Losing lifelines in Gaza

Ellery Roberts Biddle



It has been more than a week since Israel cut off electricity, water, fuel and food shipments for 2.3 million people in Gaza, as part of its response to the unprecedented attacks launched by Hamas on October 7. Internet shutdowns have become an all-too-common tool of control in conflict situations around the world. But an enforced power cut takes it to another level entirely. It makes network shutdowns look like child’s play.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk, Human Rights Watch and the International Committee of the Red Cross have all said these cuts amount to a violation of international humanitarian law — in other words, a war crime.

Yet the power is still out. The blackout has caused a cascade of problems for all kinds of systems, from water pumps and sanitation to telecommunications networks, in an already catastrophic situation. Under bombardment by Israel, more than 3,000 Gazans have been killed, thousands have been injured and, according to the United Nations, about a million people displaced. 

It is getting more and more difficult for people in Gaza to stay in contact with each other, and with people outside the territory. I spoke with Asmaa Alkaisi, a recent graduate of the University of Washington’s international studies school, who came to the U.S. from Gaza, where she has lived most of her life. 

As recently as two weeks ago, Alkaisi had a daily habit of checking in with her family, most importantly her mother, on video calls. But over the past 10 days, she has been unable to reach them. She has resorted to checking lists of the dead and missing, to see if their names appear.

“If you don’t see their names in the lists of missing or killed ones, then you know that they’re OK,” she said. It has become almost impossible to reach people locally. “I have lost contact with my best friend for 11 days now,” she said. “I honestly don’t know if she’s still alive.”

She explained that reports on television have new importance. “I found out from the news and the videos that my house was completely destroyed and leveled to the ground,” she told me. “I didn’t know that from my family, I found out from the news.”

At 39 years old, Alkaisi has lived through many periods of intense conflict in Gaza, but this “tops everything we have ever been through,” she said. She told me about a classmate of hers in the U.S. who once asked if Gazans “get used to” living with the looming threat of military aggression from Israel. The question shocked her.

“Every time this happens, it brings back all the trauma, it is as if it’s the first time it is happening,” she said. “We’re all shocked, we’re all in fear, we’re all petrified of the situation. You could be the next target. That’s more scary than anything in the world.”

And just like everyone else in the territory, journalists are facing terrifying, life-threatening circumstances. The BBC’s Rushdi Abu Alouf wrote on Tuesday about his own struggle to report on the devastation while trying to keep his family safe. With so much of what is happening on the ground being called into question by actors on all sides, these accounts really matter, and they will be harder and harder to capture and preserve as the situation worsens. 

I looked at a different part of this issue last week, focusing on the wreckless spread of disinformation by people who are not on the ground. But I shied away from the most consequential reports, like the gut-wrenching — but unsupported — allegation that babies in Israel were decapitated by Hamas, thinking it would be better not to repeat this bloody narrative, lest it be perpetuated.

My former colleague Reem Al-Masri, a media policy and disinformation researcher from Jordan, called me out on this. “Yes, social media is fertile ground for disinformation, but inaccurate information is only as harmful as its reach,” she wrote in an email. “We cannot treat misinformation that stays within the galaxy of social media the same way once it has made its way to officials,” she wrote, referring to U.S. President Joe Biden. Both Israeli and U.S. officials repeated this story, only to acknowledge later that they had no evidence to support it. This kind of disinformation is uniquely dangerous, Reem cautioned, because it affects how states and other actors make wartime decisions. She’s right. Thank you, Reem.

Hamas is abusing Facebook’s livestream feature. The families of several of the nearly 200 Israelis being held hostage by Hamas have reported that their captors are breaking into their loved ones’ Facebook accounts and in some cases livestreaming attacks or messages from wherever victims are being held. The account breach at the root of this is one thing, which unfortunately isn’t a new tactic — I’ve seen police do this in situations where colleagues have been arrested or detained. And this particular use of livestream calls to mind mass shootings that have been broadcast in the same way, most famously the massacre of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2017. Facebook’s parent company Meta says it’s got a war room of people fluent in Arabic and Hebrew who are reviewing posts and trying to make game-time decisions on what should stay up and what should come down — this is good, though these efforts have pitfalls of their own, as Meta’s auditors noted a few years back. But there’s no way to “review” a livestream. At this point, if I could make them get rid of the feature, I would.

Is Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir back in action? Or is it just the AI talking? While everyone in the West seems to be watching Israel and Palestine, the conflict in Sudan continues without relent. Last week, the BBC dug into The Voice of Sudan, a viral TikTok account that since August has been posting audio missives that it claims are leaked recordings from former President Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted following mass protests in 2019. This is a real eyebrow-raiser, since al-Bashir hasn’t been seen in public for more than a year. But through The Voice of Sudan account, he is apparently speaking again, sounding in good health and criticizing the Sudanese army.

Forensics experts who’ve studied the recordings say that they display hallmarks of deep fakes and that they probably were made using an off-the-shelf artificial intelligence “voice cloning” tool that could capture audio from the former president’s actual speeches and then use that material to generate convincing imitations of him. The reporters talked with Mohamed Suliman, a Sudanese AI researcher at Northeastern University whose work I’ve highlighted in the past. “What’s alarming is that these recordings could also create an environment where many disbelieve even real recordings,” he told them. This is a really good point, and it’s instructive for this moment, far beyond Sudan. With so many convincing fakes making the rounds, it seems easier every day to question what’s real.

Dating apps are becoming dangerous in Uganda. The country’s updated law that criminalizes homosexuality has been on the books for a few months now, and public data shows that 17 people were arrested under the law in June and July. Two of them were “caught” expressing an LGBTQ identity — which is now literally a crime in Uganda — on dating apps. The Kampala-based Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum found that in both instances, the gay men using dating apps were effectively entrapped by another user who then reported them to police.


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