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Gaza’s only cellphone network may go down

Cutting cellular phone service in Gaza means that journalists cannot report events and families cannot receive warnings of Israeli shelling
Strikes have damaged key communications infrastructure in Gaza (AA)

GAZA CITY - Behind the headlines, dominated by bombings and killings, a more subtle yet extremely dangerous story is unfolding.

After weeks of heavy bombardment, the Palestine Cellular Communications Company (Jawwal) has begun warning its customers that services in Gaza will have to be cut in coming days.

The company, a cell phone network that operates throughout Palestine, knows that cutting communication is bad news for the civilian population. It’s through this network that people sometimes receive warnings about possible Israeli strikes and the network is often a critical line of communication between families, many of whom have been scattered and displaced across the Gaza Strip.

A network suspension, would also be bad news for the hundreds of Palestinian journalists who rely on their cellphones to communicate with their editors abroad, and use their phones to get vital information out to the wider world.

Gaza TV reporter, Abdelnasser Abueloun, says that concern is growing that the lines of communication could soon go dark, and that any further limitations could have dire consequences for Gaza’s 1.8 million people.

“This will contribute to the humanitarian crisis when people are [no longer] able to communicate with rescue teams,” says Abueloun.

Yet, despite the real worry that cuts will further isolate an already-trapped Gaza Strip - that has already seen seventeen straight days of shelling and almost a week of ground assaults by the Israeli military – there has so far not been notable international uproar regarding the possible blackout.

“For 17 days, 25 percent of our operations have been down. Much of our capacity has been damaged through homes being bombed and demolished, with antennas on the rooftops,” Younies Abu Samra, general director of Jawwal in Gaza told Middle East Eye.  

With the widespread damage to its infrastructure, and the likely continuation of attacks, Jawwal says that the company was left with no choice but to issue a warning to customers on Monday.

In total, there are 328 operational stations across the Gaza Strip, according to Jawwal. 120 of them were forced to stop due to a shortage of fuel, while 12 others were damaged by Israeli bombs. The rest are powered by electricity or some sort of battery power, but with widespread power outages rocking Gaza, only about 10 percent – or some 30 stations – have been left fully operational.

“We have no power or fuel to function at full capacity,” says Abu Samra.

Damages to Jawwal’s network, so far, are estimated at around $4 m, but that figure is set to rise, and it only accounts for the damaged equipment, with total damages likely to be higher.

The equipment, at least in principle, can be repaired, but Jawwal has lost more than that. The company transmits its signal by paying people to place antennas on the roofs of their homes. The wide-spread destruction across Gaza and subsequent lack of structures on which to install their equipment, make the task of rebuilding much more challenging.

Two of Jawwal’s roof hosts were also killed recently when a Jawwal technician tried to fix their antenna. The technician had to have his leg amputated but survived the Israeli strike.  

Jawwal strives to do what it can for its customers and it recently issued a free 10 Israeli shekel ($3) “top-up” to its Gaza customers, as a gesture of good will, although this gesture should not be mistaken for optimism.

“The service will deteriorate but will not disappear completely, unless more networks are bombed and destroyed,” says Abu Samra.

Breaking the silence

Jawwal staff are largely reluctant to comment on politically sensitive issues, and are very careful to stick to technicalities, so as not to create misunderstandings with Israel and endanger their work. However, even these snippets of information paint a disturbing image.

According to Abu Samra, technical staff simply can’t keep up and cannot come close to repairing all the damage caused by Israeli strikes. With the remaining infrastructure continuing to come under attack, Jawwal says it was left no option but to publish its Gaza-wide warnings.

Internet companies in Gaza have also been complaining that internet services have been very slow over the past weeks, with some experts linking this to the damage caused to network providers that also offer internet and the frequent electricity cuts further fuelling the problem. 

Abu Raed, a 51year-old al-Zaytoun resident, says he has desperately been trying to check on his sister who lives close to border with Israel, but has been unable to get through.

“Without a mobile phone, I can’t connect with my family,” he says.  

His part of Gaza City has been one of those the worst hit, and its likely that al-Zaytoun will see yet more Israeli strikes if the crisis is not resolved.

“The longer we wait, the more catastrophic it becomes,” says Jawwal’s Abu Samra. “The solution is in the hands of other states [which must act] to stop the aggression and make sure the network is not affected.”

In the 2008-2009 war on Gaza, Jawwal damages estimated in Jordanian Dinars, came to around 5 m dinars ($7 m). This was roughly made up of $950,000 in network damage, $85,000  in infrastructure damage and just under $6 m in other damage. 

Nor is the toll just financial. Gaza TV’s Abueloun says that any network and internet constrictions will have a huge impact on news-gathering.

Not only will this prevent media producers and journalists, who rely on cellphones from making contact with their sources across the strip, but local journalists may well find themselves increasingly squeezed out by international reporters who can gain access to Israeli satellite networks when times get truly tough.

With local news sources left unable to compete for breaking news, a vital source of local income will be lost, but just as importantly, an increasingly incomplete picture of the situation on the ground will likely emerge which could damage diplomatic response or inhibit things like aid delivery.

“This is what we don’t want, particularly during war,” says Abueloun. “Communications should be kept out of conflict and squabbling.”

International moves to broker a ceasefire are heating up, and there is hope that shells on both sides will stop firing in time for eid - the period at the end of Ramadan - when families and friends usually get together or at least telephone and email one another to mark the holiday.

However, with the death toll in Gaza at almost 700 and likely rising, even an early ceasefire may not be able to get the lines of communication functioning again.