Since the Islamist militant group Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, the small, overcrowded enclave has been the focal point in Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. Thousands of Gazans have died in Israeli airstrikes provoked mostly by Hamas rocket attacks. Frequent power cuts, grinding poverty and the constant fear of more bombardment have left many Gazans dreaming of escape. That’s rarely an option: With movement in and out of the territory severely restricted, it’s been described by some rights activists as an open-air prison.
1. What is Gaza?
Also known as the Gaza Strip, it’s a territory about 25 miles (40 km) long and 7.5 miles wide bounded by Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. Once a part of the Ottoman and later the British empires, it became a refuge for an estimated 200,000 Palestinians uprooted by the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Egypt ruled Gaza until it lost control of the enclave to Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. In 2005, Israel withdrew troops from Gaza and abandoned several settlements of Israeli citizens who saw the land as rightfully theirs. Today Gaza is one of two territories, along with the West Bank, where Palestinians exercise limited self-government under the Oslo accords that the Palestine Liberation Organization signed with Israel in the 1990s. The United Nations defines both territories as occupied Palestinian land. Israel maintains effective control of Gaza’s airspace and maritime territory and also enforces a strict blockade, along with Egypt.
2. Who governs the territory?
Until 2006, Gaza was governed by the Palestinian Authority, the body established by the Oslo agreements that also administers the West Bank and is dominated by Fatah, the main faction of the PLO. That year, Hamas won legislative elections, resulting in a power struggle with Fatah. After months of fighting, Hamas prevailed and took control of Gaza. Israel responded by imposing a permanent blockade, saying it needed to protect its people from Hamas, which is dedicated to Israel’s destruction. Since then, Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza have fought four significant military confrontations. The PA still works quietly to support Gaza’s economy, wary of being seen to support Hamas. While Hamas controls security there, funding for health, power and other services comes mostly from the UN and foreign countries, either directly or through the PA.
3. What is it like to live there?
The UN estimates that more than 5,200 Gazans have been killed in the sporadic conflicts with Israel, many of them children, and most as the result of Israeli airstrikes. A report in 2021 from the advocacy group Euro-Med Monitor stated that nine out of ten children in Gaza were suffering some form of conflict-related trauma. Most Gazans live in refugee camps that were set up more than seven decades ago to house Palestinians displaced in the 1948 war. Israel’s 15-year blockade has left more than 80% of the population in poverty, with many people reliant on UN food rations. Power outages happen daily and last for several hours. Most tap water is undrinkable, forcing households to buy desalinated water from private vendors. While open criticism of Hamas’s management of the territory can be dangerous, many Gazans complain in private that the group extracts money from them with little to show in return.
4. Why don’t things improve?
Israel is unwilling to lift its blockade of Gaza while Hamas runs the enclave. Egypt often acts as a mediator between Fatah, Hamas and Israel. While it lends vocal support to Gaza’s people, its security measures have helped to wreck Gaza’s economy. It’s kept the border closed and destroyed tunnels used to smuggle goods into Gaza in order to contain the threat to Egypt from militants based there. Israel took some limited steps in recent years to ease Gaza’s plight, including issuing work permits for 14,000 Gazans to work inside Israel. But there’s little immediate hope for the kind of peace deal that would significantly improve living conditions. The situation is complicated further by the presence in Gaza of a smaller militant group, independent of Hamas, that was responsible for the most recent attacks on Israel in August.
5. What caused the latest violence?
The group, Islamic Jihad, launched around 1,000 rockets at Israel after Israeli forces killed one of its leaders. Nearly all were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, preventing any fatalities. Israel responded with airstrikes that flattened homes in Gaza. The three-day conflict left 49 people dead, including 17 children. Like Hamas, Islamic Jihad receives support from Iran. It is even more reluctant to compromise with Israel and has proven willing to act alone against their common enemy.
6. What gives Gazans hope?
The lack of local opportunities means many young Gazans see education as an escape route. Levels of literacy in the enclave are high and many people there speak a second or even a third language, often through online learning. When Egypt opened its border with Gaza temporarily in 2018, tens of thousands left and settled in countries across the Middle East and beyond.
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