Virtual lifelines: Gaza relies on eSIMs to stay connected

AFP , Wednesday 27 Dec 2023

Without eSIMs, Gazans would be "cut off from the world," and "no one would know what's happening in the Gaza Strip." Like many Palestinians, Hani al-Shaer obtained a virtual SIM card to cope with frequent phone and internet outages.

File Photo: Most people have to climb up to the roof to catch a signal in Gaza. Photo: AFP


On Tuesday, for the fourth time since the start of the war on Gaza, all telecommunications were interrupted, according to the Palestinian operator Paltel.

The dematerialized SIM card is the key for Gaza residents to communicate with the outside world. These eSIMs are purchased by families living abroad.

The principle is simple: to activate the card, one must scan the QR code sent by a relative using a compatible mobile phone camera. The user then connects in roaming mode to a foreign network, often Israeli, sometimes Egyptian.

The use of eSIMs is almost essential to stay connected since the Israeli army has been bombing the Gaza Strip.

Searching for victims 

For over a week, Samar Labad "lost contact" with her family.

Her brother, who lives in Belgium, eventually sent her an eSIM, says the 38-year-old mother, who had to flee with her three children from Gaza City and the fighting to settle in Rafah in the south, where tens of thousands of displaced people are crowded into makeshift camps.

"Communication is not stable, but it works," she says. "At least, we stay in touch with each other to reassure ourselves, even intermittently."

However, she cannot directly reach her relatives residing in Khan Younes in the south of the Gaza Strip. "I get updates from them through a person living with them whose phone is compatible with the eSIM."

Having a virtual SIM is not enough to guarantee communication. The service is only available in areas near the borders with Israel, or one must climb onto roofs to catch a signal.

In his mobile phone store, Ibrahim Mukhaimar mostly sees journalists.

"They use eSIMs to convey the real situation to the world, especially that the occupation deliberately sought to conceal what is happening in the Gaza Strip," he believes. "To show that essential products necessary for survival are missing," adds the merchant.

In addition to reporters, "there are also doctors and civil defense employees looking to know the exact location of strikes to help people," notes Ibrahim Mukhaimar. Employees of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, "Unrwa, who need it to organize aid convoys," he details.

"Cut off from the world"

While these virtual chips alleviate telecommunication disruptions, the irony is that internet is needed to activate them. "It can take us two or three hours," explains Yasser Qudieh, a video journalist (JRI).

The card's price varies between "15 and 100 dollars, depending on the validity period, which ranges from one week to two months," he specifies. For "better Wi-Fi service," prices can soar.

"Without these eSim cards, we would be cut off from the world, and no one would know what's happening in the Gaza Strip," says Hani al-Shaer, a local journalist, who also uses it for his "live broadcasts in 4G or 5G."

In late October, the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that telecommunications and internet disruptions in the Gaza Strip could "provide cover for mass atrocities and contribute to impunity for human rights violations."

In addition to documenting the war, Palestinian journalists with eSIMs serve as messengers.

"Many expatriates contact us to follow the latest news in the Gaza Strip and get information about their families, and we reassure and inform them about bombing locations when Palestinian service providers are not working," explains Yasser Qudieh.

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