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A telecom company in Ramallah struggles to keep families in touch

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The war in Gaza has made it difficult if not impossible at times for people there to connect with the outside world. NPR's Hadeel Al-Shalchi went to Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank where one of the main Palestinian cell networks is based.

ALAA IBRAHIM: (Non-English language spoken).

HADEEL AL-SHALCHI, BYLINE: From their home in Ramallah, Rana Yousef (ph) and her husband, Alaa Ibrahim (ph), try to call family members in different parts of Gaza.

RANA YOUSEF: (Non-English language spoken).

AL-SHALCHI: "Now, when I want to call, I dial each family member one by one, calling them four or five times to see who connects," she says. But usually it's a futile exercise. She says it may take her days to even get a text message from someone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

AL-SHALCHI: According to Netblocks, a service that tracks internet connectivity around the world, there have been 10 major blackouts in Gaza since the beginning of the war.

HAMZAH NASEEF: You can see a map of Gaza in the right box here.

AL-SHALCHI: Hamzah Naseef is with the Palestinian Telecommunications Company - or Paltel - in Ramallah. In a room with a dozen monitors on the wall, he points to one showing little red flags up and down a map of Gaza.

NASEEF: These are down sites or out of service, and the green one is the working one.

AL-SHALCHI: That's a lot of red.

NASEEF: Yeah.

AL-SHALCHI: When there's a blackout, Paltel has to send someone to fix cables or drive in more fuel. The cellphone provider is now giving free minutes to Gaza clients. And their customer service members act as an emergency call center, trying to connect missing family members to each other or calling ambulances.

MAMOON FARES: Working in this part of the world is quite difficult.

AL-SHALCHI: Mamoon Fares has been in charge of Paltel's emergency operations since the beginning of the war. He says no matter what, Paltel's work can be complicated. There's Israel's set of rules, but also answering to Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

FARES: So probably we are the only operator in the world that deals with three regulators.

AL-SHALCHI: Israel controls borders, imports and exports, making it difficult to bring in supplies. As part of the Oslo Accords, a landmark set of agreements from the mid-'90s, Israel was also given control over all Palestinian cellular comms and technology. Even before the war, cellphone reception was spotty in Gaza. It still operates on a 2G network, while Israel, like other parts of the world, has moved on to 5G. Fares says Paltel is used to working in difficult conditions, including war. But this time, he says, it's different.

FARES: The scale of destruction got worse and worse. In the first two weeks of the war, one of our main office buildings was bombed. That was a first for us. And later on, our exchange offices and data centers got bombed one by one.

AL-SHALCHI: In Gaza, Fares says that Israel has sabotaged the comms lines twice, a claim Israel's military denies. The rest of the blackouts, he says, are due to the Israeli army's destruction of Gaza's wider infrastructure. Fiber network cables have been ripped up on the streets from bulldozing. Paltel has over 500 towers in Gaza. It says 80% of them are now gone. The Israeli military refused to confirm that for this story. The war has also affected the ability of aid organizations to communicate to provide life-saving services. Fares says it's hard to get in touch with his own workers on the ground.

FARES: We have maybe 900 employees in Gaza, maybe 1,000. Maybe we don't know the whereabouts of maybe 20% of them. We don't know. Are they alive, arrested, are they killed? We don't know.

AL-SHALCHI: And the dangers of working in a war zone affects Paltel every day.

FARES: We lost two of our people while doing a maintenance. They were hit. And there were maybe five or six incidents where our teams were attacked by the Israeli army, sometimes, they say, by mistake.

AL-SHALCHI: The Israeli military declined to comment on Fares' claim. And yet Paltel employees, he says, keep going out to work in Gaza.

FARES: Some of them can simply choose to leave, but they don't, and they can. But they tell me, if we are destined to die, we prefer to die doing something useful.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

FARES: Back in their house in Ramallah, Rana Yousef and her husband are drinking tea. Suddenly, the phone rings. It's her brother-in-law calling from Gaza, from the Red Crescent Hospital in Khan Younis, where he's sheltering. Her husband picks up.

IBRAHIM: (Non-English language spoken).

FARES: It's a rare moment when they get an update.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

AL-SHALCHI: "The hospital is besieged," her brother-in-law says. He can't get out, but they're fine.

IBRAHIM: (Non-English language spoken).

AL-SHALCHI: And then the call drops.

IBRAHIM: (Non-English language spoken).

AL-SHALCHI: Hadeel Al-Shalchi, NPR News, Ramallah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.