Amid a heavy retaliatory air and artillery assault by Israel against the Gaza Strip on October 10, Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Avichay Adraee posted a message on Facebook to residents of the al-Daraj neighborhood, urging them to leave their homes in advance of impending airstrikes.
It’s not clear how most people in al-Daraj were supposed to see the warning: Intense fighting and electrical shortages have strangled Palestinian access to the internet, putting besieged civilians at even greater risk.
Following Hamas’s grisly surprise attack across the Gaza border on October 7, the Israeli counterattack — 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 current information is crucial and potentially lifesaving.
“Shutting down the internet in armed conflict is putting civilians at risk.”
“Shutting down the internet in armed conflict is putting civilians at risk,” Deborah Brown, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Intercept. “It could help contribute to injury or death because people communicate around what are safe places and conditions.”
According to companies and research organizations that monitor the global flow of internet traffic, Gazan access to the internet has dramatically dropped since Israeli strikes began, with data service cut entirely for some customers.
“My sense is that very few people in Gaza have internet service,” Doug Madory of the internet monitoring firm Kentik told The Intercept. Madory said he spoke to a contact working with an internet service provider, or ISP, in Gaza who told him that internet access has been reduced by 80 to 90 percent because of a lack of fuel and power, and airstrikes.
As for causes of the outages, Marwa Fatafta, a policy analyst with the digital rights group Access Now, cited Israeli strikes against office buildings housing Gazan telecommunications firms, such as the now-demolished Al-Watan Tower, as a major factor, in addition to damage to the electrical grid.
Fatafta told The Intercept, “There is a near complete information blackout from Gaza.”
Most Gaza ISPs Are Gone
With communications infrastructure left in rubble, Gazans now increasingly find themselves in a digital void at a time when data access 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 amidst the ongoing Israeli barrage on the strip; it’s crucial to document the war crimes and human rights abuses committed by Israeli forces at a time when disinformation is going haywire on social media,” Fatafta said.
“There is some slight connectivity,” Alp Toker of the internet outage monitoring firm NetBlocks told The Intercept, but “most of the ISPs based inside of Gaza are gone.”
Though it’s difficult to be certain whether these outages are due to electrical shortages, Israeli ordnance, or both, Toker said that, based on reports he has received from Gazan internet providers, the root cause is the Israeli destruction of fiber optic cables connecting Gaza. The ISPs are generally aware of where their infrastructure is damaged or destroyed, Toker said, but ongoing Israeli airstrikes will make sending a crew to patch them too dangerous to attempt. Still, one popular Gazan internet provider, Fusion, wrote in a Facebook post to its customers that efforts to repair damaged infrastructure were ongoing.
That Gazan internet access remains in place at all, Toker said, is probably due to the use of backup generators that could soon run out of fuel in the face of an intensified Israeli military blockade. (Toker also said that, while it’s unclear if it was due to damage from Hamas rockets or a manual blackout, NetBlocks detected an internet service disruption inside Israel at the start of the attack, but that it quickly subsided.)
Amanda Meng, a research scientist at Georgia Tech who works on the university’s Internet Outage Detection and Analysis project, or IODA, estimated Gazan internet connectivity has dropped by around 55 percent in the recent days, meaning over half the networks inside Gaza have gone dark and no longer respond to the outside internet. Meng compared this level of access disruption to what’s been previously observed in Ukraine and Sudan during recent warfare in those countries. In Gaza, Border Gateway Protocol activity, an obscure system that routes data from one computer to another and undergirds the entire internet, has also seen disruptions.
“On the ground, this looks like people not being able to use networked communication devices that rely on the Internet,” Meng explained.
Organizations like NetBlocks and IODA all used varying 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 dip in service is due to an explosion or something else. In addition to methodological differences and the fog of war, however, is an added wrinkle: Like almost everything else in Gaza, ISPs connect to the broader internet through Israeli infrastructure.
“By law, Gaza internet connectivity must go through Israeli infrastructure to connect to the outside world, so there is a possibility that the Israelis could leave it up because they are able to 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 an immense impediment, she said. With the wider internet blockaded, she said, “people in Gaza can only access slow and unreliable 2G services” — a cellular standard from 1991.
While Israel is reportedly also using analog means to warn Palestinians, their effectiveness is not always clear: “Palestinian residents of the city of Beit Lahiya in the northern region of the Gaza Strip said Thursday that Israeli planes dropped flyers warning them to evacuate their homes,” according to the Associated Press. “The area had already been heavily struck by the time the flyers were dropped.”