Israel is able to impose such conditions on Gaza because the Palestinian enclave has been under an air, land and sea blockade since 2007.
A strip of land wedged between the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Israel to the north and east, and Egypt to the south, Gaza is home to more than 20 lakh Palestinians. It has been under military occupation since 1967, and even though Israel maintains that it pulled out in 2005, the United Nations, the European Union and other international organisations still consider Gaza as occupied territory.
The conditions created by the occupation and the blockade have led many, including UN experts, intellectuals, rights groups and even former British Prime Minister David Cameron, to refer to Gaza as an “open air prison”.
The beginning of the Gaza blockade
In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured Gaza from Egypt, and began its military occupation of the territory. Between 1967 and 2005, Israel built 21 settlements in Gaza and urged Palestinian residents, through coercive measures as well as by giving financial and other incentives, to leave the territory. However, that period saw rising Palestinian resistance, both violent and non-violent, against the Israeli occupation.
In 2005, Israel withdrew its settlements from Gaza. Between then and 2007, it imposed temporary blockades on the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza on multiple occasions.
Under the 1993 Oslo Agreement, the Palestinian Authority got administrative control over Gaza after Israel pulled out, and an election was held in 2006. The voting took place at a time when an Israeli blockade was in force, and the militant group Hamas won a majority of seats. Following the election, deadly violence broke out between Hamas and Fatah, another Palestinian political faction, leading to the death of hundreds of Palestinians.
In 2007, after Hamas assumed power in Gaza, Israel made the blockade permanent. Egypt, which also has a border crossing with Gaza, participated in the blockade. This effectively meant that most people could not go into or out of Gaza and that the movement of goods and aid was highly restricted. Israel justifies the blockade as being necessary for its security.
Walls and crossings
With walls on three sides and the Mediterranean on the fourth, Gaza Strip is surrounded by physical barriers.
In 1994, Israel built a 60-km-long fence along its border with Gaza. That has since been upgraded several times and a sophisticated border security system has emerged, including walls that are 7 metres tall with sensors and remote-controlled machine guns at areas where the border passes near Israeli settlements. There are also underground walls to prevent any movement through tunnels.
Walled-off from the north and the east by Israel, Gaza’s southern border also got a wall when Egypt, with the help of the US, started constructing a 14-km steel border barrier. It also built underground barriers to block smuggling tunnels.
In the west, Israel controls the sea route into Gaza and doesn’t allow it be used for the transfer of people or goods.
Currently, there are three functional border crossings between Gaza and the outside world – Karem Abu Salem Crossing and Erez Crossing controlled by Israel, and Rafah Crossing controlled by Egypt. Since Saturday’s attack on Israel, all three crossings have been effectively sealed.
Densely populated and impoverished
The Gaza Strip is 41 km long and 12 km wide at its widest point. More than 20 lakh residents live in a total area of just around 365 sq km, making it one of the most densely populated areas in the world.
According to a report published last year by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the blockade has “undermined Gaza’s economy, resulting in high unemployment, food insecurity and aid dependency”.
This has led to around 61% of Gaza’s population requiring food aid, 31% of households having difficulty in “meeting essential education needs such as tuition fees and books, due to lack of financial resources”, and an unemployment rate of more than 46%, the report said. It also highlighted the shortage of electricity, leading to power cuts at an average of around 11 hours per day.
“The blockade has raised concern about collective punishment and other possible violations under international humanitarian and human rights law,” the report said.
The blockade also makes it very difficult for people from Gaza to go to the bigger Palestinian territory of West Bank, where many have familial and business connections. Many in Gaza also rely on going to the West Bank for medical treatment, but under the blockade, this is only possible after a long verification process conducted by Israel, which has a high rate of rejections.
‘Open air prison’
“There is no other way to define the regime that Israel has imposed on the Palestinians – which is apartheid by default – other than as an open air prison,” Francesca Albanese, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories, said in July this year.
She used the term “open air prison”, which has been widely used over the years by academics, activists and journalists to describe the conditions in Gaza under the blockade. “It hardly takes more than a day in Gaza to appreciate what it must be like to try to survive in the world’s largest open-air prison,” noted linguist and public intellectual Noam Chomsky wrote in 2012.
Even heads of government allied to Israel have used the term in the past. In 2010, then British PM David Cameron referred to Gaza in Parliament as “a giant open prison”.