The focus of the Middle East conflict has once again returned to the Gaza Strip, with the Israeli Government ordering a “complete siege” of the Palestinian enclave.
Aside from the bombings, the order to cut off food, electricity and water supplies will only worsen the plight of residents in what has been called the “world’s largest open-air prison.”
But how did Gaza become one of the most densely populated areas on the planet? And why is it now a territory controlled by Hamas? As a scholar of Palestinian history, I believe that understanding the answers to these questions provides crucial historical context for current violence.
Brief history of Gaza
The Gaza Strip is a narrow piece of land on the southeastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. It is about twice the size of Washington, DC, and is sandwiched between Israel to the north and east and Egypt to the south.
A former trading and sea port, Gaza has long been part of the geographical region known as Palestine. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was mainly inhabited by Muslim and Christian Arabs who lived under Ottoman rule. When Britain took control of Palestine after World War I, Gazan intellectuals joined the emerging Palestinian national movement.
During the 1948 war that established the State of Israel, the Israeli army bombed 29 villages in southern Palestine, leading tens of thousands of villagers to flee to the Gaza Strip, under the control of the Egyptian army that was later deployed. after Israel declared independence. Most of them and their descendants remain there today.
Following the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the Gaza Strip came under Israeli military occupation. The occupation has led to “systematic human rights violations,” according to Amnesty International, including the expulsion of people from their lands, the destruction of homes and the repression of even non-violent forms of political dissent.
Palestinians staged two major uprisings, in 1987-1991 and 2000-2005, in hopes of ending the occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state.
Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist militant group based in Gaza, was founded in 1988 to fight the occupation. Hamas and other militant groups launched repeated attacks against Israeli targets in Gaza, leading to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Palestinian legislative elections were held in 2006. Hamas defeated its secular rival, Fatah, which had been widely accused of corruption. There have been no elections in Gaza since 2006, but polls in March 2023 revealed that 45% of Gazans would support Hamas if a vote were held, ahead of Fatah at 32%.
After a brief conflict between Hamas and Fatah militants in May 2007, Hamas took full control of the Strip. Since then, Gaza has been under the administrative control of Hamas, although the United Nations, the US State Department and other international bodies continue to consider it to be under Israeli occupation.
Who are the Palestinians of Gaza?
The more than 2 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip are part of the global Palestinian community of 14 million people. Approximately a third of Gaza’s inhabitants have their family roots in the lands of the Strip. The remaining two-thirds are refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants, many of whom come from cities and towns around Gaza.
Gaza has a very young population: almost half of its inhabitants are under 18 years old. The enclave is also very poor, with a poverty rate that stands at 53%.
Despite this gloomy economic outlook, education levels are quite high. More than 95% of Gazan children aged 6 to 12 are in school. The majority finish high school, and 57% of students at the prestigious Islamic University of Gaza are women.
But young people have a really difficult time getting ahead. For graduates between 19 and 29 years old, the unemployment rate is 70%. And a World Bank survey conducted earlier this year found that 71% of Gazans show signs of depression and high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder.
There are several factors that contribute to this situation. One of the main ones is the 16-year blockade that Israel and Egypt, with the support of the United States, have imposed on Gaza.
Years of blockade
Shortly after the 2006 election, the Bush administration attempted to force Hamas from power and install a rival Fatah party leader who was considered closer to Israel and the United States. Hamas preempted the operation and took full control of Gaza in May 2007. In response, Israel and Egypt – with the support of the United States and Europe – closed the border crossings into and out of the Strip and imposed a land blockade. , air and sea.
The blockade, which remains in force, limits the import of food, fuel and construction materials. It limits how far Gaza fishermen can go to sea, bans almost all exports and imposes strict limitations on the movement of people in and out of Gaza.
The years of closure have devastated the lives of Gaza’s Palestinians. Its inhabitants do not have enough water for drinking and sanitation. They face power outages that last 12 to 18 hours each day. Without enough water and electricity, Gaza’s fragile health system is “on the brink of collapse,” according to medical rights group Medical Aid for Palestine.
These restrictions especially affect young people and the most vulnerable people. Israel systematically denies sick patients the permits they need to receive medical care outside of Gaza. Bright students on scholarships to study abroad often find they can’t go out.
UN experts say this blockade is illegal under international law. They maintain that it amounts to collective punishment of the Palestinians in Gaza, a violation of the Hague Convention and the Geneva Conventions that form the backbone of international law.
The suffering has no end
Israel claims that the blockade of Gaza is necessary to ensure the safety of its population and that it will be lifted when Hamas renounces violence, recognizes Israel and honors previous agreements.
But Hamas has consistently rejected this ultimatum. Instead, fighters stepped up the firing of homemade rockets and mortars into populated areas surrounding the Gaza Strip in 2008, aiming to pressure Israel to lift the blockade.
Israel has launched four major military strikes against Gaza – in 2008-2009, 2012, 2014 and 2021 – to destroy Hamas’s military capacity. Those wars killed four thousand Palestinians, more than half of whom were civilians, along with 106 people in Israel.
During that time, the UN estimates that more than $5 billion worth of damage has been done to homes, agriculture, industry, and electricity and water infrastructure in Gaza.
Each of those wars ended with a fragile ceasefire, but without a real resolution to the conflict. Israel aims to deter Hamas from launching rockets. Hamas and other militant groups say that even as they have respected previous ceasefires, Israel has continued to attack Palestinians and has refused to lift the blockade.
Hamas has offered a long-term truce in exchange for Israel ending its blockade of Gaza. Israel has refused to accept the offer, clinging to its position that Hamas must first end the violence and recognize Israel.
In the months leading up to the latest escalation, conditions in Gaza have deteriorated further. The International Monetary Fund reported in September that Gaza’s economic prospects “remain dire.” The situation worsened when Israel announced on September 5 that it was halting all exports from a key Gaza border crossing.
With no end in sight to the suffering caused by the blockade, it appears that Hamas has decided to end the blockade. status quo with a surprise attack against Israelis, including civilians. Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes and its imposition of a “total siege” on the strip have brought even more suffering to ordinary Gazans.
It is a tragic reminder that civilians always bear the brunt of conflicts.