Gazans Are Trying to Stay Online Under Siege. New Tech Is Struggling to Help.

Amid blackouts and wrecked infrastructure, eSIMs are being used to try and stay in contact with the outside world.

Amid the bombs, fuel shortages, and blackouts, Gazans are struggling to stay online while under siege. Communications are vital for updating families outside the region and connecting with what emergency services remain, and eSIMs—a non-physical way to activate a cell phone on a cellular network—have become an imperfect workaround. 

Gaza has experienced multiple internet blackouts in recent weeks, including during Israeli military operations in the region, which U.S. officials have attributed to Israel. The destruction of infrastructure and dwindling fuel supplies have compounded the issue. Telecommunications in the Palestinian territory were bad even before the most recent bombings started, Marwa Fatafta, MENA Policy and Advocacy Director at Access Now, told Motherboard. Israel has long restricted what kinds of technology Gazans are allowed to access much in the same way it controls access to water, electricity, and fuel. 


“It's very difficult for Gazans to access the internet to access information, to even have access to news and understand what's going on,” said Fatafta. “They are effectively disconnected from the rest of the world…internet and telecommunications access is essential in times of war, because you need access to life saving information.”

Fatafta said that Palestinian telecoms have been denied the ability to upgrade their networks. “They’re still running on 2G networks,” she said. “So even before the current siege, people relied on very slow and insecure mobile connections.” According to Fatafta, the West Bank only upgraded from 2G to 3G in 2018 after 12 years of negotiation between Palestinians and Israel.

“All the internet and telecommunications cables that connect Gaza to the rest of the world run through Israel,” she said. That complete control has made it easy for Israel to shut off communications in the Gaza Strip as it continues its campaign to bomb the region in retaliation for Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, which killed roughly 1,200 Israelis. So far, the bombings have killed over 11,000 Gazans. Amid mobile and landline blackouts, some people found a unique solution: eSIMs. SIMs are the little physical cards slotted into phones that hook them up to cellular networks. eSIMs are a digital version, and only started coming into use in the last few years.

“eSIMs are very similar to a regular SIM card, except they are not physical. They can be moved between devices using a special code so this takes away the need to be physically present to receive a SIM card,” Hanna Kreitem, a senior advisor at the Internet Society, told Motherboard. “The advantage is that it removes the need for a physical piece of plastic to be able to connect to a network. Now, it requires the device to support eSims. Not every device does that.”


After Gazans lost the ability to communicate, people on the outside organized to get the eSIMs to help keep them online. Egyptian journalist Mirna El Helbawi, for instance, organized a group that purchased eSIMs and sent them to Gaza. The idea was that Gazans would activate the eSims on their phones and connect to cell towers outside of Gaza to stay online. 

Several guides compiled by activists on social media explain how to do this: the purchaser first selects a prepaid eSIM from a service like Simly, Holafly, or Nomad, which sell eSIMs for between $4 and $60, depending on the amount of data desired. The buyer is then sent a QR code, which is used to activate the digital SIM, which they then send to the email address of an organizer distributing the codes to people in Gaza. The recipient can then scan and use the code with an app, enabling them to connect to supported cell towers and get online.

The practice has become a vital, if highly unstable lifeline for Gazans during the Israeli siege, when communication networks have become partially or completely unavailable.

“At its best it's at 15 percent for the past month or so. There were days where the whole internet was not available. Mobile phones, landlines, and no communications were available in Gaza for many days,” Kreitem said. “The Internet is basically not available in Gaza. The only way is to utilize the spillover effect of mobile signals and connect to cell towers from neighboring areas, mainly Israel and Egypt. Mainly Israel because on the Egyptian side, the cell towers have limited power and capacity.” 


A significant drawback to using eSIMs is that you need to have an internet connection to begin with, and that is a rarity in Gaza right now. “Is this a sustainable solution? Definitely not. Is this scaleable? Also definitely not,” he added. “It’s based on spillover. It is, by definition, not stable.”

Fatafta also emphasized the importance of communications during Israel’s bombing campaign. “Having access to the internet has been a real struggle in Gaza and that’s a direct result of bombardment of internet and telecommunications infrastructure. There's been a lot of damage and destruction of cell towers of cables, even offices of internet service providers.”

Fatafta said fuel has also been a major problem. “Last week the major Palestinian telecommunications company, Paltel Group, announced that they're running out of fuel and as a result, can no longer provide their services.” Fatafta said that Israel has also deliberately shut down communications in the region as a tactic in the siege. 

Being shut off from communications infrastructure makes it impossible to call for help in an emergency. “We’ve seen people resorting to carts driven by donkeys as a means to transport injured individuals into the hospitals,” she said. “For humanitarian organizations it’s been a struggle to stay connected with operations and teams on the ground in Gaza.”

“When the internet is out, it means information is suppressed,” she said. “There aren’t actually many foreign correspondents on the ground, with the exception of those who are attached to the Israeli military operations…and those have to, of course, run all their materials by the IDF. So having citizen journalists reporting on the ground has been difficult. So we’re getting less and less information from Gaza.”

Even with eSIMs, Fatafta said the situation is dire. “Those who managed to connect, they’re really struggling to find a signal. You have to go to the rooftop or move from one location to the other to be able to have your SIM catch some weak signal. And that’s, of course, life endangering,” she said, due to Israeli snipers and missiles.

“eSIMs has been a hit or miss solution. But so far, it has been working to let people stay connected,” she said. “And I say hit and miss because in order for the eSIM to work, first of all, you have to have a phone that is compatible with the eSIM cards. And you also have to have a reliable internet connection when you download and install the eSIM, which has not been the case. And thirdly, you need to be able to catch the signal of a cell tower either on the Egyptian side or on the Israeli side.”

“It’s a solution to an extent, but you cannot connect two million people in Gaza over eSIM cards.”