Israel unplugged Gaza: Human rights watchdog says “Internet shutdowns are fatal”

“They couldn’t know which areas were bombed, if their families are safe, and where to evacuate,” says a human rights watchdog, calling for an immediate digital and physical ceasefire as Gaza runs out of fuel and goes into a complete internet blackout in the coming hours.

Today, data reported by Netblocks, an internet accessibility watchdog, shows a gradual decline in internet connectivity in the Gaza Strip.

PalTel, one of the main telecommunication providers in Gaza, posted today on X that its data centers and switches are gradually shutting down due to fuel depletion, and batteries will only be able to sustain the main network for another couple of hours before leading to a complete blackout.

The Palestinian Communications Minister Yitzhak Sidr said earlier this week that all communications and internet services will stop in the Gaza Strip by Thursday. The two major telecommunications companies, Jawwal and Paltel, also sounded the alarm about a complete shutdown by this Thursday, which seems to be happening a day earlier.

AccessNow, a non-profit defending digital civil rights, released a report last week showing that during October, the overall internet traffic across Gaza decreased by 80% due to the destruction of communication infrastructure and depleting fuel supplies.

Israel is using blackouts as a weapon of war

Marwa Fatafta, MENA Policy and Advocacy Manager at Access Now, told Cybernews that Israeli authorities are using internet access as a weapon of war in Gaza.

“For weeks, they’ve been toying with internet shutdowns and targeting telecommunications infrastructure, leading to the censorship of Palestinian voices and to the blockade of communications channels for those on the ground,” said Fatafta.

Access to fuel is essential for operating the generators that power the communication towers in Gaza. With the steady, ongoing depletion of that fuel, a complete internet and telecommunications shutdown is inevitable for the fourth time following blackouts on October 27th, November 1st, and November 5th.

“On several occasions, Israeli authorities disconnected Gaza entirely from the outside world, the longest of which lasted around 36 hours, causing chaos inside of Gaza and sending shockwaves across the world as humanitarian organizations, emergency lines, and doctors lost contact with people and each other,”

stressed Fatafta.

Internet shutdowns are fatal

“Internet shutdowns can be fatal in times of crisis. People need internet and telecommunications access to access life-saving information and services,” Fatafta told Cybernews, also noting that internet connectivity is vital in documenting human rights violations and atrocities taking place in the territory.

“These disruptions have also provided a hotbed of disinformation in the absence of journalists on the ground that can factually report on events. As connectivity continues to plummet in Gaza, we know less and less of the atrocities committed there, especially in the north where many had to flee as Israel advances its ground military operation,” Fatafta said.

Palestinians search a house after an Israeli air strike in the city of Rafah, south of the Gaza Strip, on October 12th, 2023. Source: Shutterstock

During the complete internet shutdown on October 27th, major humanitarian organizations such as the Palestinian Red Crescent and the World Health Organization lost contact with their staff and health workers on the ground. During the heavy bombardment, people were not able to call ambulances or civil defenses to save their loved ones and transport the injured to hospitals.

“They were also completely disconnected from each other and the outside world. They couldn’t know which areas were bombed, if their family members were safe, and to where they could possibly evacuate.”

The emotional toll of internet shutdowns on individuals within and beyond Gaza is palpable. With more than 1.5 million people displaced, numerous individuals have been unable to establish contact with their relatives for days or even weeks, leaving them in agonizing uncertainty.

“Some Palestinians resorted to sifting through footage on social media and TV news in order to locate their family members and check on their status.”

The AccessNow advocacy manager is calling for an immediate physical and digital ceasefire to improve the critical situation and for the international community, including governments, UN bodies, and tech companies, to make “an urgent stand to “demand the immediate and unconditional entry of essentials including fuel to allow the resumption of internet and telecommunications services.”

Weaponizing internet blackouts are on the rise

“The weaponization of internet blackouts during conflict is increasing and spreading across the globe,” Felicia Anthonio, #KeepItOn Campaign Manager at Access Now, told Cybernews.

Last year, Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition documented at least 33 incidents of shutdowns during active conflict. From Russia's attack on Ukraine to the large-scale protests in Iran following the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, authorities strategically shut down internet connections to obscure atrocities from the public eye.

According to the campaign manager, especially authoritarian regimes are infatuated with internet shutdowns, as using it can silence, isolate, and deprive a population of their human rights. Internet shutdowns make it almost impossible for rights groups to effectively document and report human rights violations taking place.

“Sadly, this use of the “kill switch” appears to be worsening, judging by the scale and scope of the internet shutdowns we have documented in Gaza as a result of Israel’s bombardment,” said Anthonio.

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