Gaza: Overview and Siege
Gaza ( Arabic غزة , Hebrew עזה ) also referred to as 'the Gaza Strip', is a narrow piece of land situated in the south-west corner of historic Palestine and bordering on the Mediterranean. It is approx. 41 kms. (25 miles) long, and from 6 to12 kms. (4–7.5 miles) wide at its narrowest and widest points respectively. It occupies an area of only 360 sq.kms. (139 sq. miles). It is bounded by Israel to the north, east and south and by Egypt to the south-west. Its capital, for which it was named, is Gaza City.
In 2009 the population numbered approx. 1.5 million people, two-thirds of whom are refugees or descendants of refugees who were driven out of other parts of Palestine when the Israeli state was established in 1948. There are no fewer than eight refugee camps in the Gaza Strip : Jabalia, Beach, Nuseirat, Bureij, Maghazi, Deir El Balah, Khan Younis and Rafah.
Gaza, which originally encompassed the Israeli coastal towns of Ashdod and Askelon, has a long and ancient history with records going back to the 15th Century BC.
Following a period of Egyptian rule it became the homeland of the Philistines, a sea-going people of possibly Mycenaean origin. Its geographical location between North Africa and the Levant made it a key intersection of trade and culture and a prize for the various empires of the ancient world including the Assyrian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine. In 635 AD it was captured by the Islamic Rashidun Caliphate and was later fought over by Crusaders and Moslems, including the legendary Salah Ad-Din.
In the 16th Century Gaza was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire, under whose rule it enjoyed a long period of relative peace and prosperity. When the Ottoman Turks were defeated in the First World War Gaza became part of the British Mandate of Palestine.
1947 - The United Nations partitions Palestine without consulting its indigenous people. (see Sadaka website/About Palestine/History)
1948 - Zionist forces defy UN Plan and seize extra coastal land including the ancient Arab town of Jaffa, north of Gaza.
1948 - State of Israel proclaimed. Arab-Israeli war.
1949 - Armistice Agreement between Israel and Egypt sets what are still the current boundaries of the Gaza Strip. Egypt administers Gaza.
1956 - Suez Crisis. Israel joins Britain and France to invade Egypt. Israel occupies the Gaza Strip for four months during which time it carries out massacres.
1967 - 'Six-Day War'. Israel seizes the Gaza Strip.
1970 - 'Gaza Clearances'. Ariel Sharon, head of IDF 'Southern Command' sets out to 1971 'pacify' Gaza. Thousands of homes bulldozed; 16,000 refugees uprooted again; hundreds, including children, beaten and murdered; hundreds more sent to prison in Sinai. 1978 - Camp David Accords. But Israel sets up a total of 21 illegal settlements in Gaza.
1987 - Israeli military occupation and illegal settlements lead to first Palestinian Intifada (uprising). 1993 - Oslo Accords grant limited autonomy under the Palestinian National Authority - except for the settlements and the 'military areas'. Israel retained control of the territorial waters and the airspace.
2000 - Sharon's provocative act at the Haram-al-Sharif in Jerusalem gives rise to the Second Intifada.
2001 - Israel destroys the Gaza Airport and docks.
2004 - Sharon announces Israel's intention to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. The intention is to boost Israeli illegal expansion on the West Bank (See The Road Map to Nowhere Tanya Reinhart)
2005 - Israel evacuates the illegal settlements in Gaza. The Israeli army withdraws but only to the border. Israel retains control of Gaza airspace, territorial waters and borders.
2006 - Jan. Hamas wins the Palestinian Legislative Elections gaining majorities in both Gaza and the West Bank. The Israeli government, the United States and the EU refuse to recognise the result of the elections and impose sanctions and closures on the Gaza Strip. Result shortage of food and essential supplies. International human rights organisations declare this to be 'collective punishment' of a civilian population, which is outlawed under the Geneva Convention.
2006 - June. Israelis launch 'Operation Summer Rain'. Israeli airforce bombards civilian infrastructure : water and electricity plants, schools, hospitals, government buildings, housing etc. destroyed.
2006 - Following the election Hamas spokesmen made it clear they were seeking a long-term truce with Israel if Israel would end its illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories. In a BBC interview Ismail Haniya, the elected prime minister, said that Hamas would consider a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. These peace proposals were ignored by the 'Quartet' (the US, EU, Russia and the UN) and by Israel which imprisons elected Hamas representatives on the West Bank.
2006 - Developing factionalism and tension between Hamas and their election rivals Fatah who refused to accept the result of the January election. Israel encourages this rivalry and supports the Fatah leadership.
