Keeping Gaza online: Telecom heroes risk life and limb under Israel’s bombs

Keeping Gaza online: Telecom heroes risk life and limb under Israel’s bombs

Ahmad* received a call from the Palestine Telecommunications Company’s (PalTel) Network Operation Center just after 10 o’clock in the evening. Israel had been attacking Gaza for three weeks when the main data center in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City lost power and threatened to cut off all local communications.

The PalTel electrician would have to cross the city during a fierce Israeli aerial bombardment in order to check on the center, endangering his life. He didn’t think twice, though. In the hopes that it would give him some protection from Israeli attacks, he flagged down a passing ambulance.

“I warned the driver that people like him wouldn’t be able to help injured civilians if I couldn’regulate the generator,” he said. A phone call can save lives because we are just as important as medical staff, Ahmad said.

Ahmad got to work as soon as he arrived at the center. He fixed the generator by 2 a.m., enabling the communications network to continue running. In order to get home during a break in Israeli bombing, he made the decision to stay inside the building until dawn, sneaking out around the recently demolished debris.

“Thank God I lived to see another day and my family was fine. My life and work are here. He said, “I do this every day.

The 750 PalTel employees in Gaza, who endured bombing, displacement, and death while putting their lives in danger to keep the telecom network running, have almost become accustomed to Ahmad’s story.

Gaza has been kept connected at a high cost. Israeli attacks have resulted in the deaths of at least five PalTel employees in Gaza, as well as the loss of numerous family members, including wives and children.

Two weeks ago, an engineer was working on the Gaza City Sheikh Radwan data center. [Courtesy of PalTel]

Before going home, Samir*, one of the staff members who was killed, had spent ten hours stowing fuel between data towers. Samir and his brother were killed in an Israeli airstrike on their building just 15 minutes later.

According to humanitarian workers and journalists, Gaza’s communication networks must be operational for rescue efforts and for reporting to the outside world the reality of the situation there.

Since October 7, Israeli attacks on Gaza have claimed the lives of more than 13, 000 Palestinians. The world has been shocked and horrified by videos of desperate family members and civil defense workers scurrying through the debris of bombed-out buildings to free trapped civilians.

Getting ready for battle

Israel cut off power to Gaza on October 7—the first day of its offensive. Gaza’s telecom network was operational for almost six weeks despite the lack of power and ongoing bombing.

This, according to PalTel’s CEO, is because the company has been building emergency contingencies into its Gaza infrastructure at every turn for “over 15 years.”

“During the previous wars, we have dealt with a variety of incidents. CEO Abdul Majeed Melhem told Al Jazeera that “we’re doing more protection than any other operator.”

Repairs are challenging because PalTel’s Gaza network was constructed while Israel was under siege of the enclave, necessitating the approval of Israeli authorities for each piece of equipment.

The telecoms network is designed unlike any other to prepare itself for a prolonged conflict like the one that is currently taking place. Israel’s frequent bombing campaigns and ongoing wars in Gaza have damaged civilian infrastructure.

An image of two small children holding their teddy bears walking down a destroyed street
On its X account, PalTel posted a message of support for the Gazan people. Gaza is proud and will live to see the dream come true, it reads. [PalTel via X]

PalTel buryes its cables up to 8 meters (26 feet) and nbsp deep, in contrast to the majority of telecom networks that do so. Three layers of redundancy—generators, solar panels, and batteries—are present in Gaza’s data centers in case the Israelis turn off their electricity.

In addition, the company has created emergency procedures to remotely direct workers from the West Bank under occupation; Gazan employees have the authority to take independent action if this is not possible due to cutoff communications.

The network has been crippled by the sheer volume of bombings over the past few weeks, despite all the redundancies and preparations. The mobile network has been offline for about 70% of the time. Solar panels are now largely useless because they are either destroyed by attacks or are covered in debris.

Staff members, who are constantly in danger from their home to the field, are also feeling the weight of the conflict’s relentless nature.

On October 15, a cable near the border needed to be fixed by fiber optics technician Rabih*. Because “a mistake could be deadly,” he had to provide the Israelis with a detailed list of the names, colors of their vehicles, and registration numbers before leaving.

The sound of their excavator was mixed with the buzz of a drone above Rabih and his team as they worked for two hours to fix the cable.

Any incorrect action might result in targeted behavior. I am unable to justify my actions or my willingness to serve in the military to my wife and children. If someone can do it, it has to be me, he said, even though my company doesn’t oblige.

Knowing that a quick repair trip could result in their deaths, staff in the West Bank anxiously waits to ask their colleagues in Gaza to check on damaged equipment.

The majority of Gaza-based employees have been eager to volunteer despite the risks, but they are not required to go into the field.

“It is very challenging to ask my harassed coworkers to leave the office.” Mohammed*, a worker at the West Bank’s Network Operation Center, said, “I fear that if one of them gets hurt, I will never be able to forgive myself.”

Mohammed’s job at the center requires him to keep an eye on network issues, solicit volunteer repairs from staff members, and stay in touch with them via phone to offer suggestions. Both Mohammed and the worker in Gaza want the field visit to be over with as soon as possible because the calls are nerve-wracking.

How these people must have the guts to leave is beyond my comprehension. I might not do it if I were present. Mohammed said, “I’m not sure if I would.

at Israel’s mercy

Gaza’s connections to the outside world ultimately depend on the Israelis, regardless of how deep they dig or how many solar panels they install.

A campaign card asking to keep Gaza connected
This month’s campaign to keep Gaza connected to telecom networks included PalTel via X.

Israel serves as a conduit for the cables that connect Gaza to the outside world, and it has purposefully cut off Gaza’s international communications at least twice.

It is obvious to us that a decision cut it off. The fact that we did nothing to obtain it back, according to Melhem, proves this.

After weeks of pressure from the United States, Israel also controls fuel for Gaza, allowing a small trickle to enter the city on Friday.

Israel announced that 120, 000 litres (31, 700 gallons) of fuel would be permitted into the territory every two days for use by hospitals, bakeries, and other essential services. Humanitarian organizations referred to this as a “drop in the bucket.”

Additionally, PalTel’s generators will receive 20, 000 litres (5, 283 gallons) of fuel every two days.

Because its fuel reserves had run out for the first time during the current war, the company declared on Thursday that it would go into a complete telecoms blackout.

The 20, 000 litres provided “should be enough to operate a good part of the network,” according to Mamoon Fares, PalTel’s corporate support director.

However, if Israel decides to stop providing fuel or network services that pass through Gaza’s territory, the telecom network there will still be at its mercy.

The already bleak situation in Gaza would only get worse if communication was not possible.

Without telecommunications, no ambulance, emergency service, civil defense, or humanitarian organization can function, according to Melhem.

To ensure the safety of the people, names have been changed.

Source: Aljazeera


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