In the middle of a heavy retaliation for the air and artillery attack by Israel on the Gaza Strip on October 10, Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson Avichay Adraee posted a message on Facebook to residents of the al-Daraj neighborhood, urging them to leave their homes before impending airstrikes.
It’s not clear how most people in al-Daraj would view the warning: Intense fighting and electricity shortages have choked Palestinian access to the Internet, putting besieged civilians at even greater risk.
Following Hamas’s horrific surprise attack across the Gaza border on October 7, the Israeli counter-attack – a widespread and indiscriminate bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip – left the two million Palestinians who call the area home struggling to connect to the internet at a time when access to up-to-date information is crucial and potentially life-saving.
“Shutting down the internet in armed conflict puts civilians at risk.”
“Shutting down the Internet in armed conflict puts civilians at risk,” Deborah Brown, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Intercept. “It can contribute to injury or death as people communicate around what are safe places and conditions.”
According to companies and research organizations that monitor the global flow of internet traffic, Gaza’s internet access has dropped dramatically since the Israeli strikes began, with data services completely cut for some customers.
“My understanding is that very few people in Gaza have internet service,” Doug Madory of internet monitoring firm Kentik told The Intercept. Madory said he spoke with a contact who works with an internet service provider, or ISP, in Gaza who told him that internet access has dropped by 80 to 90 percent due to lack of fuel and power, and airstrikes.
As for the reasons for the outages, Marwa Fatafta, a policy analyst at the digital rights group Access Now, cited Israeli strikes on office buildings housing Gazan telecommunications companies, such as the now-demolished Al-Watan Tower, as a major factor. damage to the power grid.
Fatafta told The Intercept, “There is an almost complete information blackout from Gaza.”
Most Gaza ISPs are gone
With communications infrastructure left in shambles, Gazans now find themselves increasingly in a digital void at a time when access to data is most crucial.
“People in Gaza need access to the Internet and telecommunications to check on their family and loved ones, seek life-saving information amid the ongoing Israeli barrage on the Strip; it is critical to document war crimes and human rights abuses committed by Israeli forces at a time when misinformation runs rampant on social media, says Fatafta.
“There is a little bit of connectivity,” Alp Toker of internet outage monitoring firm NetBlocks told The Intercept, but “most of the internet providers based in Gaza are gone.”
While it is difficult to be certain whether these outages are due to power shortages, Israeli munitions or both, Toker said that, based on reports he has received from Gaza’s Internet providers, the root cause is Israeli destruction of fiber optic cables connecting Gaza. ISPs are generally aware of where their infrastructure is damaged or destroyed, Toker said, but ongoing Israeli airstrikes will make it too dangerous to send a crew to patch them. Still, a popular Gazan internet provider, Fusion, wrote in a Facebook post to its customers that efforts to repair damaged infrastructure are ongoing.
That Gaza’s Internet access remains in place at all, Toker said, is likely due to the use of backup generators that may soon run out of fuel in the face of an intensified Israeli military blockade. (Toker also said that, while it’s unclear whether it was due to damage from Hamas rockets or a manual blackout, NetBlocks detected an outage in Internet service in Israel at the start of the attack, but that it quickly subsided.)
Amanda Meng, a researcher at Georgia Tech who works with the university’s Internet Outage Detection and Analysis project, or IODA, estimated Gaza’s Internet connectivity has dropped by about 55 percent in recent days, meaning more than half of Gaza’s networks have gone dark and not longer respond to external internet. Meng compared this level of access disruption to what was previously observed in Ukraine and Sudan during the recent warfare in those countries. In Gaza, Border Gateway Protocol activity, an obscure system that routes data from one computer to another and covers the entire Internet, has also seen disruption.
“On the ground, it looks like people can’t use network communication devices that depend on the Internet,” Meng explained.
Organizations like NetBlocks and IODA all used different techniques to measure Internet traffic, and their results tend to vary. It’s also nearly impossible to tell from the other side of the world whether a sudden drop in service is due to an explosion or something else. Beyond methodological differences and the fog of war, however, there’s an added wrinkle: Like almost everything else in Gaza, ISPs connect to the wider Internet via Israeli infrastructure.
“By law, Gaza’s internet connection has to go through Israeli infrastructure to connect to the outside world, so there is a possibility that the Israelis can leave it because they can intercept communications,” said Madory of Kentik.
Fatafta, the policy analyst, also cited Israel’s power to keep Gaza offline — but both in this war and in general. “Israel’s full control of Palestinian telecommunications infrastructure and long-standing ban on technology upgrades” is a huge obstacle, she said. With the wider internet blocked, she said, “people in Gaza can only access slow and unreliable 2G services” – a 1991 mobile standard.
Although Israel also reportedly uses analogous means to warn Palestinians, their effectiveness is not always clear: “Palestinian residents of the town of Beit Lahiya in the northern region of the Gaza Strip said on Thursday that Israeli aircraft dropped leaflets warning them to evacuate their homes,” according to the Associated Press. “The area had already been hit hard by the time the flyers were released.”
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