Jabalia camp for Palestinian refugees camp in Gaza, destroyed by Israeli airstrikes Jabalia camp for Palestinian refugees camp in Gaza, destroyed by Israeli airstrikes  (AFP or licensors)

Gaza: An overview

The Gaza Strip is a densely populated Palestinian territory in which its citizens face challenging living conditions. These include recurring attacks on militants and alleged terrorist bases and blockades that prevent many Palestinians from exiting the Strip to reach their employment. The most recent Israeli airstrikes have caused extensive destruction and a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

By Francesca Merlo

The Gaza Strip is a territory of just 365 square kilometres (140 square miles) located along the Mediterranean Sea's eastern coast, to the northeast of the Sinai Peninsula. It borders with Egypt to the south.

Living conditions in Gaza have long been a cause for concern due to several factors. Its high population density, one of the world's fastest-growing rates, inadequate infrastructure for water, sewage, and electricity, high unemployment rates, and Israeli sanctions imposed since September 2007 have all contributed to the difficult living conditions faced by the people.

A brief history of Gaza

Inhabited since the 15th century BC, Gaza has witnessed the rule of various peoples and empires over its history. Around the early 16th century, it became part of the Ottoman Empire.

Following World War I, it was occupied by British forces and became part of the British Mandate of Palestine. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Egypt administered the newly formed Gaza Strip. It was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. From 1994 to 1999, Israel transferred security and civilian responsibilities for much of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority.

In late 2005, Israel withdrew all of its settlers and soldiers and dismantled its military facilities in the Gaza Strip but maintained control over maritime, airspace, and access. In early 2006, Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, won the Palestinian Legislative Council election and assumed control of the Palestinian Authority government. There has been no election in Palestine since. Brief periods of heightened violence between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip occurred in 2007-08 and again in 2012, leading to Egyptian-brokered truces. 

Blockades and tunnels

In more stable political times, up to one-tenth of the Palestinian population would travel daily to Israel for employment, though they were not permitted to stay overnight. However, recurring political tensions and outbreaks of violence often led Israeli authorities to close the border for extended periods, leaving many Palestinians unemployed.

To bypass the blockade, Hamas constructed tunnels for smuggling goods and as underground command centers. Israel says these tunnels are also used by militants for weapon smuggling and covert movement, which has led to frequent Israeli airstrikes targeting them.

October 2023 conflict

The region's recent history has been marked by recurring conflicts and crises. Israel's airstrikes on Gaza in response to attacks by Hamas in October 2023 have caused extensive damage to buildings and infrastructure. Reports from Unosat indicate that more than 5,000 structures in North Gaza alone have been either destroyed or damaged, accounting for about 15% of all buildings in the region.

As of the morning of Monday, 23 October, at least 4,137 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip since Israel began bombarding the Palestinian enclave. Another 13,162 people have been wounded in the Israeli strikes, which have been ongoing since Hamas' attack on Israel on 7 October.

Living conditions

Conflicts over the years have left a substantial portion of Gaza's population without adequate housing, forcing extended families to live in overcrowded, low-quality, and insecure buildings. The Norwegian Refugee Council estimates that over 120,000 people in Gaza reside in homes without windows, safe roofs, or doors. Furthermore, Palestinian officials report that the recent Israeli airstrikes have destroyed approximately a thousand homes, adding to the 2,200 homes yet to be rebuilt from previous conflicts since 2014.

An additional 72,000 homes, though not destroyed, have not received any financial assistance for repairs, exacerbating the ongoing housing shortage in Gaza. According to the Global Shelter Cluster, 120,000 housing units need to be constructed in Gaza to provide shelter for all residents.

Movement in and out of Gaza

One of the most pressing issues in Gaza is the severe restriction of movement for people and goods. Israel enforces strict controls on the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, with all access to and from the Gaza Strip by sea and air being prohibited. Movement is limited to three crossings: Rafah crossing, Erez crossing, and Kerem Shalom crossing. Rafah crossing is under the control of Egyptian authorities and allows for the movement of authorized travelers, Palestinian medical cases, and humanitarian aid. Erez crossing, controlled by Israeli authorities, technically permits the movement of aid workers and a limited number of authorized travelers, including Palestinian medical and humanitarian cases. Kerem Shalom crossing, also controlled by Israeli authorities, technically allows for the movement of authorized goods only.

To leave the region, individuals must register with Palestinian authorities in advance and apply to Egypt, which enforces limits and security controls. The Erez crossing into Israel has been indefinitely shut, and the Egyptian-controlled Rafah border crossing was temporarily closed due to Israeli airstrikes, hindering the flow of humanitarian aid, including food, water, and medicine, into Gaza. Israel has allowed a limited number of trucks carrying these supplies, though not fuel, to enter Gaza. To bypass the blockade, Hamas has constructed tunnels for smuggling goods and as underground command centers. Israel claims that these tunnels are also used by militants for weapon smuggling and covert movement, which has led to frequent Israeli airstrikes targeting them.

The call to evacuate and nowhere to evacuate to

Last week, Israel’s military told some 1 million people to evacuate to the southern part of the besieged territory ahead of a ground invasion organized in retaliation for the attack by Hamas. The UN warned that this evacuation, of almost half of Gaza, would be calamitous, whilst the inhabitants claim they have nowhere to go.  

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23 October 2023, 12:11