On Tuesday, Gaza disappeared from the world’s telecommunication networks for between 12 and 18 hours. This was an anxious time for both Gaza’s residents and those trying to contact friends, colleagues and loved ones from the outside.
The Gaza Strip, home to 1.6 million Palestinians, the vast majority of them refugees, depends on telecommunications to maintain a tenuous link to the outside world, from which it has been physically isolated due to five years of Israeli siege and blockade. The sudden cutoff also sparked fears of an imminent Israeli attack.
Though there was relief when communications were re-established, there has been no satisfactory explanation of the blackout, who was responsible for it, and whether or not it could happen again.
What happened to Gaza’s networks last week?
Ma’an News Agency was the first to report the problem, and a few Twitter users in Gaza remained online because they had BlackBerry service or were able to connect to the Orange network via its towers on the Israeli side of the boundary with Gaza.
The blackout has not been fully explained, and statements from Israeli and Palestinian officials are not consistent. The initial reports of Israeli bulldozers do not mention if the bulldozers were actually digging in the ground. One incident should not have disconnected the entire Gaza Strip, because there are multiple lines at different locations that connect Gaza’s networks to the West Bank.
Fiber optic cables are made of glass fibers that transmit light, so they are especially fragile. In addition to structural requirements for protecting the buried cables, the path of the cables cannot have sharp angles that would strain the fibers or impede transmission by causing light to be reflected. The ITU’s handbook of Optical fibres, cables and systems gives a technical overview for developing and maintaining the fiber optic infrastructure that connects Gaza to the rest of the world. Maintaining this sensitive equipment must be a very demanding job under normal circumstances, and Israeli occupation only makes this job harder.
After the failure occurred, the few reports we received from people in Gaza affirmed the widespread disconnection. However, there were no reports of any military activity.
The Electronic Intifada made various contacts by telephone with people who work and live in Gaza. People who were in Gaza were unreachable, and others who were away from Gaza did not have an explanation either. Some tried to reach people in the Gaza Strip with very limited success.
People in Gaza were able to determine that fixed line service within Gaza was still functional, but most mobile service and internet service was not. International phone service was also disconnected.
The next morning – after more than half a day – the network began to come back online, and the explanations started to appear.
Denials and inconsistent confirmations
The IDF Spokesperson denied involvement in the disconnection, but they were very specific about what they were denying.
On Wednesday, Ma’an reported that
[Israeli] bulldozers struck several cables, the first of which was located eight meters underground. Backup cables 20 meters deep also sustained damage, eventually taking the entire network offline.
The same report indicates that cables near the Nahal Oz crossing between Gaza and Israel, which lies south east of Gaza City, were broken late Monday, a day earlier than the network failure.
However, Al Jazeera gives a different sequence of events and also specifies the location of the problems.
Officials from PalTel … told Al Jazeera that Israeli bulldozers cut the cables at Nahal Oz two weeks ago, forcing the company to use another set of communications lines at the Erez crossing, which were then cut on Tuesday.
To Ma’an News Agency, Paltel executive manager asserted that its mobile subsidiary “Jawwal places cables deeper underground than the global standard, so the operation must have been extensive.”
“Violation of basic human rights”
The Palestinian IT Association of companies put the disconnection in a context of “violations of basic human rights and needs that our people in Gaza face on an ongoing basis.”
Date: Thursday, August 11, 2011
Subject: PITA condemns disconnecting Gaza of all communications means
The Palestinian IT Association of companies (PITA) strongly condemns the vandalism of the telecom networks connecting Gaza Strip to the West Bank and to the world last Tuesday, where the Israeli Occupation forces had destroyed three out of four links of the ﬁber optics cables connecting Gaza to the world. leaving the civilians disconnected on all levels: land lines, internet, and cell-phone networks!
Such acts of sabotage violate the simplest rights of a citizen in using the telecom services: “The Israel Occupation Forces stopped all the attempts of Paltel maintenance team to fix any damage, where Paltel team was on site immediately to save the situation; trying to make up for all the communication’s ways loss, while all that could be done was the make up of 25% of the original capacity of the system.”
These violations of the Palestinian communication networks stand as one more evidence on the injustice the Palestinian has to face on daily basis! Paltel, Jawwal and Wataniya Mobile are doing enormous efforts to keep up with the international technologies, given the lack of the services, and the required frequencies and all the obstacles Israel imposes on them unduly! At the time the 3G of Mobile Telecommunications is becoming the “old version” of mobiles. Gaza has to start over, and build its land line cables to make a phone call!
We urge the international community, our friends and partners in the region and the world to take all necessary steps to stop such violations of basic human rights and needs that our people in Gaza face on an ongoing basis.
To repair broken equipment in Israel, the Palestinian companies that maintain them must either receive permission from the Israeli authorities or find an Israeli contractor to perform the work. During Israel’s three-week long assault on Gaza in 2008-09, millions of dollars of damage was done to Gaza’s telecommunications infrastructure, but even then, the network did not completely fail as it did last week.
Under the terms of the Oslo Accords, Israel agreed to allow Palestinians’ to develop an independent telecommunications infrastructure, but the communications infrastructure in West Bank and Gaza Strip remains completely dependent on Israel. In fact, Palestinians (along with Israelis) are prohibited from connecting to international networks through any other country. Despite this, Paltel announced its intention to develop an alternate connection through networks in Jordan earlier this year.
In a useful and well-documented paper, Helga Tawil-Souri gives a detailed introduction to the history of Palestinian telecommunications under Israeli occupation and what she terms the “Hi-tech enclosure of Gaza,” the electronic counterpart of Israel’s ongoing physical siege of the territory.
Moreover, Palestinian writer and entrepreneur Sam Bahour, who was part of the core team that established Paltel, has emphasized the importance of telecommunications to economic development and how Israel’s occupation has enriched Israeli companies and hindered Palestinian development in general.
Palestinian IT professional and Gaza resident Nader Elkhuzundar explained why the network failures were so alarming Wednesday on Al Jazeera English.
People feared that the blackout would coincide with an Israeli attack on the captive population of Gaza, and without any connection to the outside world, neither those of us outside Gaza nor those inside could really know what was happening.