A deadly search for phone signals

A bunch of phones being charged on a mobile battery

Finding a signal and charging cellphones have become questions of survival in Gaza. 

Ashraf Amra APA images

On the morning of 10 February, Muhammad Obeid, 26, left the home of relatives in Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip where he has been sheltering to try to get a signal on his phone.

It didn’t go well.

The signal in the camp was weak and he, along with a couple of other young men also in search of a signal, had wandered toward Salah al-Din Road, which runs almost the whole length of Gaza north to south.

They were still hundreds of meters away from the street when Obeid saw an Israeli drone heading straight for the group.

“I wanted to get an internet signal because I was using an eSim and needed to check on my sister and her sons, still in the north,” Obeid said. “But then the drone started approaching.”

The men turned and ran, but too late. The drone – a quadcopter equipped with a rifle – opened fire, and Obeid was shot in the back.

Another man was also injured and both were rushed to al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital in the city of Deir al-Balah.

They are not the only casualties of a desperate search for connectivity.

High ground is often sought by people looking for a signal. It’s a risky affair.

Higher ground – hills, the tops of buildings, open areas – are closely monitored by Israeli drones and regularly targeted.

Targeting witnesses

According to the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, at least seven civilians were killed looking for signals in late January and early February, often in areas where the Israeli military has taken full control on the ground, like northern Gaza.

The human rights group said Israel “particularly targets civilians trying to pick up communications and internet signals in besieged areas where serious human rights violations are occurring” in an attempt, the group continued, to prevent press coverage of and make it “difficult for residents to report” such violations.

Ismail al-Masri, 30, had tried to pick up a signal in the Tel al-Zaatar area of northern Gaza.

He wanted, according to his brother Muhammad, 28, to send out a video containing a plea about starvation in northern Gaza from a group of young people who were – like him – sheltering at a school. Run by the UN agency for Palestine refugees, the school is located in Jabaliya camp, northern Gaza.

Before he managed it, however, he was shot and killed by what Muhammad said was an Israeli sniper.

“My brother was killed with a single shot to the back of the head. We don’t know where the sniper was, but at the same time on the same day [8 February], three others were shot and injured,” Muhammad told The Electronic Intifada.

Since 7 October, Israel has completely cut off telecommunications and the internet from the Gaza Strip at least 10 times, according to the Euro-Med group, often just before an escalation.

Dying to communicate

The Israeli military has almost completely destroyed Gaza’s telecommunications infrastructure.

Cards known as eSims have become a vital way for Palestinians in Gaza to try to maintain communication with their relatives and friends, as well as a primary means by which to communicate with the wider world.

Being all electronic, eSims have the added advantage that they can be bought from abroad for people in Gaza to use.

Ahmad Sharaf, 30, a resident of downtown Gaza City, was killed on 10 December when he was trying to pick up a signal from the top of their building.

According to his brother Zaid Sharaf, 25, who has since been forced to evacuate to Rafah, he and Ahmad had been trying to contact a third brother, Majed, who lives in Belgium, to tell him they were fine.

“My brother was standing on the roof to pick up a signal,” Zaid said. “We hadn’t gone up there for days, but we need to give some sign of life to Majed. I stayed only a little. But when I went down the stairs I heard a drone and the sound of a missile. On the roof I found Ahmad had been killed.”

The Sharaf family had already lost 10 relatives earlier in December when Israel attacked an apartment in the building where they live.

“I will never forget how the Israeli occupation bombed our neighbors’ homes, and killed our brothers and relatives,” said Zaid. “I cannot forget those terrifying days. My brother did not pose any danger to Israel. He just wanted to call my older brother.”

Amjad Ayman Yaghi is a journalist based in Gaza.