Gaza tech volunteers help locals reconnect with family amid chaos of war

Israel has frequently cut internet and mobile phone services almost three months into the conflict

Ashraf Al Astal, a communication technology expert and volunteer. Mohamed Soleimane for The National
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Sajid Al Abadla sits on a cement bench opposite the seashore in a carefully chosen spot on Gaza’s pristine shores, not far from Khan Younis, now the scene of heavy fighting.

He begins his daily routine early each morning by activating a non-Palestinian e-sim on his mobile phone. Then, he sets out to create a communication point accessible for displaced people who come to this location in the hope of connecting with their relatives at home and abroad.

“Going slightly north, you won’t pick a signal, and further south too wouldn’t work. Here is the best location to get those e-sims to work,” he told The National.

Mr Al Abadla, 26, is one of several young men who have become known locally as “Gaza’s human routers”, setting up in locations across Gaza which they have tested after countless trials, and found to have stronger telecommunication signals than other parts of the besieged enclave.

Since October 27, when Israel first cut the internet off for 2.3 million people trapped in Gaza and forced into internal displacement amid heavy bombardments, the population has endured several communications blackouts.

This has hindered humanitarian relief for those in need and leaving families scattered across the enclave unable to communicate with each other, as the death toll climbs.

The following day, on October 28, several initiatives on social media sprung up to provide Gazans with free, paid-for e-sim cards: an electronic version of the normal sim cards, which are connected to phones, circumventing the severe damage done to Gaza’s telecommunication networks, and the electricity blackout that has engulfed it.

According to organisers of the #ConnectingGaza campaign, thousands of Gazans have been connected by these e-sims, provided by donors from around the world. But due to difficulties faced by many to activate them – in some cases because their phones were not compatible with e-sims, the assistance of Mr Al Abadla is limited.

Balanced on his toes on a bench with a mobile phone raised high in the sky to reach a signal in a location tested for having the strongest internet reception in this part of Gaza, Mr Al Abadla smiled.

The Israeli military urges Khan Younis residents to move to Al Mawasi

The Israeli military urges Khan Younis residents to move to Al Mawasi

“It’s amazing to see people, who have gone through so much for months, and have been unable to connect with loved ones, it’s amazing to see their eyes light up when hearing voices of loved ones, alive and safe. I’m happy to be part of these efforts, here and abroad, to connect people despite almost complete interruption of communications and the internet in the Gaza Strip,” he said.

Lack of transport

Standing on the shore, Mr Al Abadla and other young men can easily see Israeli navy boats near the coast. They say that on numerous occasions the boats have fired into Gaza.

Accessing these locations is also not easy. Due to severe fuel shortages, commuting by car is not affordable for most people, and takes a good hour to get to the coast from the nearest refugee camps in Al Mawasi.

According to Mr Al Abadla, dozens come to this location on some days to ask for assistance, some on foot. “They’re from all walks of life. We help them all,” said the holder of an IT degree. He adds that he spends most of the day at the site and even when he steps away, he leaves his phone.

Muhammad Yassin, 37, another volunteer router, moves among the displaced people to connect their mobile phones to the internet he provides. He either assists them in activating free e-sims he has obtained from donors, or buys them himself and offers them free.

“They’re not very cheap, but I’m steadfast to keep doing this, out of humanitarian and national feeling of duty. Some people have not been able to communicate with their loved ones for a month. They’re already enduring so much. It’s the least I can do to help them restore some hope by connecting with their parents or children,” he said.

Zakia Ibrahim, a 76-year-old Gazan, was cut off from her son, a doctor in Britain, for six weeks until the routers enabled her to communicate almost daily.

“Communications are usually cut off, and even when faults are repaired, the internet doesn’t work inside the Al Mawasi area. The displaced become completely isolated from the world, were it not for these creative young people who deserve a medal of appreciation for their great efforts,” she said.

Ms Ibrahim adds that the routers are always around “despite the dangers and bombing, and they never turn anyone down, and work on a voluntary basis to provide internet access for all”.

Hunting for signals

A few kilometres away, on a hill within Khan Younis, a number of routers stand with their heads bowed, busily communicating with donors or navigating other people’s phones to activate their e-sims.

It is another tested spot where internet signals are strongest. Volunteers are more likely to come here closer to sunset and early evening, as it is inland.

“You are safer at night here, than standing directly opposite the beach, which becomes more dangerous for fear of Israeli bombing,” said one of the volunteers.

Ashraf Al Astal, a volunteer and an IT specialist, said that a lot of these e-sim providers are outside Palestinian territories and therefore the signals are weak.

“Some are not intended to operate in Palestinian territories, and so what we do is try to intercept their signals, and that’s why we hunt for high-rising locations from which we can do that,” he explained.

“These attempts of young people to provide alternative ways to connect to the internet are a serious and real attempt to break the siege imposed by the occupation and deprive the Palestinians of communication with the world,” he said.

“This goes beyond the idea of communication between families and relatives, despite its great importance, but the spread of these voluntary initiatives gives an opportunity to convey the picture of reality.

The Palestinians are under war and Israeli bombing, and granting journalists broader capabilities to send their reports, photos, and video clips documenting the genocide taking place in the Gaza Strip,” he said.

This article has been published in collaboration with Egab.

Updated: January 02, 2024, 9:49 AM