2007 - June. Hamas forces Fatah out of the Gaza Strip.
2008 - June. Egypt brokers an Israeli/Hamas truce in Gaza.
2008 - Nov. 4th. Israeli forces enter Gaza and kill six members of Hamas.
2008 - Dec. Israel launches another major attack on the Gaza Strip - 'Operation Cast Lead'. It will last until January 2009.
As can be seen from the Chronology,the people of Gaza had been subject to Israeli aggression and restriction over a long period of time. The Israeli occupation begun in 1967 ushered in a period of Israeli military and bureaucratic control over Gazan life which would depress the economy and lead to the steady impoverishment of its people (except for the Settlers who lived there as a privileged caste). The Palestinians in Gaza were not free to decide where they could work or travel, who they could trade with nor how their taxes were to be spent. When Israel decided to get out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, in an attempt to shed responsibility for the welfare of its citizens, 65% of Gazans lived below the poverty line and 35% were unemployed.
'The Largest Open-Air Prison in the World'
Despite evacuating all the Israeli settlers in 2005, the Israeli occupation forces merely withdrew to the borders of Gaza, from which point they maintained control and surveillance over the airspace, territory and adjacent sea. This security-based border regime adversely affected the Gaza economy which, according to the World Bank, needed two conditions for recovery : 1) An end to Israeli closure policies and 2) unobstructed access to world markets. To facilitate this the United States brokered an 'Agreement on Movement and Access', announced in November 2005. However, Israel ignored this and seemed deliberately to proceed with measures which would sabotage any prospects for economic recovery : Frequent, prolonged closures and obstruction of goods and people were maintained at the border crossing points, permits to work in Israel were gradually withdrawn while the Israeli army carried out regular military incursions into the territory. Gaza became steadily more isolated, both politically and economically, from the West Bank and from the rest of the world.
Palestinian resistance actions - home-made rockets fired across the Gaza border - were met with Israeli actions directed against the population as a whole. The weapon of choice was the 'sonic boom'. Low-flying F-16 fighter jets would break the sound barrier above populated areas, creating thunderous shock waves which shook buildings, broke windows, blew off doors, and caused widespread panic, fear, and hysteria, especially among children. Because Israel still controlled the electricity and communications systems, it could cut the power as and when it chose. This had disastrous consequences
especially for hospitals and essential public facilities such as water and sanitation plants.
These repressive measures intensified to an alarming degree after Hamas won a majority, in both Gaza and the West Bank, in the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Elections. The militant stance of the Islamic party provided the Israelis with a pretext for ratchetting up the pressure on the Gaza Strip. Israel was encouraged in this by the refusal of the 'Quartet' - the US, EU, UN and Russia - to honour the result of the democratically-conducted, internationally-observed election. Tax revenues and aid from the World Bank and other international institutions were withheld from the new Palestinian Authority; food supplies were prevented from coming in and Israeli Government Advisor Dov Weissglass joked that the Palestinians were to be 'put on a diet'; a perimeter fence was constructed.
Palestinian Rocket Attacks
Allegedly in response to home-made rocket attacks, the Israeli military routinely used heavy artillery to fire indiscriminately into civilian areas killing and wounding hundreds of men, women and children. (See Appendix [ ] for the casualty list for June 2006)
Operation 'Summer Rain'
Following the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit the Israelis launched the first of its large scale military assaults on Gaza. On 27 June Israeli fighter planes carried out airstrikes targetting the civilian infrastructure, bridges and power plants sending most of Gaza into darkness. Borders closed. Food not allowed in. Children suffering from malnutrition. No clean water. An estimated 200-250 artillery shells fired into Gaza daily. Over 200 airstrikes killing approximately 400 Palestinians. Lasts ten weeks.
Operation 'Autumn Clouds
November 2006. Six-day ground invasion of Beit Hanoun. 50 Palestinians killed. Artillery shells kill 18 from one family. In December a 'ceasefire' is declared but in May 2007 Israel re-invades the Strip.
An 'Enemy Entity'
Tension between Hamas and Fatah, who have never accepted the result of the 2006 election, continues, exacerbated by Israel seeming to support Fatah. Resulting political instability leads to Hamas forcing Fatah out of Gaza in June 2007. In September the Israeli government brands Gaza an 'enemy entity'. The Israeli High Court approves the political assassination of Hamas figures. Over 60 Hamas ministers and politicians are already in Israeli custody.
