Internet, phone networks collapse in Gaza, threatening to worsen humanitarian crisis

Nov 15, 2023, 11:42 PM | Updated: Nov 16, 2023, 11:20 am

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — Internet and telephone services collapsed across the Gaza Strip on Thursday for lack of fuel, the main Palestinian provider said, bringing a potentially long-term communications blackout even as Israel signaled its offensive against Hamas could next target the south of the territory, where most of the population has taken refuge.

Meanwhile, Israeli troops for a second day searched Shifa Hospital in the north for traces of Hamas. They displayed guns they say were hidden in one building, but have yet to release any evidence of a central Hamas command center that Israel has said is concealed beneath the complex. Hamas and staff at the hospital, Gaza’s largest, deny the allegations.

The military said it found the body of one of the hostages abducted by Hamas, 65-year-old Yehudit Weiss, in a building adjacent to Shifa, where it said it also found assault rifles and RPGs. It did not give the cause of her death.

The communications breakdown largely cuts off Gaza’s 2.3 million people from each other and the outside world, worsening the severe humanitarian crisis in southern Gaza, even as Israeli airstrikes continue there. International pressure is growing on Israel to allow pauses in fighting to let in aid, with food, water and electricity increasingly scarce and U.N. officials saying relief efforts are endangered by fuel shortages.

Most of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million is crowded into southern Gaza, including hundreds of thousands who heeded Israel’s calls to evacuate to the north to get out of the way of its ground offensive. If the assault moves into the south, it is not clear where they would go, as Egypt refuses to allow a mass transfer onto its soil.

The war, now in its sixth week, was triggered by Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack into southern Israel in which the militants killed over 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and captured some 240 men, women and children. Weiss, the woman whose body was found Thursday, is the third hostage confirmed dead, while four others have been freed and one rescued.

Israel responded to the attack with a weekslong air campaign and a ground invasion of northern Gaza, vowing to remove Hamas from power and crush its military capabilities.

More than 11,470 Palestinians have been killed, two-thirds of them women and minors, according to Palestinian health authorities. Another 2,700 have been reported missing, believed buried under rubble. The official count does not differentiate between civilian and militant deaths, and Israel says it has killed thousands of militants.

The war has inflamed tensions elsewhere. In the occupied West Bank, Palestinian gunmen opened fire at a checkpoint on the main road linking Jerusalem to Israeli settlements, killing a soldier and wounding three people.

The three attackers were killed, according to police, who said the assailants had assault rifles, handguns and hatchets, and were preparing a large-scale attack in Jerusalem. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.


A day after storming into Shifa, Gaza’s largest hospital, Israeli troops continued searching the complex. Gaza’s Health Ministry said the troops searched underground levels of the hospital Thursday and detained technicians who run its equipment.

The hospital has not had electricity for nearly a week, and staff say they have been struggling to keep alive 36 premature babies and 45 dialysis patients with equipment not functioning.

Shifa’s director, Mohamed Abu Selmia, told Al-Jazeera that a dialysis patient died Thursday, adding that 650 wounded patients and 5,000 displaced people are in the hospital amid the raid.

Israel said its soldiers brought medical teams with incubators and other supplies, though Shifa staff said incubators were useless without fuel. Gaza’s Health Ministry said 40 patients, including three babies, died before the raid after the emergency generator ran out of fuel Saturday.

During previous days of fighting in the nearby streets, there was no report of Hamas fighters firing from inside Shifa, and no fighting when Israeli troops entered Wednesday.

Israel faces pressure to prove its claim that Hamas set up its main command center in and under the hospital, which has multiple buildings over an area of several city blocks.

So far, it has shown only a small number of weapons it says were uncovered in an MRI lab. The military released video from inside Shifa showing three duffel bags, each containing an assault rifle, grenades and Hamas uniforms, as well as a closet containing a number of assault rifles without ammunition clips. The Associated Press could not independently verify the Israeli claims.

In recent weeks, Israel depicted the hospital as the site of a major Hamas headquarters. It released satellite maps that specified particular buildings as a command center or as housing underground complexes. It released a computer animation portraying a subterranean network of passageways and rooms filled with weapons and fuel barrels. The U.S. said it has intelligence to support Israeli claims.

The allegations are part of Israel’s broader accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields across the Gaza Strip — which it says is the reason for the large numbers of civilian casualties during weeks of bombardment.


The military says it has largely consolidated its control of the north, though fighting continues there. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Wednesday the ground operation will eventually “include both the north and south. We will strike Hamas wherever it is.” He did not give a timeframe.

Israeli forces dropped leaflets Thursday telling Palestinians in areas east of the southern town of Khan Younis to evacuate. Similar leaflets were dropped over northern Gaza for weeks ahead of the ground invasion.

Strikes continued in the south Thursday. In the city of Deir al-Balah, a funeral was held for 28 people killed in an overnight bomb that leveled several buildings.

A southern offensive would bring Israeli forces into a zone packed with the vast majority of Gaza’s population. They include some 1.5 million people displaced from their homes, living in overcrowded U.N. shelters or with other families.

In past weeks, the Israeli military has called on people to move to a “safe zone” in Mawasi, a town on the Mediterranean coast a few square kilometers (square miles) in size, where humanitarian aid could be delivered.

The heads of 18 U.N. agencies and international charities on Thursday rejected the creation of a safe zone and said they would not participate.

In a joint letter, the groups said that concentrating civilians in a zone while hostilities continue was too dangerous. They called for a cease-fire and unimpeded entry of humanitarian aid and fuel for Gaza’s population. The groups included the U.N. humanitarian chief, the children’s agency UNICEF, the World Food Program and the World Health Organization.

Palnet, the main Palestinian telecoms provider, said the network in Gaza ground to a halt Thursday after running out of fuel. Palnet’s general manager, Abdulmajeed Melhem, said the company has made international appeals for fuel, but the network can only be restored if Israel lets supplies in.

That raises the potential for a long-term communications blackout. Gaza authorities have been able to get the system working after three previous shutdowns.

The previous blackouts traumatized Palestinians, leaving them unable to call ambulances after strikes hit homes or reach family members to ensure they are alive. Aid workers say the shutdowns wreak havoc on humanitarian operations and hospitals. Some Palestinians manage to keep up communications using satellite phones or SIM cards that reach Israeli or Egyptian networks.

The cutoff also makes it harder for international media to cover events on the ground.

Israel has refused to allow fuel into Gaza, saying it will be diverted to Hamas. It let in a small amount Wednesday so the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees could continue bringing limited aid from neighboring Egypt. But the fuel cannot be used for other purposes, including for hospitals.


Jeffery and Keath reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Amy Teibel and Melanie Lidman in Jerusalem; Najib Jobain in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip; and Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut contributed to this report.


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