Understanding the Significance of the Gaza Strip: A Historical Perspective

The Gaza Strip, a densely populated region on the Mediterranean Sea, has been the focus of conflict in the Middle East, with Israel’s defense minister ordering a “complete siege” of the Palestinian enclave. The military operation, which involves extensive bombing of residences, follows a surprise attack on October 7, 2023, by Hamas militants who infiltrated Israel from Gaza and killed over 900 Israelis.

Over 800 Gazans have been killed in reprisal airstrikes by Israel, and the situation could escalate further. The closure of food, electricity, and water in Gaza could worsen the situation in the “world’s largest open-air prison.” Gaza has a rich history, as it was once part of Palestine and was inhabited by Muslim and Christian Arabs. After Britain took control of Palestine following World War I, intellectuals in Gaza joined the Palestinian national movement.

The 1948 war established Israel, leading to the Israeli military bombing 29 villages in southern Palestine, leading tens of thousands of villagers to flee to the Gaza Strip. Following the 1967 Six-Day War, the Gaza Strip came under Israeli military occupation, resulting in “systematic human rights violations” according to Amnesty International.

Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist militant group, was established in 1988 to fight against Israeli occupation. After repeated attacks on Israeli targets, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005. In 2006, Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections, beating Fatah, a secular rival accused of corruption. Since then, 45% of Gazans would support Hamas, ahead of 32% for Fatah. After a brief conflict in May 2007, Hamas took complete control of the Gaza Strip, despite being considered under Israeli occupation by the UN and the U.S. State Department.

Over 2 million Gazans, primarily refugees from the 1948 war, make up one-third of the population, tracing their roots to the Strip. The Palestinian population is young, with nearly half under 18, and the enclave has a high poverty rate of 53%. Despite this, education levels are high, with over 95% of children aged 6-12 in school and 57% at the Islamic University of Gaza. However, young Palestinians face challenges in living fulfilling lives, with a 70% unemployment rate for graduates between the ages of 19 and 29 and 71% showing signs of depression and high levels of PTSD.

After the 2006 elections, the Bush administration attempted to overthrow Hamas and bring in a Fatah party leader. Hamas took control of Gaza in May 2007, and Israel and Egypt, with support from the US and Europe, closed border crossings and imposed a land, air, and sea blockade.

This blockade limits the import of food, fuel, and construction material, restricts fishing access, bans exports, and restricts the movement of people. In 2023, Israel allowed only around 50,000 people a month to exit Gaza. The closures have devastated Palestinian lives, with inadequate water, sanitation, and electricity cuts.

The fragile healthcare system in Gaza is on the brink of collapse due to inadequate water and electricity. The restrictions hit the young and weak of Gaza, with Israel denying permits for sick patients to receive medical care outside of Gaza.

The blockade on Gaza by Israel is considered illegal under international law, as it is a collective punishment for Palestinians, violating the Hague Convention and Geneva Conventions. Israel claims the blockade is necessary for the safety of its population and will be lifted when Hamas renounces violence, recognizes Israel, and abides by previous agreements.

Hamas has consistently rejected this ultimatum, leading to increased rocket and mortar attacks on Israel. Israel launched four major military assaults on Gaza in 2008-09, 2012, 2014, and 2021, resulting in over $5 billion worth of damage to Gaza’s homes, agriculture, industry, electricity, and water infrastructure.

Hamas has offered a long-term truce in exchange for ending the blockade, but Israel has refused, insisting that Hamas must first end violence and recognize Israel. The economic outlook in Gaza remains dire, and Israel halted all exports from a key Gaza border crossing on September 5, 2023.

Without an end in sight, Hamas appears to have decided to upend the status quo in a surprise attack on Israelis, including civilians. Israel’s reprisal airstrikes and imposition of a “complete siege” on the strip have further exacerbated the suffering of ordinary Gazans.

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