34 Hours of Fear: The Blackout That Cut Gaza Off From the World

For 34 hours, the vast majority of the more than two million Palestinians who live in Gaza had no way to reach the outside world, or one another.

They had no way to know whether their loves ones were alive or dead. Emergency phone lines stopped ringing. Desperate paramedics tried to save people by driving toward the sound of explosions. Wounded people were left to die in the street.

On Friday at sunset, three weeks into Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza — and as Palestinians braced themselves for an impending Israeli ground invasion — the weak phone and internet service that had allowed some semblance of life to continue inside the blockaded enclave was suddenly severed. Two American officials said the United States believed Israel was responsible for the communications loss, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Panic rippled through the territory.

“I felt that I had become blind and deaf, unable to see or hear,” Fathi Sabbah, a journalist based in Gaza, wrote on his Facebook profile on Sunday, after phone and internet service partly returned.

Since gunmen from Hamas — the armed group that rules Gaza — burst through the border fence on Oct. 7, killing around 1,400 people in southern Israel and taking more than 220 more hostage, according to Israeli authorities, Gazans say they have been living inside of a nightmare. In response to the attacks, the Israeli military declared a siege of the densely populated territory, cutting off electricity, water and medical supplies as it rained down a relentless barrage of aerial and artillery bombardments.

On Sunday, the Israeli military said that it had expanded a ground incursion overnight, and warned with increasing “urgency” that Palestinian civilians should move to the southern part of the coastal strip — although airstrikes have continued to kill people there, too.

The Israeli military also said that it was conducting airstrikes in Lebanon after at least 16 rockets were launched from there into Israeli territory. In Gaza, 47 aid trucks crossed the border from Egypt carrying water, food and medicine — the most in a single day since trucks were first allowed in on Oct. 21, but still insufficient compared to the levels of assistance that aid organizations say are needed.

Smoke billowing in northern Gaza as seen from Sderot, Israel, on Sunday.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Ahmed Yousef, a 45-year-old civil servant who lives in the town of Deir El Balah, thought the loss of electricity and water was as bad as things could get.

“But losing communications turned out to be far worse,” he said. Not only could he not contact his relatives and friends, but he also was unable to reach the man who sells water to him — or another man whom he pays to wait in line at a bakery for hours to buy bread for his family.

At first he thought the service loss was temporary. He only learned that there was a near-total blackout by using electricity from a solar panel system to watch Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite television network — a single thread linking him to the outside world.

Connectivity restarted spontaneously on Sunday around 4 a.m., said Abdulmajeed Melhem, chief executive of Paltel Group, the main Palestinian telecommunications company. The company had made no repairs and had no understanding of how or why service had partly returned, he said. He added that he believed that the Israeli government was responsible for the cut and the restoration — although service remains limited after an Israeli airstrike on a telecommunication tower early in the war.

Israeli officials have so far declined to comment on accusations that they deliberately caused the cuts. The two American officials said they had urged their Israeli counterparts to do what they could to restore communications.

After Israeli bombardment in the Nuseirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on Sunday.Credit…Hatem Moussa/Associated Press

The blackout stirred terror — and fury — across the Gaza Strip.

“It seems that Palestinians were making too much noise while they were being butchered,” Dr. Ghassan Abu-Sittah, a British-Palestinian plastic surgeon who put his London practice on hold to volunteer in a Gaza hospital, wrote on the social media platform X. “It offended the refined sensibilities of Israel’s Western backers. So they cut off all communication and silenced us.”

Isolated from the outside world — and each other — Gazans faced scenes from an apocalyptic movie.

Rescue crews were forced to try to locate the sites of airstrikes by observing the direction that explosions came from, said Mahmoud Basl, a civil defense official. In other cases, volunteers picked up injured people and drove them to the hospital, notifying teams when they arrived of the location of the airstrike so they could try to save others left behind, he said.

