Israel opposed a proposal at a recent United Nations forum aimed at rebuilding the Gaza Strip’s war-ravaged telecommunications infrastructure on the grounds that Palestinian connectivity is a readymade weapon for Hamas.

The resolution, which was drafted by Saudi Arabia for last week’s U.N. International Telecommunication Union summit in Geneva, is aimed at returning internet access to Gaza’s millions of disconnected denizens.

It ultimately passed under a secret ballot on June 14 — but not before it was watered down to remove some of its more strident language about Israel’s responsibility for the destruction of Gaza. The U.S. delegate at the ITU summit had specifically opposed those references.

Israel, for its part, had blasted the proposal as a whole. Israel’s ITU delegate described it as “a resolution that while seemingly benign in its intent to rebuild telecommunications infrastructure, distorts the reality of the ongoing situation in Gaza,” according to a recording of the session reviewed by The Intercept. The delegate further argued the resolution does not address that Hamas has used the internet “to prepare acts of terror against Israel’s civilians,” and that any rebuilding effort must include unspecified “safeguards” that would prevent the potential use of the internet for terrorism.

“Based on this rationale, Gaza will never have internet.”

“Based on this rationale, Gaza will never have internet,” Marwa Fatafta, a policy adviser with the digital rights group Access Now, told The Intercept, adding that Israel’s position is not only incoherent but inherently disproportionate. “You can’t punish the entire civilian population just because you have fears of one Palestinian faction.”

The Israeli Ministry of Communications did not respond to a request for comment.

Getting Gaza Back Online

When delegations to the ITU, a U.N. agency that facilitates cooperation between governments on telecommunications policies, began meeting in Geneva in early June, the most pressing issue on the agenda was getting Gaza back online. Israel’s monthslong bombardment of the enclave has severed fiber cables, razed cellular towers, and generally wrecked the physical infrastructure required to communicate with loved ones and the outside world.

A disconnected Gaza Strip also threatens to add to the war’s already staggering death toll. Though Israel touts its efforts to warn civilians of impending airstrikes, such warnings are relayed using the very cellular and internet connections the country’s air force routinely levels. It is a cycle of data degradation that began at the war’s start: The more Israel bombs, the harder it is for Gazans to know they are about to be bombed.

The resolution that passed last week would ensure “the ITU’s much needed assistance and support to Palestine for rebuilding its telecommunication sector.” While the agency has debated the plight of Palestinian internet access for many years, the new proposal arrives at a crisis point for data access across Gaza, as much of the Strip has been reduced to rubble, and civilians struggle to access food and water, let alone cellular signals and Wi-Fi.

The ITU and other intergovernmental bodies have long pushed for Palestinian sovereignty over its own internet access. But the Saudi proposal was notable in that it explicitly called out Israel’s role in hobbling Gaza’s connection to the world, either via bombs, bulldozers, or draconian restrictions on technology imports. That Saudi Arabia was behind the resolution is not without irony; in 2022, Yemen plunged into a four-day internet blackout following airstrikes by a Saudi-led military coalition.

Without mentioning Israel by name, the Saudi resolution also called on the ITU to monitor the war’s destructive effects on Palestinian data access and provide regular reports. The resolution also condemned both the “widespread destruction of critical infrastructure, failure of telecom services and mobile phone outages that have occurred across the Gaza Strip since the beginning of the aggression by the occupying power” and “the obstacles practiced by the occupying power in preventing the use of new communications technologies.”

In a session debating the resolution, the U.S. delegate told the council, “We have made clear to the sponsors of this resolution that we do not agree with some of the characterizations,” specifically the language blaming the destruction of Gaza and the forced use of obsolete technology on Israel. “The United States cannot support this resolution in its current form as drafted,” the delegate continued, according to a recording reviewed by The Intercept.

Whether or not the U.S. ultimately voted for the resolution — the State Department did not respond when asked — it appears to have been successful in weakening the version that was ultimately approved by the ITU. The version that did pass was stripped of any explicit mention of Israel’s role in destroying and otherwise thwarting Gazan internet access, and refers obliquely only to “​the obstacles practiced in preventing the use of new communication technologies.”

The State Department did not respond to The Intercept’s other questions about the resolution either, including whether the administration shares Israel’s terror-related objections to it.

The U.S. has taken a harsher stance on civilian internet blackouts caused by a military aggressor in the past. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing national internet disruptions it caused, the State Department declared, “the United States condemns actions that block or degrade access to the Internet in Ukraine, which sever critical channels for sharing and learning information, including about the war.”

Outdated Technology

The approved resolution also calls on ITU member states to “make every effort” to both preserve what Palestinian telecom infrastructure remains and allocate funds necessary for the “return of communications in the Gaza Strip” in the future. This proposed rebuilding includes the activation of 4G and 5G cellular service. While smartphones in the West Bank connect to the internet with 3G wireless speeds unsuitable for many data-hungry applications, Gazans must make do with debilitatingly slow 2G service — an obsolete standard that was introduced to the United States in 1992.

Fatafta, of Access Now, noted that Israel does have a real interest in preventing Gaza from entering the 21st century: surveillance and censorship. Gaza’s reliance on insecure cellular technology from the 1990s and Israeli fiber connections makes it trivial for Israeli intelligence agents to intercept texts and phone calls and institute internet blackouts at will, as has occurred throughout the war.

The resolution is “an important step, because the current status quo cannot continue,” she said. “There is no scenario where Gaza can be allowed to keep a 2G network where the rest of the world has already moved on to 5G.”

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