Gaza is frequently called “the world’s largest open air prison.”
Measuring only 139 square miles, the territory is only slightly bigger than twice the size of Washington, D.C. The almost 60 km border with Israel is sealed as tight as possible, and the 13 km border with Egypt is now also closed. The maritime blockade covers the entire 40 km coastline.
Today, there are 1.9 million people in Gaza, more than 98% of whom are Muslim. The people in Gaza are young: almost half the population (43%) is younger than 14, while only 6% is over 55.
The unemployment rate for those aged 15-24 years old is is 62% for women and 35% for men.
It is small and densely populated, made up mostly of young people who are out of work. And that’s before the effects of Hamas’ military rule, extreme poverty, and the seemingly unstopping cycle of war are taken into account.
According to the United Nations, within a couple years, Gaza will be uninhabitable if current economic trends continue.
Gaza: A Rocky History
- Map of British Mandate http://mfa.gov.il/MFA/AboutIsrael/Maps/Maps/Division-of-the-British-Man.jpg
- Map of Partition plan https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/partmap.html
The story of Gaza in the 20th century is one of shifting governance and control. Previously part of the Ottoman Empire, Gaza was included in the British Mandate territory in 1922 and remained under Britain’s control. When the map of the UN Partition Plan was drawn, Gaza was included in the yet-unformed Arab state, even though that decision meant that Gaza and the larger southern area along the Egyptian border was only connected to the eastern part of the Arab state at a small point, and the Northern and Southern parts of the Jewish state were only barely connected.
- Israel before the Six-Day War http://mfa.gov.il/MFA/AboutIsrael/Maps/Pages/1949-1967%20Armistice%20Lines.aspx
- Israel after the Six-Day War http://mfa.gov.il/MFA/AboutIsrael/Maps/Pages/June%2010-%201967-%20Israel%20After%20the%20Six%20Day%20War.aspx
However, with the rejection of the Partition Plan and the War of Independence, Gaza was separated into a small mini land under the control of neighboring Egypt. While there were some attempts at self-rule, Gaza remained largely under Egypt’s purview until the Six Day War in June 1967.
Israel’s victory in the war brought the Gaza Strip (and the connected Sinai peninsula) under Israeli control. Unlike the other territories it conquered, Gaza was seen as having little strategic, economic, or historical value. In addition, it had a large Palestinian population numbering over 350,000 people (less than 20% of its current population) and no recorded Jewish population. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and military leaders at the time believed that holding on to Gaza would pose a long-term threat to Israeli security. Eshkol even called it “a bone stuck in our throats.” [Source: Michael Oren Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, pp. 252-254]
Nevertheless, as early as 1968 there were plans to create Jewish settlements in Gaza. Kfar Darom, which had been founded in 1946 and abandoned during Israel’s War of Independence, was one of the first to be settled in 1970. At its height, there were more than 8,500 Jews in Gaza, spread out in 21 communities.
In September 1993, leaders of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) met at the White House to sign the Oslo Accords, which was hoped to be a first step toward a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Until then, the two sides had not recognized each other; the PLO was committed to Israel’s destruction, and Israeli law forbade any contact between Israeli citizens and anyone associated with the PLO. Under the terms of the Oslo Accords, Israel withdrew from most areas of Gaza that were not inhabited by Israelis, and handed control of daily affairs to the newly created Palestinian National Authority (PA).
PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat was named head of the PA, and initially he ruled from a headquarters in Gaza. The Oslo Accords were intended to launch a five-year period of intensive negotiations between the two sides that would yield a final-status peace agreement by 1998. Over the next two years, the PA would be granted authority over much of the territory in the West Bank. As part of the accords, Israeli and Palestinian security forces established joint patrols in Gaza and the West Bank designed to ensure that both sides were safe and secure.
The Disengagement From Gaza
In the summer of 2000, with peace talks between Israel and the PA stalled (note that the five-year interim period had ended without success, but both sides had agreed to continue talking), President Bill Clinton invited Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PA President Yasser Arafat to a summit at Camp David, near Washington, D.C. The stated goal was to hammer out all unresolved issues in order to sign a final-status agreement.