The expulsion of Fatah provides Israel with a pretext for continuing its draconian policies against the people of Gaza. Israeli incursions in January and February 2008 lead to 138 Palestinians dead.
In June 2008 Egypt brokers a truce between Israel and Hamas. On November 4th Israeli forces enter Gaza and kill six members of Hamas, thus breaking the truce. Hamas retaliates giving Israel a pretext for more aggression. (See Sadaka Briefing No.6 The Israel-Hamas Ceasefire).
On 27 December 2008, without warning, Israeli forces began a devastating bombing campaign on the Gaza Strip codenamed Operation ‘Cast Lead’. By 18 January 2009 some 1,400 Palestinians had been killed, including 313 children, thousands more were wounded. Once more the Israelis targeted the civilian infrastructure including houses, hospitals, schools, markets, businesses and government buildings. Large areas of Gaza were razed to the ground. [Photo: Israelis bombing civilian targets in Gaza City]
What made the assault particularly cruel and lethal was that the Gaza people were blockaded in to the Strip and had no means of escape.
Although the stated aim of the invasion was to end rocket attacks into Israel by armed groups affiliated with Hamas and other Palestinian factions, an article in the Israeli press entitled ‘Disinformation, Secrecy and Lies: How the Gaza Offensive Came About’( Barak Ravid, Haaretz 27/12/08), revealed that Israel had been planning the assault for six months, even as it entered into a truce with Hamas. Certain features of the assault have led to Israel being accused of war crimes. [Photo: Israeli War Crimes - use of white phosphorus on civilians]
* Indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas
* Illegal use of certain weapons most notably white phosphorous, dime bombs and flechettes
* Deliberate targeting of medical personnel, endangering their lives
* Preventing medical personnel from dealing with the dead and wounded
* Cold-blooded executions of unarmed civilians
Although the stated aim of the invasion was to end rocket attacks into Israel by armed groups affiliated with Hamas and other Palestinian factions, an article in the Israeli press entitled ‘Disinformation, Secrecy and Lies: How the Gaza Offensive Came About’( Barak Ravid, Haaretz 27/12/08), revealed that Israel had been planning the assault for six months, even as it entered into a truce with Hamas.
In response to an international outcry the United Nations set up an investigation in April 2009. The 'fact-finding mission' was led by Justice Richard Goldstone whose final report (see 'Gaza Documents') concluded that war crimes had indeed been committed during the assault. The 'Goldstone Report' was contested by Israel but was endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council on 16th October 2009 and by the EU on 10th March 2010.
Because of the continuing Israeli blockade of Gaza, essential supplies to repair the damage can still not get in : Medicines for the wounded; construction materials and technical equipment to rebuild the vital installations, public buildings, roads and houses. Food and clean water continue to be in desperately short supply.
The main routes in and out Gaza have for decades been subject to Israeli restriction. Then In 1994 Israel built a 'separation barrier' along the entire land border of the Gaza Strip. It is made up of wire fencing with posts, sensors and buffer zones. In 2001 the Israeli airforce destroyed the airport. Unable to move goods and people by air or through the antiquated sea port, that left only the six land crossing points :
- Erez, Nahal Oz, Karni, Sufa and Kerem Shalom into Israel
- Rafah into Egypt. (Monitored by the EU and Israel)
When in 2007 unresolved factionalism led Hamas to expel Fatah representatives from the Strip, Israel took the opportunity to institute an all-out blockade. Even before 'Operation Cast Lead' this punitive measure was having a devastating effect on all aspects of life in Gaza, most crucially the health of the inhabitants and the economy.
Movement of People
Travel permits from the Israeli government are required for entry and exit from the Strip. Israel allows the passage of people into and out of Gaza only ‘in humanitarian and exceptional cases’ *. Family ties in themselves do not constitute sufficient humanitarian justification for travel, so, for example, relatives, including spouses and children may not travel to and from Gaza to the West Bank nor to other places such as Jordan or Egypt; medical personnel cannot travel to upgrade their skills in international medical centres; students may not leave Gaza to study in the West Bank or abroad; sportspeople, such as members of the Palestinian football team, may not travel to train or to compete; merchants and business people may not travel for trade purposes.
* However, there are many examples of Israeli denial of travel permits to serious and emergency medical cases.
