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Gaza's 34-hour phone and internet blackout, as told in voice memos

Anas Baba, a producer for NPR, has been reporting on the war from his base in Gaza.
Anas Baba/NPR
Anas Baba, a producer for NPR, has been reporting on the war from his base in Gaza.

GAZA STRIP — For 34 hours over the weekend, the Gaza Strip went dark, as Israeli tanks rolled in.

Phone, cellular and internet services dropped Friday evening, leaving most of Gaza's roughly 2 million Palestinians unable to communicate with each other or the rest of the world.

Israel sent in ground troops to pursue Hamas in Gaza after the militant group's unprecedented assault on Oct. 7 in Israel killed 1,400 people and took 240 hostages, Israeli officials say. Israel's response, with airstrikes and shelling, has killed more than 8,500 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials, and its total blockade of the territory has left many with no access to basic necessities.

Palestinian telecommunications providers blamed the service outage on deliberate Israeli sabotage. An Israeli defense official said she was "unaware" of the matter.

It happened just as Anas Baba, NPR's producer in the Gaza Strip, was getting ready to tape an interviewwith NPR's All Things Considered. Baba said his line was "a bit bouncy" before the interview began.

"Maybe you're going to hear me and maybe not," he told NPR's Juana Summers. Then the call dropped.

A few hours later, he regained service for a few minutes, and sent NPR a short text message: "I'm alive."

Then his connection dropped again.

By the time he regained contact on Sunday, he described a weekend of uncertainty, isolation, desperation and death.

Friday night: Communications go down

Baba sent NPR a series of voice memos over the weekend.

The first voice memo came about 24 hours into the Gaza communications outage, when he briefly connected to an Israeli cellphone signal. He described conditions from Friday evening to Saturday evening:

"We all are struggling to get any connection from Jawwal [a Palestinian cell service provider], internet, or even landlines. We truly don't know anything. We don't know what exactly is happening, or where. We are totally cut off from the outside world. Every single person in Gaza, especially the ones that you know, relatives, friends, family, are unreachable. Even at the news, we cannot understand what is happening."

Saturday morning: Reporting from Gaza City

Baba traveled from Rafah in southern Gaza, where he is sheltering, to his home city in northern Gaza, which Israel had urged residents to evacuate.

"Today I was lucky to visit Gaza City. ... What I saw is horrific and terrifying for anyone who one day was living as a Gazan. Neighborhoods are totally flattened to the ground. You cannot find people, you cannot even understand where they are. I tried to find a single person, but I couldn't.

"I heard from the ambulance paramedics that yesterday was a total shutdown for all the radio that they have. They couldn't even know where to go, where to head, or the many casualties on the ground. The bombardment all over the Gaza Strip was totally intense. ... Everyone in Gaza is concerned about his own beloved.

"This is not my city. I cannot even realize what street it is. I only can smell death: dead bodies under the rubble."

Fire and smoke rise following an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, Saturday.
Ilan Assayag / AP
/
AP
Fire and smoke rise following an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, Saturday.

By the end of the weekend, Palestinian health officials said over 1,000 people, including many from the same families, were killed in Israel's intensified weekend bombardment.

Saturday afternoon: Reporting from Rafah city

Baba returned south to Rafah, where he is sheltering, to witness scenes of desperation. Getting around sometimes meant taking a horse cart, with fuel supplies dwindling.

"Today it was a struggle just to find some bread, some water, and even to understand where to go, or how to go. ... Yesterday I was forced to return home from Khan Younis to Rafah city, where I am based and located, using a horse cart. And today, I couldn't even find that horse cart anymore.

"All the supermarkets are empty.

"Nothing is the same, nothing is the same. I am reporting now for you from Rafah, and my heart is still there, my memories are still there [in Gaza City].

"Don't know what to do, don't know what to say. Don't know how to describe the damage. ... It's flattened, totally flattened to the ground. Nothing is the same, nothing is standing."

Saturday evening: Near the Israeli border to get signal

Baba sent his first voice memos on Saturday night, in the midst of the communications outage. For an hour and a half, he connected to an Israeli cellular network by getting close to the Israeli border, a dangerous prospect, especially in wartime.

"It's super, super dangerous, but I needed to understand what's happening around me. For a journalist, not for a normal citizen, my mind was going to melt trying to understand what is happening.

Palestinians walk near the destroyed house belonging to the Al-Maghari family on Sunday after an Israeli airstrike on Rafah, in the Gaza Strip.
/ Abed Rahim Khatib/picture alliance via Getty Images
/
Abed Rahim Khatib/picture alliance via Getty Images
Palestinians walk near the destroyed house belonging to the Al-Maghari family on Sunday after an Israeli airstrike on Rafah, in the Gaza Strip.

"I just put myself in danger in order to get some internet from the [Israeli] provider Cellcom, near the border. I can't stay there much more. ... I'm so sorry, I need to just evacuate the area ... the artillery, everything is going insane here."

Sunday morning: Phone service, celebration and loss

Before dawn Sunday, phone service came back. Baba sent a new voice memo from Rafah.

"When the reception totally came back, I heard a lot of people screaming from happiness, shouting with a lot of slogans that finally, we are back.

"But the most catastrophic: When you hear the stories of some of the people who are still trying to reach some of their beloved, their families, their friends.

"Some of the people here are telling me that 20 days of the war with signal and reception was OK. But two days without reception and telecommunication was around 20 years for us. Being totally blind and disconnected is making you feel angry, helpless, and at the same time, vulnerable."

On Sunday, nearly three dozen aid trucks carrying food, water and medicine crossed from Egypt into southern Gaza — the largest convoy in a single day since the war began, but not enough for the population, aid groups say.

Phone service was restored, but remains spotty. Israel's ground incursion continues to intensify.

NPR's Liz Baker contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Anas Baba
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Samantha Balaban is a producer at Weekend Edition.