The Gaza Strip is a 25-mile long piece of land that sits between southern Israel and the Mediterranean Sea. Once under the administration of Egypt, which it borders to the south, Gaza came under the control of Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. It was part of the surprising and comprehensive victory for Israel that also saw the capture of the West Bank, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.
In 1993, Israel signed the Oslo Accords, placing the Palestinian Authority over the Gaza Strip and West Bank, while Israel maintained a claim of ownership over both. Unrest would follow as Palestinians sought to drive out the Israeli influence which finally saw success in 2005 when Israel removed all troops and settlements. While political concessions are credited with this decision, it was also a prudent step for Israel since involvement in the Gaza Strip was more costly than it was beneficial.
Following Israel’s withdrawal, enthusiasm over democratic elections in Gaza soon dissipated when Hamas was elected to power. Refusing to accept Israel’s legitimacy, and with a charter endorsing its destruction, there was little sign of peace to come. Hamas even created a rift between itself and its counterparts in the West Bank, governed by the more moderate Fatah.
Since 2006, violence across the Israel-Gaza border has impaired hopes of peace between the two. Most recently, last November saw the exchange of missiles between the two which resulted in six Israeli deaths and some 170 Palestinians killed, most of which were civilians. The resulting ceasefire has stayed in place until this week when more shots were fired across the border, indicating that another escalation of conflict is not out of the question.
Amid all of this, the people of Gaza have struggled immensely. Following Hamas’s rise to power in 2006, Israel imposed a strict blockade to the strip, preventing the movement of goods and people. Gaza has been unable to cultivate its own economic culture and as a result relies almost entirely on foreign aid for sustenance. Around 38 percent of the people live below the poverty line while unemployment sits at a high 30 percent, and is much higher for young people.
More troubling is the rapid population growth Gaza is experiencing. With 1.6 million people currently, the small territory already has a population density more than twice that of New York City, and projections suggest this will increase substantially in the coming years. Over half of the population is under 18, meaning even higher jobless numbers in the future.
In addition to the blockade, Israel has imposed restrictions on Gaza’s fishing industry, one of few sources of food and income for the people there. The 12-mile fishing zone off the coast has been reduced to three miles which is further compromised by the raw sewage that is pumped out into the sea. Meanwhile, farming in Gaza faces the struggle of depleting fresh-water supplies.
Understanding the situation of the people in Gaza changes the perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. History tells us that a people frustrated and suppressed by external powers and conditions will ultimately turn to violence. If Israeli attempts to prohibit economic development in Gaza are allowed to continue, it is no wonder that more people are likely to offer their support to Hamas. Israel and Palestine may always be at war, as some suggest, but this does not justify the deliberate oppression of a people who are, in most cases, denied the very basic necessities of life.
While Hamas may refuse to acknowledge Israel’s legitimacy, there is no reason why a degree of peace cannot be achieved. This has already been expressed through the ceasefire in November, spearheaded by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. Meshaal was re-elected leader this week which is a sign of possible amity to come. Yet as long as the people of Gaza are denied the very freedoms that would see them lift themselves out of poverty, tension will persist, violence will erupt and what is largely a plea for self-determination will continue to be framed as an insurmountable battle.