Movement of Goods
The blockade prevents Gaza from exporting any goods and restricts imports to a limited amount of basic humanitarian aid. 'Dual use' items such as fertiliser and steel rods are not allowed in for 'security' reasons. Other than that, no specific list of what is and is not allowed in has been published, and items gaining entry vary over time. UNRWA's list of household items that have been refused entry at various times includes light bulbs, candles, matches, books, musical instruments, crayons, clothing, shoes, mattresses, sheets, blankets, pasta, tea, coffee, chocolate, nuts, shampoo and conditioner. The list can be bizarre, allowing cinnamon but not coriander, allowing mineral water but not fruit juice. Footballs and plastic toys too have been specifically banned! (See Gaza Documents for 'Permitted Imports') Many other items - ranging from cars to fridges to computers - are generally refused entry.
As part of its 'economic warfare' Israel also prohibits the import of raw materials for industry.
Following 'Operation Cast Lead' Israel refused to allow construction materials into Gaza, so roads, houses, hospitals, schools, vital installations and workplaces still lie in ruins. In addition, Israel refused to allow in medical equipment and drugs urgently needed to treat the wounded and disabled. Immediately following the assault, international medical teams, including burns specialists, were not allowed into Gaza to assist the doctors there.
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says 61% of Gazans are "food insecure". UNRWA states that 80% of Gazan households rely on some kind of food aid. Border closures and fuel shortages sometimes interfere with food distribution.
Unrwa rations provide about two-thirds of dietary needs, and so need to be supplemented by dairy products, meat, fish and fresh fruit and vegetables. Some of these items are grown locally, some allowed in from Israel, and some smuggled in through tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border. However the high levels of unemployment and the steady impoverishment of the population mean that more and more Gazans cannot afford to buy these basic items. A UN survey conducted in 2008 found more than half Gaza's households had sold their disposable assets and were relying on credit to buy food. UNRWA reports that many cannot afford soap, stationery or safe drinking water.
The food shortages have not been helped by Israel's destruction of Gaza's agricultural sector - fields, orchards and greenhouses - during 'Cast Lead'. According to the World Health Organization, one third of children under five and women of childbearing age are anaemic.
Historically, fishing has always been an important part of the Gazan economy, providing a healthy revenue for the thousands of people connected with it. The illegal blockade of Gaza initially restricted fishing to 20 nautical miles, then 12, then 6 miles, and finally 3 miles, but even within this limit fisherman are at risk of being killed or wounded by the Israeli Navy. Following the Oslo Accords an 'Interim Agreement' was signed in 1994/5 in Washington DC between Israel and the PLO which, among other things prohibited Gazan fishermen from fishing more than twenty nautical miles off their own coastline. However, Israel never honoured even this restrictive agreement and never allowed fishing beyond twelve nautical miles. Citing 'security', Israel has over the years forced the fishermen into an ever-shrinking fishing zone. Having arbitrarily named six nautical miles as the present limit, in practice the Israeli navy currently confines the fishing boats to THREE nautical miles off the coast of Gaza.
If the fishermen dare to sail any further they are fired upon, boarded or rammed, wounded, abducted or even killed by the Israeli navy. The narrow fishing zone means the catches are meagre and the fishing stocks depleted. There is an additional danger of poisoning as the fish caught close to shore are in waters polluted by the raw sewage which flows into the sea - a dangerous side-effect of Gaza's destroyed sewage system. The total catch now is less than 500 tons per year - so another Palestinian industry destroyed.
[Photo: Fishing boat close to the coast indiscriminately shelled by Israeli Navy]
Gaza Marine Gas Field
Those who study Gazan affairs think it is no coincidence that in the late nineties a rich gas deposit was discovered at 25-30 kilometres off the Gazan coast. It would have an estimated yield of one trillion cubic feet of gas worth approximately four billion dollars and would last for fifteen years. It was following this find that the Israeli navy started forcing the fishermen further and further into the shore.
Since 2007 Israel reduced fuel imports to Gaza. According to Oxfam no petrol or diesel for vehicles has been allowed in from Israel since November 2008, except for fuel for UN cars. Vehicle fuel enters from Egypt through the tunnels. The amount of cooking gas allowed in has generally fluctuated between about a third and a half of requirements according to Oxfam figures.
Gaza's only power plant relies on fuel for its operation. Israeli restriction on fuel supplies therefore impinge directly on the plant's ability to provide electricity.
The plant has shut down completely several times after running out of fuel because the Nahal OZ crossing was closed. It was out of fuel for most of the Israeli operation in January 2009, leaving two-thirds of Gazans without power at the height of the crisis. Since early 2008, the power plant has received enough fuel to operate at only about two-thirds of its capacity. In April and May 2010, fuel supply fluctuated, with the plant only able to operate at between 20 and 50% of its capacity. Power cuts remain frequent. Research by Oxfam in April 2010 showed houses across Gaza without power for 35-60 hours a week.
