Led by ‘plumes of smoke’: How Gaza’s first responders navigate a blackout

Medics and survivors tell Al Jazeera how they cope under communications blackouts as Israeli forces pound Gaza.

Gaza/Maram Humaid
The blackouts have repeatedly prevented first responders and firefighters from reaching areas that have been targeted across Gaza [Atiyah Darwish/Al Jazeera]

Deir el-Balah, Gaza Strip – When Youssef Abdullah’s home in the central Gaza Nuseirat refugee camp was hit by an Israeli air strike, killing 17 members of his family on Saturday morning, no one could call the emergency services. Israeli forces had cut off phone and internet services for the fifth time.

The attack was “sudden”, he told Al Jazeera. Two of his children – six-year-old Mohammed and eight-year-old Omar – were among the dead. He, himself, was badly injured.

Taking a break from his hospital bed, Youssef Abdullah, 35, was clearly still in shock when he spoke to Al Jazeera outside the busy gates of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, one of the few remaining operational facilities in the Gaza Strip.

He was struggling to cover up his broken spirit as he limped on one leg across the courtyard, dressed in clothes still covered in debris.

Gaza/Maram Humaid
Only seven members of Abdullah’s family survived an air strike on his home, in which two of his young children were killed [Atiyah Darwish/Al Jazeera]

Apart from head wounds, Abdullah suffered broken ribs, a broken knee and burns on his arm.

“I remember the first thing I saw when I managed to lift my head up, was my wife’s face. Half of it was badly scraped and covered in blood, but she survived,” Abdullah told Al Jazeera. “I hugged her and started frantically calling out for my children.”

Most of his family members killed were women and children, he said. Among them were his mother, sister and nieces, as well as his father and brother. Only seven members of his family survived.

His cousin, Bassam al-Hafy, lives just a few houses down from him in the Nuseirat camp.

Al-Hafy said a neighbour rushed over to inform him of the attack that struck Abdullah’s home so he could “get help”.

“There was no way for us to contact medics or a hospital, so I immediately jumped on my bicycle and headed to the nearest hospital, al-Awda Hospital, to call for help,” al-Hafy told Al Jazeera.

Gaza/Maram Humaid
Bassam al-Hafy says he used his bicycle to rush to the nearest hospital to call for help when his cousin’s home was destroyed in an Israeli air strike, killing 17 members of the family [Atiyah Darwish/Al Jazeera]

Earlier this week, Paltel, the main Palestinian telecommunications company, announced it would begin a “gradual restoration” of telecom services in the central and southern areas of Gaza.

On at least five occasions now, communications blackouts have effectively cut off Gaza’s residents from the outside world – and from one another.

With each blackout, Gaza’s government media office has warned that Palestinians who are subjected to attacks are unable to contact civil defence teams amid heavy bombardment.

No one could reach many of those “martyred and wounded”, it said last week.

According to Abdullah, the phone and internet blackout definitely “doubled the number of martyrs” in his family.

“My brother-in-law was alive, but died because medics arrived 45 minutes later,” he said.

This is not uncommon, civil defence workers say.

The blackouts, which rights groups have warned are being used to cover potential Israeli war crimes, have repeatedly prevented medics, first responders and firefighters from reaching areas that have been targeted.

“Two weeks ago there was an attack in Bureij. By the time we arrived, it was a whole hour later, and people waiting at the scene reacted negatively towards us,” Hatem Abu Taqeyeh, a volunteer medic with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), told Al Jazeera.

“They scolded us, asked us why we were so late. But in reality, we simply had no idea this had happened,” the 30-year-old said.

Sounds of explosions in areas further away are “not even heard”, which adds to their “stress and anxiety” every time the enclave plunges into digital darkness, Abu Taqeyeh said.

Many ‘do not make it’

During the first blackout, shortly after Israel launched its latest war on the Strip, Abu Taqeyeh said civil defence teams would conduct what is known as “field checks”, which means driving around neighbourhoods in case they are needed. But doing this has become increasingly difficult for several reasons.

