For weeks, Mirna El Helbawi has been glued to her phone, helping organize critical aid into — and channeling voices out of — the besieged Gaza Strip from her home in Cairo. So on Friday, Ms. El Helbawi, a 31-year-old author, noticed how the social media accounts of her Palestinian friends in Gaza had gone dark, just like the enclave itself.
As Israeli troops pushed into Gaza and airstrikes continued, the enclave was in the middle of a communications blackout, blocking hundreds of thousands of residents with Palestinian sim cards from placing phone calls or accessing the internet. The total disconnection, coming after weeks of poor reception, left Gazans unable to call emergency services, check in with loved ones or share their plight with the rest of the world.
Some journalists and other activists discovered a loophole: Gazans with some Israeli sim cards could still use their phones, if they could get high enough or close enough to an Israeli cellular tower.
While sim cards from Israeli cellphone providers are hard to come by in Gaza, a digital eSIM can be purchased by anyone, anywhere, and sent digitally to Gazans — and could be used more reliably throughout the enclave.
This, Ms. El Helbawi thought, was how she would help circumvent the silence. From her home in Cairo, nearly 200 miles away, she shared a plea with her 750,000 Instagram followers: help keep Gaza online.
Ms. El Helbawi’s post set off a widespread digital effort to elude the telecommunications blackout in Gaza, connecting activists abroad to try to keep Palestinian journalists, aid workers and doctors trapped inside in contact with the outside world.
“It all happened in a spontaneous action,” Ms. El Helbawi said in a telephone interview on Sunday. “I wasn’t expecting the thousands of people from all around the world — in Europe, the United States and Latin American — to be ready to help Palestinians get proper internet access.”
Ms. El Helbawi wasn’t alone in the effort. At the same time, activists from across the world posted on X, formerly Twitter, step-by-step instructions on how to purchase an eSIM and activate a cellular plan on behalf of residents trapped inside Gaza.
Ms. El Helbawi’s plan to reconnect Gaza with the world was twofold: A volunteer would purchase an eSIM with roaming service, receive a QR code and send it via text to a resident inside Gaza. The recipient would scan the QR code to activate it.
But there was a major challenge: how could a recipient receive the QR code amid a total blackout?
Ms. El Helbawi was determined to make it work. She scanned X to look for journalists who were still online. She knew if she could just reach one, she could send QR codes to many more
At nearly the same time, Ahmed Elmadhoun, a 26-year-old freelance journalist and digital creator, was standing on the roof of a hospital in Khan Younis in search of an internet connection.
He and his friends had purchased a rare Israeli sim card for $100 that morning, but the service was not sustainable because their access to the Israeli mobile network was getting blocked. It was also risky to stand on an open-air roof for too long amid Israeli airstrikes. But he was desperate to connect to the world.
“Even the sound of our pain was blocked from reaching people,” Mr. Elmadhoun said by phone from Gaza City on Sunday. “It was like we were dying alone.”
On Saturday night, the connection clicked for a moment and he asked his 17,000 X followers for help: “Someone told me about an eSIM — who?”
Ms. El Helbawi saw his post. She responded just six minutes later, “Me me me.”
Mr. Elmadhoun’s service was spotty, but he just needed to be connected long enough to receive the QR code.
After multiple attempts, it arrived, and Mr. Elmadhoun was able to scan the code to activate a cellular plan with roaming service within minutes.
“We were able to return Gaza’s voice,” Mr. Elmadhoun said, adding: “Internet connection is a basic thing we took for granted. And suddenly having access to it felt like a miracle.”
From Cairo, Ms. El Helbawi expressed a shared sense of relief and optimism.
“It was hard,” she said. “The internet kept breaking. They see one message from me, and they disappear.”
She added, “My faith in humanity got restored for, like, two days.”
In all, Ms. El Helbawi sent about a dozen QR codes to Mr. Elmadhoun, who shared them with a group of journalists and medical staff at the hospital in Khan Younis.
But the ripple effects of Ms. El Helbawi’s efforts were felt across Gaza over the weekend.
In less than 24 hours, hundreds of eSIMS were distributed across Gaza, according to Ms. El Helbawi. She is now partnering with Simly, an eSIM provider, to try to connect thousands more Palestinians in Gaza to cell service and the internet.
“We will make sure everyone gets stable and consistent internet access there,” Ms. El Helbawi posted on X on Sunday. “Palestinians will not be silenced again.”
Abeer Pamuk contributed production from San Francisco.