Workers prepare bodies for burial at the hospital in Deir El Balah, in southern Gaza Strip, on Saturday.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

Yusuf Al-Loh, the director of operations for a medical services agency that falls under the interior ministry, described people who had run for over a mile to reach rescue teams, shouting for help. When some people finally reached them, they were so angry at feeling abandoned that they insulted the rescuers, deepening the sense of disaster “on a psychological level,” he said.

Mr. Al-Loh called the blackout a “war crime” for which people should be held accountable.

“F-16s are constantly flying to the point I feel they want to erase Gaza,” he said.

More than 8,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began, including more than 3,000 children, said Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesman for the Gaza health ministry.

After communications returned, ambulance and civil defense crews found hundreds of dead and wounded people lying on the ground or trapped under rubble, Mr. al-Qidra said in a news conference on Sunday.

Thousands of people broke into warehouses run by the United Nations agency that aids Palestinians, UNRWA, taking wheat flour “and other basic survival items like hygiene supplies,” the agency said in a news release on Sunday.

“This is a worrying sign that civil order is starting to break down after three weeks of war and a tight siege on Gaza,” said Thomas White, director of UNRWA affairs in the Gaza Strip.

Medical aid bring to Nasser Medical Hospital in Khan Younis on Sunday.Credit…Yousef Masoud for The New York Times

“Tensions and fear are made worse by the cuts in the phones and internet communication lines,” he said. “They feel that they are on their own, cut off from their families inside Gaza and the rest of the world.”

Helmi Mousa was among the few residents to have an internet connection on Saturday morning amid the widespread blackout. It did not ease his anxiety, though, because he was unable to reach relatives with Palestinian SIM cards who live just miles away.

Mr. Mousa, 70, a retired writer, and his wife, Basma Attia, huddled together in their ninth-floor Gaza City apartment.

“The explosions were happening to our left, to our right — from all directions.” he said. “It felt like there were 100 airplanes striking inside Gaza — and it feels like there is no longer a limit to the madness or the imaginable.”

A few miles away from Mr. Mousa, Ahmed Elmadhoun stood on the roof of a hospital in Khan Younis in search of a fleeting internet connection with an Israeli SIM card that he had purchased for a whopping $100 — but the service just wouldn’t stick. Mr. Elmadhoun, 26, an activist and journalist, was desperate to speak out amid the silence.

“I felt like our voice was no longer important,” Mr. Elmadhoun said by phone from Gaza City on Sunday. “It was like we were dying alone.”

In Khan Younis on Sunday. During the blackout, Gazans had no way to know whether their loves ones were alive or dead. Emergency phone lines stopped ringing.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

Mr. Elmadhoun asked his 17,000 followers on X if they could help him source an eSIM card, a digital SIM that allows you to activate a cellular plan.

More than 200 miles away, Mirna El Helbawi, an Egyptian writer and activist, happened to be organizing a widespread digital effort to counter the telecommunications blackout in Gaza, connecting people from Egypt and Europe who purchased cellular plans to try to keep trapped Palestinian journalists, aid workers and doctors in contact with the outside world.

Ms. El Helbawi sent Mr. Elmadhoun one of the QR codes that the volunteers had purchased, and within minutes, Mr. Elmadhoun was able to scan the code to activate a cellular plan with roaming service.

“We were able to return Gaza’s voice,” Mr. Elmadhoun said. “It’s was a strange feeling. What you once took for granted now felt like a miracle in your possession.”

Mr. Yousef, the civil servant, has been hunkering down at home with his two daughters listening to the sounds of the bombardment. So far they were unharmed, though he said he felt like something had broken during this war, one of many that Gazans have lived through.

“If I survive this war, my family and I will leave Gaza for good,” he said. “This cannot be our life.”

Umm Ibrahim Fayyad, a displaced Palestinian woman from the northern Gaza Strip, using wood to cook on the beach in Deir El Balah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Saturday.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

Reporting was contributed by Aaron Boxerman, Katie Rogers, Vivian Yee and Ahmed Al Omran.

Back to top button