With the latest Israeli bombardments, the Gaza Strip, home to two million Palestinians, is once again the scene of widespread destruction and human suffering. As one of the most densely populated areas in the world, the enclave has been aptly described as “the world’s largest open-air prison”.
The Israeli air raids followed after Hamas, the movement that rules Gaza, fired rockets at Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh on May 10, in what the group said was a response to injuries of more than 300 Palestinians in an Israeli police crackdown at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem.
Hamas had set a deadline for Israel to pull its law enforcement from the compound and stop the forced expulsions of Palestinian families from their homes in the occupied part of the city.
Gaza is a small self-governing Palestinian territory that came under Israeli occupation, along with the West Bank and East Jerusalem, after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
Bordered by Israel and Egypt on the Mediterranean coast, the Strip is about 365sq km, about the size of Cape Town, Detroit, or Lucknow.
Gaza was part of historic Palestine before the state of Israel was created in 1948 in a violent process of ethnic cleansing, expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes.
It was captured by Egypt during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and remained under Egyptian control until 1967, when Israel seized the remaining Palestinian territories in a war with the neighbouring Arab countries.
Gaza is but one of the focal points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although it is part of the Israeli-occupied territories, the Gaza Strip was severed from the West Bank and East Jerusalem when Israel was created. A range of Israeli restrictions has since been created that further compartmentalises the Palestinian territories.
The Israeli blockade of the occupied Gaza Strip, in its current form, has been in place since June 2007, when Israel imposed an airtight land, sea and air blockade on the area.
Israel controls Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters, as well as two of the three border crossing points; the third is controlled by Egypt.
Movement of people in and out of the Gaza Strip takes place through the Beit Hanoun (known to Israelis as Erez) crossing with Israel and the Rafah crossing with Egypt. Both Israel and Egypt have kept their borders largely shut, and are responsible for further deteriorating the already-weakened economic and humanitarian situation.
Israel allows passage through the Beit Hanoun crossing only in “exceptional humanitarian cases, with an emphasis on urgent medical cases”. The number of exiting Palestinians via the crossing during the 2010-2019 decade stood at 287 people on average a day, according to the UN. Since May 2018, the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing has opened on an irregular basis, recording a daily average of 213 exits in 2019.
But Israel has restricted the movement of Palestinians in and out of Gaza for much longer than the past 14 years. Starting in the late 1980s with the eruption of the first Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, Israel began to impose restrictions by introducing a permit system that required Palestinians in Gaza to get difficult-to-obtain permits to work or travel through Israel or access the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Since 1993 in particular, Israel has used “closure” tactics on the Palestinian territories on a regular basis, at times barring any and all Palestinians in certain areas from leaving, sometimes for months at a time.
In 1995, Israel built an electronic fence and concrete wall around the Gaza Strip, facilitating a collapse in interactions between the split Palestinian territories.
In 2000, when the Second Intifada erupted, Israel cancelled many of the existing travel and work permits in Gaza, and significantly reduced the number of new permits issued.
In 2001, Israel bombed and demolished the Gaza airport, only three years after it opened.
Four years later, in what Israel called the “disengagement” from Gaza, some 8,000 Jewish Israelis living in illegal settlements in Gaza were pulled out of the Strip.
Israel claims that its occupation of Gaza ceased since it pulled its troops and settlers from the territory, but international law views Gaza as occupied territory since Israel has full control over the space.
In 2006, the Hamas movement won general elections and seized power in a violent conflict with its rival, Fatah, after the latter refused to recognise the outcome of the vote. Since Hamas’ rise to power in 2007, Israel has severely intensified its siege.
Israel’s blockade has cut off Palestinians from their main urban centre, Jerusalem, which hosts specialised hospitals, foreign consulates, banks and other vital services, even though the terms of the 1993 Oslo Accords stated that Israel must treat the Palestinian territories as one political entity, not to be divided.
By blocking travel to East Jerusalem, Israel is also cutting off Christian and Muslim Palestinians in Gaza from accessing their centres of religious life.
Families have been split, youth have been denied the opportunity to study and work outside of Gaza, and many have been denied their right to obtain necessary healthcare.
The blockade contravenes Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits collective punishment that prevents the realisation of a broad range of human rights.
Israel’s siege on Gaza has devastated its economy and led to what the UN has called the “de-development” of the territory, a process by which development is not merely hindered but reversed.
