Urgent call: ceasefire in Gaza, "digital ceasefire" for Palestinians globally!

Paltel Group’s response to Access Now and Human Rights Watch’s letter

1. On October 27, both Paltel and Jawwal attributed the complete shutdown of internet and telecommunications services due to “the continuous intensive bombardment that caused cutting off all remaining fiber routes that connect Gaza to the rest of the world.” In an interview with the New York Times, the outlet quoted you as saying, “the company had made no repairs and had no understanding of how or why service had partly returned.” To what does Paltel Group attribute disruptions to telecommunications and internet services on October 27-29, October 30 (in northern Gaza), November 1, and November 5, 2023? If disruptions occurred after November 5, to what do you attribute those disruptions?

In the immediate aftermath of the blackout, which happened after heavy bombardment in Gaza, the company thought that the disruption was attributed to fiber. To determine the location of the fiber cuts the technical team must make surveys and tests, but we needed a permit to move and that was not granted. However, when service was restored without our intervention, it was quite clear that these disruptions resulted from deliberate actions perpetrated by Israeli authorities, and it happened twice afterward. All international fiber cables that connect Gaza to the West Bank and the world go through Israeli Territories and, as a matter of fact, the Israeli Authorities can bring down connections whenever they want. They did just that despite all political, legal, and commercial agreements that were signed between all concerned parties.

2. What parts of Paltel Group’s infrastructure have been damaged to date? Can you share details of infrastructure impacted in the hostilities, with specific location, date, and time information as to the damage, and services disrupted? Do you have any information to indicate what caused the damage in each case?

All parts of the infrastructure have been impacted; radio sites, switches, data centers, office buildings, showrooms, cable networks, street cabinets, etc… Damages, that are continuously increasing, result from various reasons:

  • Direct bombardment and bulldozing of streets and pavements.
  • Power outages due to Gaza power plant shutdown, diesel shortages, and solar panels destruction. 
  • Connectivity loss due to local network damage which includes street poles, fiber, and copper cables, street cabinets, etc…

It is impossible for the company to know the exact details of what caused outages of each individual site before the teams conduct field surveys and assessments after the war ends.

3. What changes in data and internet traffic patterns, load, types, and destinations of traffic have you observed? Are these correlated to the events in the conflict?

Bearing in mind that network elements have been severely damaged or have gone out of service, most customers have limited access to the network compared to pre-war time. People under such circumstances are desperate for essential communications only, all traffic turned to be short emergency calls and SMSs. In addition, broadband internet usage dropped severely due to the huge number of displaced people.

4. What impacted infrastructure has Paltel Group managed to repair to date? What is required for the full restoration and repair of severed or disrupted telecommunications lines and infrastructure?

During war our teams can only move during ceasefire and if granted safe passages. During this war that did not happen except on one occasion where our teams were given a 2-hour window to repair a major fiber cut 8 days after it happened. Other than that, we were not able to conduct any significant repairs. The only activities we can do now are minor repairs like fuel refilling or power restoration if no major cabling is involved. Meaningful repairs need machinery, equipment, spare parts, human resources, and freedom of movement.

With regards to time needed to do full restoration, no one can estimate that before full assessment is done to know the required amount of work, time, equipment, and spare parts. And considering the scale of destruction that was inflicted on all areas, some restoration can never begin before larger rebuilding projects are done. And we are talking about rebuilding some cities here. 

5. Did you receive any prior notice from Israeli authorities before the telecommunications and internet disruptions? If so, can you provide details about that communication? Have you received any other correspondence from Israeli authorities relating to the shutdowns?

There was no prior notice, it all happened suddenly, as mentioned above, we did not know what the reason was until services were restored by themselves. There was no other correspondence from any side.   

6. On October 13, Israel’s telecommunications minister was quoted in the media as saying that all internet service would be cut off in Gaza from October 14. Did Paltel Group experience any disruptions to its services on October 14 following this announcement?

There were no disruptions in the immediate aftermath of that statement. But as you know, it happened less than two weeks later and happened twice afterward. It is worth mentioning that with current scarcity of fuel, we will witness a blackout by the end of this week when all remaining fuel gets consumed, and the few remaining generators stop working. It is fair to say that the Israeli refusal to allow fuel into Gaza is a clear translation of that statement.

7. What steps have Paltel Group taken to ensure, to the extent possible, their telecommunications and internet services remain accessible and secure in Gaza?

Learning from past experience, the company exceeds all international standards that should provide needed security and backup for all its network elements. All sites and connectivity routes have multiple backups, and there are multiple power sources per site (solar energy panels, batteries, and standby generators). However, the unprecedented scale of this war and the absence of any ceasefire meant that all these procedures and action are useless. Emergency or business continuity plans can withstand more than 6 weeks the absence of main power grid, alternative power supply destruction, lack of fuel and prevention of any maintenance work.

8. Can you detail what essential or emergency services are operative or inoperative when these disruptions occur?

We are talking about destruction of entire network elements; all services are affected. So as long as people can make calls or access internet all services remain operative with all due degradation and limitations to access.

9. A number of civil society organizations, including Access Now and the Palestinian Digital Rights Coalition, have called on the Egyptian authorities as well as Egyptian telecommunications companies to expand their services to the Gaza Strip.

a) Is Paltel in contact with your Egyptian counterparts to support such potential actions?

Paltel is in regular contact with Egyptian operators, but there are so many issues that are not just a commercial decision. Such issues entail regulatory, political, and commercial discussions. 

b) Should Egyptian telecommunications companies install mobile cell sites near Egypt’s border with Gaza, would Jawwal be able to enable roaming services for its customers in Gaza to connect to Egyptian mobile networks? If not, what hinders Jawwal from doing so?

First and foremost, it is very important to note that it is not customary for operators to cover areas that are outside the country where they are licensed. Such issues are governed by strict international agreements and regulations. So, asking Egyptian operators to cover areas inside Gaza is very unusual and unprecedented anywhere in the world. On the other hand, hypothetically speaking, coverage provided from operators from outside the borders will have, by nature, so many technical limitations. To provide coverage across the border tens of sites are needed and they will be capable of covering a limited area in southern areas only and to a small number of people. Roaming services can be activated to all Palestinian customers if all involved parties are given the green light to sign relevant agreements. And as mentioned above, these agreements require prior consent from respective authorities. This consent is not there.