| Middle East and North Africa | MR Online

Internet ‘gardeners’ resist the communication blackout of Gaza

Originally published: Il manifesto on March 16, 2024 by Chiara Cruciati (more by Il manifesto)  | (Posted Mar 18, 2024)

A pulley, a bucket, a smartphone and an e-SIM: this is how a “network tree” is built in Gaza. The goal is to provide as many people as possible with access to the internet. It’s not just for communicating with the outside world, but for keeping in touch with family and friends, coordinating relief efforts, locating the missing, and holding up a notion of community after it was torn to pieces by war.

Since October, Gaza has been an internet black hole, or nearly so. Traffic volume has plummeted. There are no more broadcast points because of air raids on telecommunications infrastructure, intentional blackouts and restrictions on access to electricity. The Georgia Institute of Technology has been monitoring the black spot on the map: from 95 percent connectivity on October 6 to a number oscillating between 30 percent and 1 percent.

“Israel’s control is meticulous: Palestinian companies PalTel and Jawwal have been subjected to extensive blocks. Those inside Gaza are struggling to connect to a network,” Manolo Luppichini tells us, one of the driving forces behind Gazaweb, a collective project that has grown within the Italian NGO ACS. He can count on the technical skills of people who have made themselves available to create solutions to counteract the effects of the blackouts.

Gaza is a little strip of land, only 360 square kilometers, squeezed between two states, Egypt and Israel. Those who live in the border areas and have Israeli or Egyptian SIM cards are managing to connect, but that amounts to very few people. The idea of the “network trees” stems from an attempt to get around the shortage of SIM cards, electricity and connectivity to the Gazan networks: “Since October 7, it has been impossible to get classic SIM cards in. However, there are e-SIMs, a virtual version of the card you put in your phone,” Luppichini explains.

They are activated through a QR code. They’re generally used by tourists and entrepreneurs: they buy data packages so they can stay connected to the internet at all times, including while moving from one country to another.

After a fundraising campaign whose first phase was in collaboration with AICS (the Association for International Cooperation and Solidarity), Gazaweb has managed to send the e-SIMs via email or WhatsApp. The QR codes are used to activate connections—no longer to Gazan repeaters, now destroyed, but to Egyptian or Israeli ones through state-of-the-art smartphones. After October 7, these have been flying off the shelves in Gaza: those who own them can put them to common use, creating a hotspot for dozens of people.

To reach a greater broadcast radius, the phone has to be positioned up high, so the signal can bypass physical obstacles. Buckets and pulleys are used for this purpose.

We are trying to create a network that is more grassroots and accessible. With the fundraisers, we have purchased about 20 e-SIMs, concentrated in the Deir al Balah area. We are making contacts aiming to be able to send them to other areas as well. With AICS, we have a network of contacts who can support the work.

There is another obstacle that needs to be tackled: the electricity needed to charge the smartphones. Manolo shows us a power bank, which fits in one hand: it has several USB ports and a built-in solar panel. The goal is to get these inside Gaza, a complex operation given Israel’s meticulous control over every incoming item. Anything that produces power gets sent back.

Our hope is to deliver as many as possible so that these trees would flourish and go viral. This is a political issue.

Access to communication and information is a fundamental right recognized by the United Nations. As a result, in other settings, UN agencies have made efforts to take action. For instance, the World Food Program, which has a dedicated team, the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster, working to provide telephone and Internet connectivity to humanitarian organizations and civilian populations, making use of locally installed equipment.

In the case of Gaza, off limits to such equipment because of Israeli blockades, one could do the same from the Egyptian border. This would manage to cover large areas. There is also WiMax technology, a form of long-distance augmented WiFi, which, however, requires on-site equipment to be installed high up, such as on a rooftop. With Israeli drones flying over every corner of Gaza, WiMax is a bit of a pipe dream: the rooftop or house that hosts the equipment could end up in the crosshairs of the Israeli air force.

“In the absence of institutional intervention,” Luppichini concludes,

the most effective solution is that of e-SIMs. However, this is a band aid. Real repeaters would be needed, as has been accomplished in other places. Similar projects have started in Chiapas and Rojava: they have set up alternative networks that provide both telephone and internet connection.

While Gazaweb seems to be more of a symbolic initiative, it is a political and popular one, channeling energy inside and outside the Strip. It provides financial support for the “web gardeners,” the network operators who “plant” the trees and make them accessible.

Gazaweb is a symbiotic, collaborative, community operation.

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