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34 hours in Gaza: no phones or internet, and Israeli tanks on the ground

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're on a balcony in this city, within rocket range of the Mideast war. Alert sirens sound here from time to time. Israeli authorities say 1,400 people were killed, mostly when the war began on October 7. And in a moment, we will hear the experience of one family whose son was taken hostage on that day. They haven't heard from him since. We begin with the voice of one person who spent the weekend amid the bombardment in Gaza. Israel launched a new phase in its campaign, sending ground troops along with intense attacks from the air. Palestinian authorities now say at least 8,300 people have been killed since the start of this war in Gaza. For part of the weekend, internet and phone service out of Gaza went down, and NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv was waiting to hear from one voice.

ANAS BABA, BYLINE: Hey, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: I finally heard from NPR producer Anas Baba in Gaza on Saturday night.

BABA: I just put myself in danger in order just to get some internet near to the borders. I can't stay there much more.

ESTRIN: Baba took a risk. He went close to the Israeli border to connect to an Israeli cellphone network to tell me what was happening. Gaza was still in a near-complete communications blackout. Israel won't say if that was deliberate. The Palestinian service provider says Israel's bombardments knocked out the network.

BABA: I needed to understand what's happening around me for a journalist, not for a normal citizen. My mind was going to melt trying to understand what exactly is happening.

ESTRIN: On Saturday, he went to Gaza City, the area that's come under heavy bombardment. Palestinian officials say more than a thousand people were killed this weekend, including extended families. Rescue crews didn't know where to go, and people couldn't call them to direct them to the wounded. Baba saw horrific scenes of Palestinians who had tried to flee to safety on foot.

BABA: Hundreds of them were not lucky. They died in the streets. Injured in the streets cried and screamed for help, and no one was listening. No one could have helped.

ESTRIN: Baba says it's getting harder to move around Gaza now to see what's happening. Gas for driving is running low. Roads are covered in rubble. He started getting around by horse carts but now can't find any horse cart drivers anymore. He walked for miles through his home, Gaza City.

BABA: This is not my city. I cannot even realize what street it is. I only kind of smell death - dead body under the rubbles, nothing the same. Nothing is the same. All the supermarkets are empty. There is no drinking water. Today, I spent four hours looking for just, like, 20 kilos of wheat or flour in order to bake my family some bread. And I couldn't. Yes, Daniel, everything is getting worser and worser. I tried my best today.

ESTRIN: Basic necessities are dwindling. Nearly three dozen trucks of food, water and medicine made it into southern Gaza from Egypt yesterday. That's the most that have come in a single day. But aid officials say it's not nearly enough.

BABA: Daniel, I'm so sorry, but I need to just, like, evacuate the area near the crossing. The F-16, the artilleries, everything is going insane here. I need to evacuate. Bye. Bye. Bye. There's not going to be internet - maybe tomorrow. Bye.

ESTRIN: Thirty-four hours after the communications blackout, the phone signal came back in Gaza, and so did our producer.

BABA: Hey, Daniel. When the reception totally came back, I heard a lot of people screaming from happiness, shouting with a lot of slogans that finally we are back. But the most catastrophical - when you hear the stories of some of the people who are still trying to reach some of their beloved, and the answer was that the mobile is shut down or turned off. Some of them, they lost - their beloved, their families, their friends.

ESTRIN: This morning, Anas Baba called me to say he saw an Israeli tank and bulldozer on the eastern edge of Gaza City driving on Salah al-Din Road, the main road. That could mean Israeli troops are closing in on the city.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.