The summit, which lasted nearly two weeks, ended without any sort of agreement. President Clinton sent the leaders home with hopes that they would reconvene in the fall. Unfortunately, in the following weeks, tensions rose, and the summit never reconvened. The fall of 2000 ushered in an era of bloody confrontation which continued for a few years.
In 2004, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon floated an idea: in the absence of a meaningful peace process with the Palestinians, he suggested that Israel might withdraw from Gaza unilaterally, enabling the PA to expand its autonomous rule to the entirety of the territory and removing from Israel the burden of ensuring the safety of 8,500 civilians living amidst more than 1.5 million Palestinians.
Most of these Israeli were Orthodox Jews, but there were also several secular communities. Secular Israelis were attracted to the idea of living in Gaza because the government heavily subsidized construction in the area and offered tax breaks and other economic incentives to immigrants. There were several secular communities in Gaza, including Nitzanit, Dugit, and Rafiyah Yam.
The Israeli government offered the evacuated settlers a package of compensations for the loss of their home. Many were offered new homes in the Negev desert, farmers were given arable land, and workers who lost their jobs were given unemployment benefits and job training.
Many settlers initially resisted monetary compensation for the loss of their homes and, even more so, of their place in the Land of Israel. Many believed that their settlement in Gaza was part of the necessary work of building up Israel and creating agriculture and industry that benefited the state. Nevertheless, eventually they not only accepted compensation but negotiated with government officials to increase the amount of reparations they received. [Source – Shai Dromi “Uneasy Settlements: Reparation Politics and the Meanings of Money in the Israeli Withdrawal from Gaza” Sociological Inquiry, 84:2, 2014, pp. 294-315]
While most of the settlers left peacefully, a minority, reinforced by “infiltrators” – Jews who came to Gaza specifically to resist the evacuation operation – clashed with military forces. Some blocked the entrances of houses, others climbed onto roofs and refused to come down. Images of settlers throwing debris at IDF soldiers were broadcast around the world. On August 17, a woman in the town of Netivot (outside of Gaza) set herself on fire to protest the evacuation.
Photographs of families in orange (the de facto color of the anti-disengagement forces) crying to soldiers, dismantling synagogues, and being carried out of their homes, dominated the news.
On September 12, 2005, the IDF officially declared an end to Israel’s military occupation of Gaza. During that summer, the entire Jewish population of Gaza, numbering 8,500 from 21 settlements were evacuated.
Almost immediately after the disengagement, it became clear that conflict between Israel and various Palestinian groups within the Gaza strip would be bloody and ongoing. Israel retained control of Gaza’s borders, its airspace, and its territorial waters. Rockets from Gaza began falling in Israel soon after.
By June 15, 2007, less than two years after the last Israeli civilians left Gaza, Hamas’ military took over the Gaza Strip.
Immediately after Hamas’ takeover of Gaza, Israel and Egypt effectively closed the borders of the strip, initiating what is commonly knows as the Blockade of Gaza or the Siege of Gaza, which continues to this day. The blockade has become a key issue in the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among Israelis, Palestinians, and the international community. While Israel points to repeated rocket and terrorist attacks against Israelis coming from Gaza, Palestinians and many in the international community argue that the blockade is too stringent, that Israel limits access to food, basic materials, and humanitarian assistance.
In 2008, activists from non-governmental organizations tried to breach the blockade by sending ships with humanitarian aid to Gaza. A ship called the Dignity was permitted to dock in Gaza four times before it was attacked by the IDF in international waters in December of 2008.
Other attempts by groups of ships, known as “Gaza Flotillas” to enter Gaza were blocked by Israel in 2010 and 2011. Military raids on the flotillas were condemned by many in the international community.
Since 2007, the conflict between Israel and Hamas has become increasingly violent. Three “Gaza wars” have been fought since:
- 2008-2009 – The First Gaza War, known in Israel as Operation Cast Lead
- 2012 – The Second Gaza War, known in Israel as Operation Pillar of Defense
- 2014 – The Third Gaza War, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge
During this time, more than 11,000 rockets have been fired into Israel, affecting more than five million Israelis.