Communication Breakdown

Mohammed Tawfiq (left), a 26-year-old computer science student. Photo by Asmaa Elkhaldi

For two months now, Israel has imposed a blanket ban on the entry of communication equipment into Gaza, including laptop and desktop computers, cell phones, tablets, network cables, internet routers, web cameras, as well as any accessories and spare parts for these devices. The ban was imposed after a large-scale burglary from storage facilities owned by the Palestinian telecommunications company, Paltel, allegedly by Hamas-affiliated operatives. On February 10, Israel announced it would suspend the entry of all “communication equipment” until the stolen items are returned to Paltel. In other words, Israel’s response to an incident inside Gaza that harms primarily Gaza’s civilian population, is to punish the civilian population collectively for actions beyond its control.

Like in many other parts of the world, authorities in Gaza recently shuttered schools and universities as well as most workplaces so as to curb the spread of the coronavirus. In these conditions, Israel’s ban on communication equipment has left many residents of Gaza to face these increasing degrees of social distancing without basic equipment and internet access.

Recently, Gisha’s field coordinator, Mohammed Azaiza, and photographer Asmaa Elkhaldi, both residents of the Strip, set out to document the impact of Israel’s decision to deliberately deny Gaza access to items on which so many livelihoods rely. Mohammed Abu Nahleh, a Commercial manager at Paltel, explained that “because of the closure Israel imposes on Gaza, the internet is people’s main window to the outside world. But for years now, Israel has been refusing all our requests to bring in the equipment we need to develop more advanced networks.”

Even in ordinary times, Israel defines any item that falls under the broad category of “communication equipment” to be “dual-use,” that is, something with an inherent civilian use which Israel believes could also potentially be used for military purposes. The process of receiving permission to coordinate the entrance of “dual-use” equipment into Gaza is extremely lengthy, complicated and lacking in transparency. “A few weeks ago, a main router, that provides internet to multiple households, malfunctioned,” said Abu Nahleh. “Due to the shortage in spare parts, we can’t fix it. Under these circumstances, Paltel can’t provide internet services to new customers, either.”

Abu Nahleh says the shortage in equipment has wreaked havoc on the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector, impacting many other branches of society. “All essential systems in Gaza rely on functioning communications equipment and have been harmed by the situation. The Ministry of Health is currently working on patient data-analysis programs, which could be erased in a flash if its computers break down. There are quarantine facilities being built right now in areas that lack communication infrastructure – there is no way to connect them to the internet.”

Khalil Salim, owner of the Mutaurin Plus IT company, says that the shortage in equipment further confounds the challenge of working from home, even for those in the ICT sector. “Power is supplied intermittently in different parts of Gaza, and staff members working remotely can’t maintain constant communication with each other.” Saadi Luzon, the director of Unit One, an ICT company that supplies outsourcing services to companies outside the Strip, says the shortage in cable networks, routers and server parts has hindered the company’s activity. He is concerned about potential contract cancellations. “With the threat of coronavirus, everyone is cutting back anyway. The easiest thing to cut back on is external suppliers.”

Firas Al Yazji, director of the Gaza International Computer Company, which sells computers and peripheral equipment to public institutions, organizations and computer stores in the Strip, says stock in the company’s main store has run out almost completely because of the ban on bringing in communication equipment. The store is now in danger of closing. “There is no point in stockpiling computers and accessories because it’s a developing field, there’s a constant flow of newer products,” he explains. “We’ve recently had to pass up on a tender for supplying desktop computers to the company that runs Gaza’s power plant, and another tender issued by a civil society organization that was looking to buy computers, printers and projectors.”

As Al Yazji was talking, Mohammed Tawfiq, a 26-year-old computer science student, came into the store. He’d been looking for a specific laptop model. “Me and other students can’t find equipment that would allow us to attend lectures remotely,” he sighs. Another of his friends is looking for an extra charger for his laptop so that he can study a little longer when the power is out, but has had no luck. “He called several company owners. They all say they have the merchandise, but it’s stuck in Israel.”

Many university lecturers share the frustration over the shortage in equipment, which they need to teach remotely. Dr. Naser Mahdi, who teaches at Al Azhar University, says he is unable to use Zoom to connect with his students due to a problem with his web camera, which he cannot replace, as none are available on the market. A colleague of his, he says, has been unable to find a new laptop to replace his broken one.

Though a large proportion of the population in Gaza lives in poverty, access to standard technology like cell phones is prevalent, and many homes have computers and internet access. “Every house has at least one smart device, be it a desktop, a laptop or a cell phone,” says Marwan Abu Saadah, a licensed agent for a large company in the West Bank and the director of a computer import company. “These devices often malfunction because of the frequent power outages and constant switching between the electric grid and generators, but they cannot be repaired because there are no spare parts available.” He has noticed that institutions and organizations keep reissuing the same tenders for computers and peripheral equipment because no one is able to supply everything they need.

Abu Saadah is concerned about how weather conditions might be impacting more delicate items of equipment that he purchased and have been stored in Israel for weeks, denied entry into Gaza. In addition to paying for storage, he continues to spend some 7,000 USD in monthly operating costs, without an income. If this goes on, he says, he’ll have to start laying off staff soon.

Ayman Bakrun, who runs two Gaza cell phone and computer companies, says he has had to lay off 30 of his 40 employees. Israel severely restricted the entry of computers and cell phones into Gaza even before the current ban, he says. He had just about been able to overcome that obstacle. Now the stock he imported from China and Dubai, costing him millions of shekels, is stuck outside the Strip, and his company is collapsing. He’s looking for more ways to cut down costs, which run at about 100,000 ILS (28,000 USD) per month.

Bakrun emphasizes that the ban on communication equipment also harms Gaza’s children and youth, who tend to rely more on cell phones and tablets than on computers. He is cut short by a young student who walks into the store. He is 21 and studying information technology at Al Azhar University. Last week he searched companies and stores for a network card that would allow him to attend lectures remotely and for spare parts to fix his cell phone. He leaves the store a few minutes later, empty handed.

On March 6, Gisha sent a letter to Israeli authorities, demanding that they immediately reverse the injurious ban on the entry of communication equipment into Gaza, and calling the decision “a breach of Israel’s obligation to respect and safeguard normal living conditions for Gaza’s civilian population.” As the coronavirus crisis continues to unfold, Israel must take action to allow life in Gaza to continue as normally as possible instead of denying access to basic needs.

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