It was a little after 10 p.m. when Ahmad* was called by the network operations center of the Palestinian Telecommunications Company (PalTel). It was the third week of the Israeli attack on Gaza and the main data center in Gaza City’s Sheikh Radwan district had lost power, threatening to cut all communications in the area.
To check the condition of the center, the PalTel electrician would have to cross the city during intense Israeli aerial bombardments, putting his life in danger. But he didn’t hesitate. He flagged down a passing ambulance, hoping it would provide him with some degree of safety from Israeli attacks.
“I told the driver that if I couldn’t restore the generator, people like him wouldn’t be able to reach injured civilians. We are neither better nor less important than medical staff – a phone call can save lives,” Ahmad said.
Once he arrived at the center, Ahmad got to work. By around 2 a.m., he had repaired the generator, allowing the telecommunications network to continue operating. He decided to stay in the building until dawn, weaving around freshly fallen debris to get home during a lull in Israeli bombing.
“Thank God my family was okay and I lived to see another day. It’s my job and my life. … I do this every day,” he said.
Ahmad’s story has become almost commonplace among the 750 PalTel employees in Gaza who, despite bombardment, displacement and death, risk their lives to keep the telecommunications network running.
The cost of maintaining the connection to Gaza has been high. At least five PalTel staff members in Gaza were killed in Israeli attacks while many other staff members lost family members, including women and children.
Samir*, one of the staff members killed, had spent 10 hours shuttling between data towers before returning home. Just 15 minutes later, Samir and his brother were killed in an Israeli air raid on their apartment building.
Aid workers and journalists said that functioning communications networks in Gaza are essential for relief services and for documenting the reality of conditions on the ground to the outside world.
More than 13,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli attacks on Gaza since October 7. Videos showing desperate family and civil defense members digging through the rubble of bombed buildings to rescue civilians trapped below have inspired shock and horror around the world.
Prepare for war
On the first day of its offensive on Gaza, October 7, Israel cut off electricity to the territory. Despite the lack of electricity and constant bombardment, Gaza’s telecommunications network remained operational for almost six weeks.
PalTel’s CEO said this was because the company had been preparing for war for “more than 15 years”, integrating emergency measures into its infrastructure in Gaza at every step.
“We have faced many different incidents in previous wars. We provide more protection than any other operator,” CEO Abdul Majeed Melhem told Al Jazeera.
PalTel’s network in Gaza was built during Israel’s siege of the enclave, requiring each piece of equipment to be approved by Israeli authorities before entering Gaza, making repairs difficult.
Recurrent wars against Gaza and frequent bombing campaigns carried out by Israel have damaged civilian infrastructure. So, to prepare for a prolonged conflict like this, the telecommunications network is built like no other.
While most telecommunications networks bury their cables 60 cm (about 2 feet) underground, PalTel buries its cables up to 8 meters (26 feet) deep. In case the Israelis cut off the electricity, its data centers in Gaza also have three levels of redundancy: generators, solar panels and batteries.
The company has also developed emergency protocols to direct workers remotely from the occupied West Bank, and if the breakdown in communications makes this impossible, staff in Gaza are empowered to act autonomously.
Despite all the layoffs and preparations, the scale of the bombings in recent weeks has paralyzed the network. Around 70 percent of the mobile network was taken offline. Solar panels have become mostly useless, either because they were destroyed in attacks or because they became covered in dust and debris.
The fierceness of the conflict also weighs on personnel, harassed by danger from their homes to the field.
Rabih*, a fiber optic technician, was called on October 15 to repair a cable a few meters from the border. Before going there, he had to give an exhaustive list of the names of the repair teams, the color of their cars and their registration numbers to the Israelis, because “one mistake could be fatal.”
As Rabih and his team worked for two hours to repair the cable, the buzz of a drone overhead and the sounds of bombing mixed with the sound of their excavator.
“Any wrong move could mean being targeted.” I can’t explain to my wife and children why I’m doing this or why I’m volunteering to go out during the war. My business doesn’t require me, but if anyone can do it, it should be me,” he said.
Workers in the West Bank watch their colleagues in Gaza from afar, holding their breath, hesitant to ask them to check damaged equipment, knowing that a simple repair trip could cost them their lives.
Gaza-based personnel are not required to go into the field, but most have been willing to volunteer despite the dangers.
“It is very difficult to call my colleagues who are under bombardment and ask them to come out. I’m afraid that if one of them gets hurt, I will never forgive myself,” said Mohammed*, an employee at the Network Operation Center in the West Bank.
Mohammed’s role at the center requires him to monitor network problems, ask workers to volunteer to fix them, and stay on the phone with them to give feedback on repairs. The calls are nerve-wracking, and Mohammed and the Gaza worker want the field trip to be resolved as quickly as possible.
“I can’t imagine how brave these people are to come out. Maybe if I were there, I wouldn’t do it. I don’t know if I would,” Mohammed said.
At the mercy of Israel
No matter how many meters deep they dig or how many solar panels they install, Gaza’s connections to the outside world ultimately depend on Israelis.
The cables that connect Gaza to the outside world pass through Israel, and the country has deliberately cut off the strip’s international communications on at least two occasions.
“It is clear to us that this was interrupted by a decision. What proves it is that we did nothing to get it back,” Melhem said.
Israel also controls fuel destined for Gaza, allowing a small trickle to arrive in Gaza on Friday after weeks of pressure from the United States.
Described as a “drop in the ocean” by humanitarian groups, Israel announced that 120,000 liters (31,700 gallons) of fuel would be allowed into the territory every two days for use by hospitals, bakeries and other essential services.
PalTel will also receive 20,000 liters (5,283 gallons) of fuel every two days for its generators.
On Thursday, the company announced it would face a total telecommunications blackout because its fuel reserves were exhausted for the first time since the current war.
According to Mamoon Fares, director of business support at PalTel, the 20,000 liters provided “should be enough to run a good part of the network”.
However, Gaza’s telecommunications network will still be at the mercy of Israel if it decides to cut off fuel deliveries or network services passing through its territory.
Without the ability to communicate, the already dire situation in Gaza would only deteriorate further.
“No ambulance, no emergency service, no civil defense or humanitarian organization can work without telecommunications,” Melhem said.
*Names have been changed to protect the safety of individuals.