Tuesday marks one month since the Palestinian militant group Hamas attacked Israel, killing 1,400 people and taking hundreds of hostages. Israel has responded by bombarding the Gaza Strip and killing more than 10,000 people there, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza.
The Israeli government has shut off power and fuel supplies to the more than 2 million people, mostly Palestinians, in Gaza. This weekend, Gazans suffered the third internet and phone blackout since Israel declared war on Hamas.
Just over the border in Egypt, journalist Mirna El Helbawi has been working to enable people in Gaza to stay online and connected to the rest of the world. She’s part of a small group collecting donations of so-called eSIMs, which let users activate a cellphone plan on a mobile network without needing an actual SIM card.
The following is an edited transcript of her conversation with Marketplace’s Lily Jamali.
Mirna El Helbawi: [ESIMs] work through scanning a QR code or putting an activation code manually in your phone. And then, you can connect your mobile to the internet.
Lily Jamali: And you’ve gotten thousands of people to donate these eSIMs. Do you know how many people or families in Gaza you’ve been able to help keep online because of those donations?
El Helbawi: I’ve helped more than 6,000 people in Gaza to stay connected.
Jamali: That’s a lot of people.
El Helbawi: Yes. And we have received more than 16,000 eSIMs donation from across the world.
Jamali: So that’s making a difference, it sounds like.
El Helbawi: Of course, it’s making a difference. But the right for communication and internet access now is like the same right for food and water and a proper way of living. So cutting off the communication and the internet access for 2 million people, for me, this is outrageous. Even the 6,000 activated eSIMs won’t make a difference. We need, like, 2 million eSIMs activated so it can really make a difference.
Jamali: And to your point about this being such a critical utility for people, internet connectivity, as we’re coming off of this weekend, where there was an internet blackout in Gaza, is your inbox flooded with more requests for eSIMs right now?
El Helbawi: Yes. People are freaking out, people are panicking because there was blackout for the communication and internet access. So millions of people who didn’t have the chance to have an eSIM were not being able to connect with their families or friends or their loved ones, not even with hospitals, not even with anyone [in the] outside world. So when the tiny and slight, weak of connection was back in their phones, they kept sending me and the team hundreds of requests for new eSIMs to be activated.
Jamali: How do people go about donating eSIMs to people in Gaza, if they want to help?
El Helbawi: If they want to help, they have to buy an eSIM internet package from one of the eSIM providers in Europe and across the world, and just take a screenshot of the QR code and send it to Gazaesims@gmail.com.
Jamali: And what kind of feedback have you gotten from people in Gaza who are using the eSIMs that you’ve been able to collect on their behalf?
El Helbawi: I’ve been receiving, me and the team, the most heartwarming responses from people who activated their eSIMs. For example, today, someone sent me, when we successfully activated his eSIM, [he was] crying nonstop because he wasn’t being able to connect to his family for the past four or five days. So he finally had the chance to connect with his family and get assured that they’re still alive. But today, for example, I came across one of the most heartbreaking examples I’ve seen … for the past seven days. Someone from Europe who donated an eSIM, and his eSIM got activated by someone in Gaza. And then, this person in Gaza was using his data that he donated. But suddenly, for the past two days, no data was being used. And suddenly, the bundle just stopped from activating. And this usually happens because maybe he’s killed or he got bombed. So this was very emotional because we can’t get in contact with the person who we provided the eSIM to anymore.
Jamali: How did you figure out that this was a way to help? Because you don’t consider yourself a tech expert, do you?
El Helbawi: Not at all. I’ve been trying to connect the Egyptian Red Crescent and the Palestinian Red Crescent to have a Starlink connection in Gaza. But we failed and we couldn’t, so I was really devastated and very furious. And I saw a post from Elon Musk on X telling one of the people that he won’t be able to provide internet for Gaza without the permission of the U.S. and Israel. So I got really furious and I thought that we have to figure out a way ourselves to provide internet and to connect people in Gaza. And I was updating my followers on Instagram with each and every step of this process. So an Egyptian-Lebanese follower suggested, “Hey, Mirna, what about eSIMs? Do you think we can use them for people abroad to provide internet?” So I just made the spontaneous post on my personal account on Instagram, and I said, “Hey, if you’re living in Europe or across the world and you’re willing to donate an eSIM to help Palestinians gain back their voices, just send it to me in my inbox, and I will send it to people in Gaza.” And I’ve never thought that I would receive thousands of QR codes flowing in my Instagram account, [to the point] that I had to create our official email, Gazaesims@gmail.com, to receive the QR codes on it. And since then, we’ve been activating eSIMs for people in Gaza.
Jamali: So how hard is it to actually make this technology work once they’ve gotten one of these donated eSIMs?
El Helbawi: Some people were having trouble activating the eSIM because activating an eSIM [is] a bit [of a] complicated process because it’s new for people in Middle East. So sometimes you have to assist them step by step. And along the way, we figured out that not every eSIM can work in every area in Gaza. So every area requires a different eSIM and different steps of configuration and activating the eSIM. That’s why they were a bit frustrated in the beginning too, because the eSIMs were not being activated. But we assisted them step by step. And as I’ve said, in seven days, we have activated more than 6,000 people.
Jamali: I know you’re probably taking in a lot of personal stories. You mentioned that a couple of minutes ago. Are you doing OK?
El Helbawi: Ah, what a question. Thank you for asking. No, I’m not doing OK. I barely sleep because I’ve been feeling very guilty to sleep and let people [wait] in my DMs looking for a way to connect with their loved ones or their families. I’ve been feeling guilty because I am their only way to connect right now, which is crazy. I’m not OK because, especially when you connect personally with people in war zones, it’s very overwhelming and heartbreaking to connect with them personally and to hear their stories throughout your process with them, with activating their eSIMs. People are friendly, people are nice, people are kind, people are simply waiting for death anytime. Someone today just told me, when I activated his eSIM, he was like, “OK, thank you. I promise you if I stay alive until the Muslim prayers, I will pray for you; if not, definitely I’ll be dead.” [Another] person I was trying to connect, I was telling him that he has to be in a different room, trying to change his location, maybe get outside of the house for better coverage. And he was like, “No, I can’t get out of the house because there are airstrikes and bombing next to me, and if I left my house I would be definitely dead.” So I have to hear these stories every day from hundreds and thousands of people. So you can imagine the answer of me being OK or not.
The Guardian reported on how Gazans became so reliant on the Israeli government for internet access. Israel restricts Palestinian cellular providers’ ability to upgrade their networks, so even when the internet works in the Palestinian territories, it runs a lot slower than in Israel. Consequently, Palestinians often rely on Israeli SIM cards to get better service.
The Washington Post also reported on what life is like in Gaza during blackout conditions caused by war.
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