The Gazan economy has been devastated by Israeli closure policy. According to the UN, the blockade has caused the economy "irreversible damage" and that when aid is discounted, 70% of Gazan families live on less than a dollar a day per person. The World Bank states that unemployment has soared to approx. 40%. The closures have devastated the private sector.
Before 2007, up to about 750 trucks of furniture, food products, textiles and agricultural produce left Gaza each month, worth half a million US dollars a day. Under the blockade, the only exports allowed have been a small number of trucks of strawberries and flowers. Even production for local needs has come to a virtual standstill because raw materials are usually refused entry. Some industrial premises have resumed limited production using goods brought in from the tunnels.
Before the blockade, 3,900 industrial premises were operating, employing 35,000 people - by June 2008, only ninety were still functioning, employing only 860 people according to the Palestinian Trade Center.
During 'Operation Cast Lead' an estimated total of $140m of damage was done to Gaza businesses according to a Palestinian enterprise body, the Palestinian Private Sector Coordinating Council.
Despite Israel's many breaches of international law and its continuing strangulation of Gaza, the 'Quartet' still continue to support Israel and even to reward it. Israel is the highest recipient of US aid - currently 3 billion dollars per year. The 'Euro-Mediterranean Agreement' through which Israel enjoys privileged trading relations with the European Union is still in place.
However, a growing international solidarity movement, based in many countries is determined to bring help to the Palestinians. For example, the number of ships attempting to break the Gaza blockade in order to bring in humanitarian supplies is increasing. The recent dramatic events aboard the Turkish 'MV. Mavi Marmara' where Israeli commandos murdered nine human rights activists have caused outrage across the world. Politicians and public figures have called for the siege of Gaza to be lifted entirely. Israel however has so far only consented to an 'easing' of the blockade.
The following reports by groups of NGOs – Trócaire, Christian Aid, Oxfam, Amnesty International, amongst others – testify to the humanitarian crisis produced by Israel’s economic embargo on Gaza. This embargo has varied in intensity over the years, but its intensity increased dramatically after Hamas took control in Gaza in June 2007.
'The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion'
This report, produced nine months after Hamas took control, concluded that Israel’s blockade had produced the worst humanitarian crisis there since Israel’s occupation of Gaza began in 1967 (March, 2008).
Failing Gaza: Israel launched a ferocious military assault on Gaza in late December 2008 (Operation Cast Lead), which killed around 1,400 Palestinians and destroyed around 3,500 houses completely and over 11,000 partially. 'Failing Gaza' (December 2009), produced a year after Operation Cast Lead, summarised the continuing impact of the blockade as follows: "The Israeli government’s blockade, imposed in 2007 after Hamas took control of Gaza (though long preceded by regular closures and restrictions), not only forbids most Gazans from leaving or exporting anything to the outside world, but also only permits the import of a narrowly-restricted number of basic humanitarian goods." (p3) Moreover, materials desperately needed for reconstruction were almost completely banned: "Barely four trucks of construction materials a month have entered Gaza during this period, just 0.05% of pre-blockade monthly flows [of 7,400 trucks on average]. As a result, all kinds of construction materials – cement, gravel, wood, pipes, glass, steel bars, aluminium, tar – and spare parts are in desperately short supply or completely unavailable …" (p6)
'Dashed Hopes'. The Free Gaza flotilla, and Israel’s killing of 9 passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara, drew attention to the cruelty of Israel’s blockade. As a result, Israel felt obliged to modify the regime it had imposed – a list of items allowed into Gaza was replaced by a list of disallowed items, and there were hopes that life would improve for Palestinians in Gaza as a result.
This report (November 2010) concludes that the modification made little difference. In summary, its conclusions were as follows:
"However, five months later, there are few signs of real improvement on the ground as the ‘ease’ has left foundations of the illegal blockade policy intact. In order to have a positive impact on the daily lives of the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, half of whom are children, Israel must fully lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip."
"While the Government of Israel committed to expand and accelerate the inflow of construction materials for international projects, it has so far only approved 7 per cent of the building plan for UNRWA’s projects in Gaza, and of that 7 per cent only a small fraction of the necessary construction material has been allowed to enter for projects including schools and health centres. In fact, the UN reports that Gaza requires 670,000 truckloads of construction material, while only an average of 715 of these truckloads have been received per month since the ‘easing’ was announced." (p3)
You can read more about the Free Gaza Flotilla and the Mavi Marmara on the Sadaka web page The Free Gaza Flotilla