About 56 percent of Palestinians in Gaza suffer from poverty, and youth unemployment stands at 63 percent, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
More than 60 percent of Palestinians in Gaza are refugees, expelled from their homes in other parts of Palestine in 1948, in places such as Lydda (Lod) and Ramle, and now live just a few kilometres away from their original homes and towns.
The siege has led to shortages of basic items, like food and fuel. It has also stymied Gaza’s potential for long-term economic development. Chronic problems, such as access to education, healthcare and clean water, have become more pronounced.
Since the beginning of the siege, Israel has launched four protracted military assaults on Gaza: in 2008, 2012, 2014 and now in 2021. Each of these attacks has exacerbated Gaza’s already dire situation. Thousands of Palestinians have been killed, including many children, and tens of thousands of homes, schools and office buildings have been destroyed.
Rebuilding has been next to impossible because the siege prevents construction materials, such as steel and cement, from reaching Gaza.
Over the years, Israeli missile attacks and ground incursions have also damaged Gaza’s pipelines and sewage treatment infrastructure. As a result, sewage often seeps into drinking water, which has resulted in a sharp increase in waterborne disease.
More than 95 percent of Gaza’s water has been rendered unsafe for drinking, according to the UN.
Plans to improve Gaza’s water quality have been thwarted by the ongoing power crisis. Water projects are among the largest consumers of electricity. Without enough power to maintain existing water and sanitation systems, it is impossible to build new ones.
Many homes in Gaza rely on electric pumps to push water to the top of the building. No electricity for them means no water.
Power cuts have had a devastating effect on Gaza’s students. At home, they are forced to study by gas lamp or candlelight. This hinders their ability to concentrate and learn. Generators can power lights, but are loud and often lack enough fuel to power them. At school, blackouts mean food rots, latrines are left dirty, and there is no clean water for washing hands.
One of the most vulnerable groups affected by the siege is those with chronic illnesses. In 2016, Israel approved fewer than 50 percent of requests to exit the Gaza Strip through the Beit Hanoun crossing for medical treatment abroad.
Israel’s blockade has set the stage for a profound humanitarian catastrophe. Already in 2015 the UN warned that conditions were deteriorating at such a rapid pace that Gaza could be uninhabitable by the year 2020.
Founded in 1987, Hamas emerged during the First Intifada that saw a popular mobilisation of Palestinians against the Israeli occupation.
On January 25, 2006, Hamas defeated Mahmoud Abbas’ long-dominant Fatah party in parliamentary elections. Hamas then kicked Fatah out of the Strip after the latter refused to recognise the vote’s results. Since 2007, Hamas and Fatah have ruled the Gaza Strip and the West Bank respectively.
Fatah, the ruling party in the West Bank, is led by President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected in 2005.
Hamas defines itself as a Palestinian Islamic national liberation and resistance movement, aiming to “liberate Palestine and confront the Zionist project”.
While Hamas’ 1988 founding charter called for the liberation of all of historic Palestine, including present-day Israel, it released a new political document in 2017, in which the movement stated it would accept the 1967 borders as the basis for a Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital and the return of refugees to their homes.
Hamas does not recognise the state of Israel’s legitimacy and has chosen armed resistance as its method for the liberation of the territories.
Israeli assaults on Gaza
Since laying siege on Gaza in 2007, Israel has launched four major, sustained assaults on the area between 2008 and 2021.
In 2008, after Hamas pushed out Fatah, the first major Israeli assault on Gaza continued for 23 days. Referred to by Israel as “Operation Cast Lead”, 47,000 homes were destroyed and more than 1,440 Palestinians were killed, including at least 920 civilians.
In 2012, Israeli forces killed 167 Palestinians, including 87 civilians, in an eight-day assault dubbed “Operation Pillar of Defense” by Israel. The death toll included 35 children and 14 women.
Gaza’s infrastructure was also heavily damaged; 126 homes were completely destroyed, and schools, mosques, cemeteries, health and sports centres, and media institutions were also hit, among other structures.
Two years later, in 2014, over a span of 50 days, Israel killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians and close to 500 children.
During the assault, dubbed by the Israelis as “Operation Protective Edge”, about 11,000 Palestinians were wounded, 20,000 homes were destroyed and half a million people displaced from their homes.