Gaza Strip: A Brief History and Current Situation

Gaza Strip

The Gaza Strip is a narrow piece of land situated between Israel and Egypt along the Mediterranean Sea. Throughout its history, it has been under the control of various powers, including the Ottoman Empire and later the British Empire. Today, it is one of the two main Palestinian territories, the other being the West Bank.

Following the establishment of Israel in 1948, Egypt took control of Gaza for nearly two decades. However, after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War against its neighboring Arab countries, it gained control over both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. For the subsequent 38 years, Israel maintained control over Gaza and facilitated the construction of 21 Jewish settlements in the area.

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In 2005, in response to international and domestic pressure, Israel carried out a withdrawal that involved evacuating around 9,000 Israeli settlers and its military forces from Gaza. This move left the enclave under the governance of the Palestinian Authority, which also controlled parts of the West Bank.

Today, the Gaza Strip is home to over 2 million Palestinians, occupying an area of approximately 140 square miles. It is recognized as one of the most densely populated territories globally, as noted by Gisha, an Israeli non-governmental organization. Notably, around half of Gaza’s population is under the age of 19. However, the residents face significant challenges, including limited prospects for socioeconomic growth and restricted access to the outside world.

Who Governs and Who Controls it?

Hamas, a militant Palestinian nationalist movement currently led by Ismail Haniyeh, has often clashed with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank who were involved in negotiating the Oslo Peace Accords. In 2006, Hamas won elections in Gaza and subsequently took control of the territory. Regrettably, no elections have been held there since.

Despite numerous appeals from the United Nations and human rights organizations, Gaza has been under a comprehensive blockade by Israel since 2007, affecting Palestinian civilians profoundly. Israel argues that the blockade, which involves control over Gaza’s borders and is also enforced by Egypt, is essential for the protection of Israeli citizens from Hamas.

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The International Committee of the Red Cross has deemed this blockade illegal, asserting that it violates the Geneva Convention. Israeli officials, however, deny this charge. The United Nations, along with various human rights groups and legal scholars, point to the blockade as evidence that Gaza is still effectively under Israeli military occupation.

What is Hamas, and Whom does It Represent?

Hamas stands as one of the two major political parties in the Palestinian territories. Its inception dates back to 1987, emerging during a resistance movement against Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Initially, Hamas was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which advocates for Islamist principles, emphasizing the role of Islam in political affairs.

Numerous countries, including the U.S., the U.K., and Canada, have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization due to its history of attacks on Israel, encompassing rocket launches and suicide bombings. Meanwhile, some nations, such as New Zealand, classify only Hamas’ military wing as a terrorist group. Additionally, it’s important to note that Hamas also plays a role in providing social services in Gaza, including education and healthcare services.

Hamas defines itself as a liberation movement aiming to free Palestinians from occupation and regain significant portions of Israel. However, its tactics, characterized by the use of violence, have divided Palestinians and those who support the establishment of a Palestinian state.

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A recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research revealed that a significant portion of Palestinians view the internal political divide between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza as highly detrimental, dating back to 1948. The same poll found that over half of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank would vote for Hamas over the Palestinian Authority. Hamas saw a boost in popularity following a two-week conflict with Israel in 2021, with approximately 75% of those surveyed perceiving Hamas as a guardian of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and other significant Muslim holy sites in East Jerusalem.

Hamas receives substantial support from Iran, which contributes “funds, weapons, and training” to the militant group, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. While Turkey asserts that its support for Hamas is purely political, it has faced allegations of funding Hamas’ activities, including the diversion of funds from Turkish government aid programs.

What is It Like Living in Gaza?

Human Rights Watch has drawn a stark comparison, likening the living conditions in Gaza to that of “an open-air prison.” This analogy is based on the severe restrictions on the movement of Palestinians imposed by Israel in the region. Israel’s policies largely prohibit Palestinians from entering or leaving Gaza, with only a few exceptions, primarily for urgent medical cases and a limited number of merchants, as highlighted by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

It’s essential to note that Israelis, Jewish settlers, and foreigners do not face the same restrictions and have the freedom to travel in and out of Gaza. Over time, Israel has gradually closed most land-border crossings from Gaza into its territory, leaving just one open, and that too is only accessible to Palestinians with Israeli-approved permits. Egypt occasionally closes its land-border crossing for extended periods, which can be the sole means for people in Gaza to connect with the rest of the world.

The 16-year blockade imposed by Israel, which severely limits imports and nearly all exports, has taken a significant toll on Gaza’s economy. Unemployment rates in the region have soared above 40%, as reported by the World Bank. According to the United Nations, over 65% of Gaza’s population lives below the poverty line, and the World Food Program identifies 63% of people in Gaza as “food insecure.” A UN report highlights a scarcity of psychological support for a generation of children who have been consistently exposed to violence, leading to an increase in mental health issues, including depression, among young people in Gaza.

In 2021, Human Rights Watch issued a report stating, “The Gaza closure blocks talented, professional people, with much to give their society, from pursuing opportunities that people elsewhere take for granted.” It underlines the profound impact of barring Palestinians in Gaza from moving freely within their own homeland, emphasizing the harsh realities of apartheid and persecution faced by millions of Palestinians.

In the aftermath of a recent unexpected attack by Hamas that resulted in the loss of 700 Israeli lives, the living conditions for civilians in Gaza are expected to worsen significantly. So far, over 400 Palestinians have lost their lives in retaliatory Israeli airstrikes. There is a possibility of an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, which Hamas has vowed to resist vigorously.