The Egyptians who have sent more than 130,000 digital cell phone cards to Gaza to defy blackouts

A group of volunteers led by writer and influencer Mirna El Helbawi have received eSIM donations from all over the world to prevent a complete information void in the Strip and keep Palestinians in touch with loved ones

Israel-Hamas War
A displaced Palestinian tries to use his cell phone in Rafah, January 19.- (AFP)
Marc Español

At the end of October, during the first communications blackout in Gaza since the start of Israel’s military offensive, Egyptian writer and influencer Mirna El Helbawi set out to look for alternatives to re-establish connections in the Strip. Working with the Palestinian Red Crescent and with the help of her hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, El Helbawi first tried to lobby for satellite internet company Starlink, owned by Elon Musk, to provide connectivity, but that option never came to fruition.

When she told her followers, she received a message from a user who suggested another possibility: eSIMs, a digital version of the classic SIM cards that are inserted into mobile phones, but that can be connected to a telephone and internet network remotely thanks to a chip that is already integrated into the latest smartphones.

El Helbawi had used them on trips and decided to find out if they would also work in Gaza. She purchased two and sent the QR codes generated when the eSIMS were bought to two well-known journalists in the Strip, Ahmed El-Madhoun and Hind Khoudary. Upon verifying that she was able to activate them successfully, El Helbawi launched an online campaign, #ConnectingGaza, asking people to buy more eSIMs to prevent Gaza from being plunged into total information darkness.

To date, El Helbawi and 10 of her collaborators in Egypt who head up the Connecting Humanity initiative have managed to send more than 130,000 eSIMs, with a value of over $2.5 million, to Gaza. Surprised with the level of uptake, they say demand is increasing as remaining connected in the Strip becomes increasingly difficult due to Israeli airstrikes, the destruction of the territory’s infrastructure, and energy shortages.

When I started this initiative I thought I would send a maximum of 1,000 eSIMs, but I was surprised by the number of people who requested them and how important they are
Mirna El Helbawi

“When I started this initiative I thought I would send a maximum of 1,000 eSIMs, but I was surprised by the number of people who requested them and how important they are,” says El Helbawi. “That’s why we haven’t taken a day off since we started, because we always have a high demand and we need to connect more people so they can continue talking to their loved ones, to the hospitals, to the world,” she adds.

Information to survive

Since Israel launched its military offensive in Gaza, the Strip has suffered at least 10 almost total communication blackouts that have lasted between a few hours and several days, according to the NetBlocks observatory. The longest blackout to date began on January 12, and although cell phone communications began to be restored in most of Gaza a week later, internet connections are facing significant issues at the time of writing this article.

Alp Toker, director of NetBlocks, says that the reasons for these blackouts are not always easy to determine. But he points out they are mainly due to direct attacks on telecommunications infrastructure and interruptions in electricity supply. “We have seen claims that Israel is cutting [Gaza] off, which is possible. It may also be shutting down for structural reasons or power issues,” he says.

The consequences are vast. Without an internet connection or cell network, it is very difficult for Gazans to find out about the course of the Israeli offensive, identify the areas most exposed to bombing, know where to go in case of evacuation or simply communicate with their loved ones. Blackouts also complicate the work of the emergency services as it is much more difficult to receive calls and locate and access injured people and people in need. It also hinders the work of humanitarian aid agencies and journalists.

“In the first four or five days, we gave priority to journalists and medical personnel. But then we realized that communications and internet access are a basic human right”

One of the keys to the initiative is the ease of donating eSIMs from anywhere in the world: a donor only has to buy one through the telephone companies operating in the Strip, forward the QR code provided to the team of volunteers in Egypt, and wait for someone to connect. El Helbawi’s team has also created guides and a website to detail the necessary steps.

At first, El Helbawi requested the telephone data of people who were close to those who had connected with an eSIM in order to extend the network. But now she and her team have trusted people in Gaza — referred to as human routers — who are in charge of distributing the codes and helping to activate them. “In the first four or five days, we gave priority to journalists and medical personnel. But then we realized that communications and internet access are a basic human right, so we started sending and activating eSIMs for everyone,” says El Helbawi.

Samah Serour Fadil, a Palestinian writer living in the United States, says that during the first blackout in October she lost contact with her cousin in Gaza, and it was through El Helbawi’s profile that she discovered eSIMs and was able to buy one and send it in the hope she could activate it when she regained connection. “She was also my link to the other members of my family there. That moment was the most stressful and distressing of my life until then,” Fadil says.

Even before she was able to confirm it worked, Fadil wrote about eSIMs on social media and offered to help more people try to connect with their loved ones. “I was expecting a dozen eSIMs at most, but I woke up to literally hundreds in my inbox,” she recalls. “This is my role: to communicate and connect people. I feel proud and honored to help in any way I can.”

Demand for eSIMs skyrockets

Although eSIMs are allowing tens of thousands of people in Gaza to stay connected, some have urged caution. SMEX, an organization that defends and promotes human rights in digital spaces in the Middle East and North Africa, has warned of the risk that the privacy of the donor or recipient of the eSIM may be compromised, or that it can be used maliciously. But so far no cases have been reported, and El Helbawi points out that the team of volunteers leading the initiative is small precisely to minimize some of these risks.

The cuts to internet and telephone services in Gaza have also shown how the Strip’s connectivity depends directly on Israel, largely because the blockade has prevented the development of infrastructure and new technologies. The Gaza Communications Ministry has also asked Egyptian authorities for the use of towers and mobile stations near the border with the Strip to offer some service, at least in the southern part of the enclave, but so far no steps have been taken in this direction.

“[Gaza’s] basic infrastructure is largely dependent on Israel, and there is no major connectivity link with Egypt, mainly for geopolitical reasons,” says NetBlocks’ Toker. “In theory, they could set up a line and connect through Egypt, but Egypt as a state has not necessarily supported [this option].”

Faced with a lack of alternatives and the rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Gaza, the demand for eSIMs has skyrocketed in recent days, due to the latest blackout that began on January 12. “When people feel insecure and don’t know how to communicate, they panic, and keep asking for more eSIMs,” El Helbawi says.

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