After more than two months of aerial bombardment and ground invasion, Gaza’s roads have become hard to navigate by foot, let alone by car. It has also become increasingly dangerous to move around amid intensified bombing. The lack of fuel to operate vehicles means field inspections have become less and less frequent, Abu Taqeyeh added.

Gaza/Maram Humaid
The Palestinian Red Crescent says it has repeatedly lost contact with its teams operating on the ground in Gaza [Atiyah Darwish/Al Jazeera]

Israel has blocked the entry of much-needed fuel since it imposed a total siege on the already blockaded enclave at the start of the war, and has only allowed a very small amount of aid in through the Rafah border crossing.

“With the lack of fuel … we would only go to a location knowing 100 percent that it had just come under attack,” Abu Taqeyeh said. “Otherwise, we stay put.”

Abdulrahman Basheer, another volunteer medic with the PRCS, said teams cannot coordinate with any international body without internet or phone lines.

The PRCS has repeatedly said it has lost contact with its teams operating on the ground in Gaza amid these blackouts. Other groups, including Doctors without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF), Amnesty International and several United Nations bodies have also reported being abruptly cut off from their teams in Gaza during network outages.

To work around this, Basheer said members of his team station themselves at the hospital in case injured people start arriving in vehicles other than ambulances.

“They usually come in private cars, in tuk-tuks … or on donkey carts,” Basheer told Al Jazeera.

Gaza/Maram Humaid
With no access to the internet and without phone lines, even the national emergency services hotline is inaccessible, Abdulrahman Basheer said [Atiyah Darwish/Al Jazeera]

Volunteers then ask those coming into the emergency unit about the location and nature of the attack they had just escaped, and quickly lead ambulances to the scene using “wireless devices” or radio transmitters, he said.

In most cases, ambulance vehicles end up following “plumes of smoke or the sound of where the explosion came from”, Basheer said.

“This is the only way that medics can identify and arrive at a location that has been targeted. There is no other way amid a communications blackout.”

Without access to the internet, and without phone lines, even the national emergency hotline is inaccessible.

“It significantly stretches out the time that first responders would usually take to arrive at the scene of a targeting,” Basheer said, adding that people “usually do not make it”.

Not being able to reach those wounded in time creates further medical challenges, the PRCS volunteers explained.

Many of them arrive at the hospital with more broken bones than they had initially sustained because they were not “moved properly”, Basheer said, while others come in losing “so much blood because no one was there to control the bleeding”.

‘Our humanitarian duty’

With each blackout, repairs to destroyed phone lines become harder due to repeated Israeli bombardment.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said last month Israeli air strikes targeted several telecommunication installations, destroying two out of three main lines for mobile communication.

Human Rights Watch also found that “actions” by Israeli forces have included damage to “core communications infrastructure”.

Along with a lack of fuel and ambulance vehicles, there is also a severe lack of adequate equipment for civil defence team members who have resorted to rescuing victims from under the rubble with their bare hands.

“We don’t have the right equipment. At the scene [of an attack], we follow sounds, voices of people under the rubble, and the smell of blood,” Abu Taqeyeh said.

Maram Humaid/Gaza
Civil defence teams lack adequate equipment, volunteer medic Hatem Abu Taqeyeh, 30, said [Atiyah Darwish/Al Jazeera]

“The vast amount of sheer destruction is very hard to articulate, there are no words to describe it,” he said.

Nearly 20,000 Palestinians have been killed, the majority of them women and children. Some 60 percent of all residential units in the Strip have been damaged, or 254,000 homes.

Civil defence workers say they are also often targeted by Israeli soldiers. At least 35 of them have been killed by Israeli forces since October 7, Gaza’s media office said on Tuesday.

In a statement, it added that 102 ambulance vehicles had also been “directly targeted” so far.

Among those who have been killed are three of Basheer’s colleagues in northern Gaza.

“Our main goal is to save lives. It’s our humanitarian duty and that’s all we want to do,” he said.

Back at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, Abdullah and his cousin, al-Hafy, agreed that the blackout is a “psychological war”.

“You hear the explosions and wonder if your family members are all alive, even if they’re in the same area and neighbourhood,” al-Hafy said.

“It’s very challenging and, I would say, even more so than the actual war itself.”

Source: Al Jazeera