Telecommunications blackout in the Gaza Strip is an attack on human rights

#KeepItOn: Telecommunications blackout in the Gaza Strip is an attack on human rights

Content note: The following post contains references to violence and war.

Update: October 16, 2023 — People in Gaza continue to endure a communications and electricity blackout as they struggle to access a reliable internet. Residents have resorted to using car batteries to charge their mobile devices and reach out to their loved ones.

With thousands of people already killed, and currently in a near-complete blackout, access to information has become scarce, directly impacting the capacity to document atrocities perpetrated on the ground. People find it nearly impossible to learn the whereabouts of their families and loved ones, and if they’re dead or alive.

Palestinians need access to the internet now more than ever. 

This blackout comes alongside Israeli military orders for more than a million people to evacuate from northern to southern Gaza, causing mass displacement and chaos in which access to communications is vital. There is clear evidence for the ways in which internet shutdowns create an air of impunity during armed conflicts and provide cover for grave human rights abuses. With a ground offensive into Gaza appearing imminent, people cannot be left in the dark. 

The international community must urgently intervene and do everything possible to #KeepItOn.

The Israeli government declared war on Sunday, October 8, in response to an assault by Hamas militants beginning Saturday, October 7. These escalations come in the context of Israel’s ongoing 16-year blockade in the occupied territory of Gaza, 56 years of military occupation, and decades of struggle for a just and sustainable peace in the region. Access Now calls on all parties to the conflict to respect international human rights and humanitarian law, and in particular to prioritize the safety of civilians. We are deeply concerned for all people who are suffering amidst this conflict, in which civilians across all sides have been targeted, killed, wounded, and displaced.

Access Now is a global organization with a mandate to defend human rights at their intersection with digital technologies. We issue the following release from the perspective of the #KeepItOn campaign, focused specifically on bringing an end to internet shutdowns around the world, including in times of conflict.

October 13, 2023 — People living in the Gaza Strip are under a “complete siege,” cut off from supplies of fuel, food, water, medical provisions, and electricity, and a near-complete communications blackout

The Gaza Strip is being cut off from the world. Access Now demands the immediate restoration of internet access for the people of Gaza, who have already long endured horrifying conditions in what is described as the world’s largest open-air prison, and who have little to no means of escape as the violence escalates. The total blockade now in place will only exacerbate the situation and may result in more atrocities for those plunged under the darkness of a communications blackout. Marwa Fatafta, MENA Policy and Advocacy Manager at Access Now.

Data from the Internet Outage Detection and Analysis (IODA) shows a major connectivity dip in Gaza coinciding with the start of Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip following Hamas’ assault on Israeli border towns on Saturday, October 8. Airstrikes by Israeli forces on Monday, October 9, destroyed a building containing both offices and infrastructure for Paltel and Jawwal, two of the main telecommunications providers in the Gaza Strip. Al–Watan Tower, another building that houses media offices and serves as a hub for internet service providers, has also been the target of Israeli airstrikes. 

Other internet service providers including Fusion, Hadara, and Jetnet have been impacted, with damage to infrastructure causing widespread outages in both internet and telephone line access. By Tuesday, October 10, reports indicated that fixed-line internet, mobile data, SMS, telephone, and TV networks are all seriously compromised. With significant and increasing damage to the electrical grid, orders by the Israeli Ministry of Energy to stop supplying electricity to the Gaza Strip, and the last remaining power station now out of fuel, many are no longer able to charge devices that are essential to communicate and access information. Even where intermittent connection may still be available, Israel’s long-standing ban on technology upgrades in Gaza means that people can only access slow, unreliable 2G service.

Together, these disruptions have left the people of Gaza with no meaningful remaining channels of communication to contact loved ones and share life-saving information while Israeli forces are deploying a barrage of bombings across residential neighborhoods, hospitals, refugee camps, and other civilian spaces.

The imposition of a complete siege and deliberate targeting of critical civilian infrastructure, including telecommunications, as a collective punishment or retaliation is forbidden by customary international humanitarian law and international humanitarian law regulating military occupation.

The international community explicitly condemns governments’ deployment of internet shutdowns during wars and armed conflicts, including in Myanmar and Tigray, Ethiopia, where shutdowns have intensified humanitarian crises; in Yemen, where Saudi-led coalition airstrikes have driven people even further off the grid; and in Ukraine, where Russia has leveraged attacks on telecommunications infrastructure as a core part of its occupational strategy. In 2022 alone, the #KeepItOn coalition documented 33 internet shutdowns during conflict, alongside a strong correlation between internet shutdowns and severe human rights abuses.

Access Now expresses solidarity to the families and loved ones of all those affected by these tragic events in Gaza, Israel, Lebanon, and across the region. Internet shutdowns put people at risk in all circumstances, but these harms are compounded in conflict-affected areas, where the ability to access and share information is literally a matter of life and death. In Gaza, two million people are under siege in the dark. Carolyn Tackett, Campaigns & Rapid Response Director at Access Now.

Israeli authorities must immediately stop targeting telecommunication infrastructure. Access Now calls on the international community to take all the necessary steps to support the immediate restoration of telecommunications services in the Gaza Strip and any other affected areas.