The Gaza Strip is one of the world’s most densely populated areas. Only 365 square kilometres, it’s home to 1.6 million people – 70 per cent of whom have been classified by the United Nations as refugees.
Gaza also suffers frequent outbreaks of violence, enforced blockades and closures of its key institutions. With unemployment around 40 per cent in the first quarter of 2014, four out of every five people living in the region needs humanitarian assistance on a daily basis.
When violence erupts in Gaza, all of its citizens are affected – but it’s those living along the Israeli-controlled border who are often the most vulnerable. In 2009, nearly 40 people were killed when shelling hit the border town of Jabaliya, striking a United Nations school operating in this dangerous Buffer Zone. As in any emergency situation, the key to safety lies in fast and effective communication. However, access to the Internet is highly unreliable, and there is no 3G mobile phone network. With this in mind, UNESCO partnered with our Ramallah-based mobile venture, Souktel, to create a basic text-message alert system that warns parents and their children of any danger happening near local schools. The service forms a key part of UNESCO’s crisis and disaster risk reduction project, which aims to ensure that schools are secure community spaces.
Here’s how it works: At each school, principals and teachers are given password-protected access to a web interface, where they can send Short Message Service (SMS) alerts to all parents’ mobile phones. If there’s an emergency, they could write, “Attack near school today, please keep your children at home.” Once the violence has ended, another message could go out saying, “Shelling has stopped; please come to school this morning.” With the Internet largely unreliable in times of crisis, the system can also be managed through a handful of code-locked mobile phones. In this case, a teacher might unlock the phone, access the appropriate student phone number list, type a message and hit ‘send’.
Since the service was launched in 2011, 29 schools have used it regularly and more than 11,700 students are benefitting as a result. Some of the life-saving messages sent through the service include: “The students have been evacuated from the Hani al-Naim school due to the current situation,” during outbreaks of violence, and, once the security situation improved, “The Qastena primary school wishes to inform you that the children should resume their normal school schedule as there is no longer any danger in the area”. In one recent instance a school headmaster sent an SMS update informing parents that family members of a student who were presumably killed were in fact safe. With the escalation of violence in the summer of 2014, staff from the schools that use this service are continuing to send messages even in cases where the schools themselves have been closed.
“It’s the first time anything like this has been done in Gaza,” said Bilal Hamaydah, a technical education consultant with UNESCO, who has worked on the project since its inception. “I hope this system can better protect the students here and improve the emergency response in local schools – as long as it succeeds, it will make the entire community more engaged and responsible.”
In conflict zones, when it’s not safe to leave one’s house to get information, mobile phones can bridge the gap and keep everyone connected. This basic technology allows aid workers, educators and local families to stay in contact at all times. By leveraging a simple device, which most children and their families use daily, we’re striving to create safer communities for youth across Palestine.