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Gaza: Life in the strip

Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Young Palestinians try to retrieve belongings from their homes after an Israeli strike. AP PHOTO

Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip are involved in some of the most intense violence for months. Militants are firing volleys of rockets into Israel and Gaza is being hit by waves of air strikes. Mark Wilson explains the background to the current crisis and gives some analysis about the future of Gaza.

Just 25 miles long—pretty much the distance from Arima to Diego—and four to seven miles wide. That’s Gaza; same size as Trinidad’s East-West Corridor.

In that tiny area live 1.8 million people—same as the combined population of T&T, Barbados, Grenada, St Vincent and Antigua. 

They have Israel on one side, the blue Mediterranean on the other, and short frontier with Egypt to the south.

At present growth rates, the population will be one-third larger in just ten years.

Feels crowded? If you’re from Gaza, you can’t easily leave. 

Visas? Vacation? Quick break? 

Forget it. There’s no airport. Land border crossings are open only for the privileged—mostly outsiders on work. The Israeli navy blocks shipping.

The Israelis allow food imports, and some essential goods. But not, for example, construction materials, which might be used for fortifications. The short frontier with Egypt is also closed. There were 1,000 or so cross-border smuggling tunnels, mostly into Egypt. 

Most have been destroyed. Some were flooded with sewage. It’s the world’s largest open-air prison.

Fuel supplies? Limited. Electric current? More off than on—and that was before the power plant was hit last Tuesday. 

Water supply? Stand in line with a bucket. Sewage disposal? Iffy. Much of it flows untreated into the Mediterranean. Forget that weekend beach picnic.

Exports are blocked. There is some agriculture, but not much, for lack of space and water. 

The administration receives international funds, so there are government jobs. 

The UN assists education and food supply. Perhaps half the workforce is unemployed. Two-thirds live below the poverty line. Until 2000, around 25,000 workers made a daily commute to low-paid jobs in Israel. They brought home useful cash. 

Not again. All that was all in normal times, before the current crisis. 

Since July, life in Gaza has moved from bad dream to nightmare.


The backstory

Gaza is an ancient trading city. It has been Canaanite, Philistine, Jewish, Assyrian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Crusader and Turkish—even briefly held by the French emperor, Napoleon. 

The trouble started close to a century ago, in 1917. The First World War looked a bloody stalemate. Palestine was controlled by a German ally, Turkey. 

To win Jewish support in Europe and America, Britain’s foreign secretary Arthur Balfour issued a somewhat ambiguous declaration. He said Palestine should contain a “national home for the Jewish being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities.”

Looks like a few unreconcilables packed in there. And what, precisely, is a “national home?”

Germany lost the war. The Turkish empire was dismantled. Palestine became a British “mandate.” Jewish settlers migrated from Europe to a land peopled by Arabs. Most went to coastlands around Tel Aviv, or to Galilee. There were few Jewish settlements around Gaza.

After the Second World War, Jews and Arabs each passionately wanted a national state in Palestine. There was bloodshed; when the British mandate ended in 1948, that turned to a full-scale war, known to Palestinians as al-Nakba: the Catastrophe. 

A UN partition plan collapsed. The new state of Israel took most of Palestine. Arab refugees fled to Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon, lands still under Arab control. Gaza was ruled in practice by Egypt. 

Twenty years on, Arab hopes of regaining Palestine were shattered in the 1967 June War, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza and new Jewish settlements were established in the occupied lands. 

Who runs the gaza now?

Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005. Jewish settlements in the south of the strip were abandoned.

Two years later, Hamas won a Palestinian election, and took control of Gaza. From that point on, Israel toughened its stance. Israel loathes, fears and distrusts Hamas. The feelings are mutual.

So who are Hamas? The word is an acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement.” It also means “zeal.” 

Israel, the US and the EU call it a terrorist group. The Economist calls it “harsh, narrow-minded and intolerant of dissent.” Its founding charter is violently anti-Jewish, though policies can evolve. Like any group, Hamas is hard to pin down. It’s a fair bet some faction fights are in progress.

Hamas runs Gaza and its bitter rival Al Fatah, led by Mahmoud Abbas, runs what’s left of the West Bank.

Hamas has few friends. It liked Muhammad Morsi’s short-lived Islamic Brotherhood government in Egypt. But the generals in charge since last year loathe Hamas. They talk instead to Abbas. Still on speaking terms are Qatar (of the World Cup) and Turkey (oddly, with its democratic, secular traditions). They could provide a shaky bridge for talks.

What’s next?

Israeli politics are faction-ridden up to cabinet level, blocking clear peace talks. But for now, Israelis are behind their own offensive; one poll found 95 per cent in favour, four per cent against. 

Internationally, Israel has lost friends. Even in June, before the current fighting, a poll carried out in 20 countries found only North Korea, Pakistan and Iran ranked as a worse influence on the world. In America, most over-50s and Republicans back Israeli policies; most under 30s and Democrats do not. 

A Friday ceasefire lasted two hours. Outlook? Don’t even ask. 

But a 25-mile, 24-hour desert lockdown can’t cut it for ever. Gaza needs a future.


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