‘Palestinians won’t be silenced again!' : Egyptian journalist Mirna El-Helbawi initiative to get Gaza back online

Merna Hesham , Wednesday 1 Nov 2023

Egyptian journalist and writer Mirna El-Helbawi explained to Ahram Online how her initiative could get thousands of eSims to Palestinians in Gaza amid a communications blackout.

 Mirna El Helbawi
Mirna El Helbawi at Rafah Border Crossing. Photo from Mirna El Helbawi s Instagram page


In tandem with the start of its ground operations on Friday, Israel cut off all internet, cellular, and landline services in Gaza.

Palestinians lost their access to the outside world – and to each other – and became more isolated under heavy Israeli bombardment that killed thousands and wounded many more.

The Palestinian Red Crescent could not reach its medical teams. Residents could not call ambulances, forcing rescuers to rely on explosion sounds to locate the injured.

International aid organizations could only communicate with a small number of their staff through satellite phones.

The abrupt loss of communication left relatives outside of Gaza in a state of panic, not knowing whether their loved ones had been caught in the bombardment or were still alive, as their messaging chats and phone calls with people inside Gaza were no longer going through.

News agencies could not reach their reporters and only a few TV news stations could contact their crews. 

A beacon emerged when Elon Musk, the rich owner of SpaceX and Tesla, promised to provide internet to Gaza, as he did previously through SpaceX’s Starlink service to link the war-torn Ukraine with access to the internet.

According to its website, what makes Starlink special is that it uses a low-earth orbit to deliver broadband internet. All users need to do is set up a satellite dish, without the need for infrastructure or wiring, which can be tampered with.

Shortly, the plan failed, with Musk unable to reach any Starlink terminal in Gaza, which is essential for the satellite internet connection.

Enter eSims idea

Meanwhile, the eSims idea was suggested to El-Helbawi, one of those who were allowed to travel to the Rafah border crossing in protest of Israel refusing to allow aid on 19 October, by one of her followers.

“We tried with the Egyptian Red Crescent and the Palestinian Red Crescent to fulfill SpaceX requirements,” El-Helbawi told Ahram Online (AO), “with no luck.”

Getting Starlink to Gaza was an extremely long procedure that required heavy tools to be in Gaza, she added.

According to Forbes, eSims are a digital version of the physical SIM card. They are programmable remotely via software and can also be used in tablets, smartwatches, drones, and cars.

Already, El-Helbawi had hundreds of foreigners messaging her daily, wanting to help, so she reached out to her 751k and 190k followers on Instagram and X (previously Twitter), respectively:

HERE IS THE LINK: https://t.co/UNUliWU0Lp

— Mirna El Helbawi (@Mirna_elhelbawi) October 28, 2023

The response was overwhelming.

“Thousands of Europeans are ready to buy eSims for Gaza. Please help us,” El-Helbawi posted on X. 

She sent the eSims first to press members and medical staff in Gaza “to combine them together,” she said to AO. Afterward, the priority went to “family individuals.”

El-Helbawi estimated that most eSims would work only for 20 or 30 days.

Among the first to receive eSims were journalists Hind Khoudary and Moataz Azaiza and doctors of Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza, she wrote on X.

El-Helbawi then teamed up with Speak Up, a feminist initiative that supports victims of violence, and collaborated with Simly, a tech startup specialized in local eSims, travel cards, and global-local plans, to provide thousands of eSims to Gaza. 

In less than 24 hours, they were able to raise over $70,000, which is the equivalent of +18,000 GBs, according to Simly.

While others jump on the eSims wagon with a $100 price tag, El-Helbawi said she connected people in Gaza for free.

“We do not take donations. We do not take money. We only receive the eSims purchased by people and send them to journalists and medical staff in Gaza,” she stated.


— Mirna El Helbawi (@Mirna_elhelbawi) October 28, 2023

By Sunday, El-Helbawi triumphantly tweeted: “Hundreds in Gaza are getting connected.”

eSims came in from countries all over the world, including Canada, the US, Australia, and Mexico.

Later, she said she had lost count of the number of eSims she could send to Gazans.

Due to the innumerable messages she was receiving,  El-Helbawi created an email account for receiving eSims.

All that donors had to do was buy an eSim and send a screenshot of it to that email.

Concerning the limited access for others, El-Helbawi said it is important to “keep talking about what is happening, not getting used to the war, and to protest.”

Although her efforts to restore communication to Gaza have resulted in threats being sent to her, El-Helbawi vowed not to stop.

“We will make sure everyone gets stable and consistent internet access there. Palestinians will not be silenced again,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, facing a wave of international criticism, Israel partially restored some internet services to the strip.

Vodafone Egypt is considering sending mobile units to the Gaza border to boost communication networks.

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