October 2023
In addition to efforts with eSims and SIM cards, Qatari telecommunications company Ooredoo Group has also been helping people in the Gaza Strip communicate since 2017 with the launch of Wataniya Mobile.
Can Egypt play a bigger role?
Since the Palestinian armed group Hamas launched an attack on Israel on October 7, Egypt’s role in Gaza has gained importance.
Cairo controls the Rafah border crossing, which has proved a lifeline for the people of Gaza since last week, when aid trucks were allowed to enter the territory through the crossing. More than 8,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed in Israeli bombings while an all-out siege means there is not enough food, fuel or water to meet basic needs.
Some on social media have also questioned whether Musk’s Starlink could set up terminals at the Rafah crossing so that internet services in Gaza could be supported.
But Owen Jones told Al Jazeera that even if they (Egypt) allowed it or were allowed to set up Starlink terminals, “it would have limited effectiveness”.
Meanwhile, according to local media reports in Egypt, Vodafone Egypt has announced that mobile communication stations have been prepared to be sent to the Egypt-Gaza border to boost internet and mobile phone networks in Gaza.
A PR stunt for Musk?
While international aid organizations have welcomed Musk’s proposal to help them with Starlink, questions remain about how it will be installed in an enclave that continues to be relentlessly bombarded and remains under a blockade.
“We could really use Starlink to try and get in touch with our staff and medical facilities in Gaza. How can we make that happen?” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus asked Musk on X.
SpaceX and Musk have not yet responded to how installations for aid organizations will begin to operate.
According to Owen Jones, Musk is wading into uncharted territory.
“I don’t think he gets the dominance of Israel’s control of the area, the dangers that Starlink can put Gazans in,” Owen Jones said. “He’s doing this to simply look good in light of the campaign for Starlink to be given to Gazans.”
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