Gaza: A Military Explosion and a Humanitarian Implosion

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Anyone watching or even taking a glimpse of the news these days is sure to be bombarded by a series of headlines related to the situation in Gaza. Not everyone though seems to take notice of how dire the situation is becoming and how the events are unwinding.


What is the Gaza Strip?


Named after its main city, Gaza, the Gaza Strip is inhabited by approximately 1.4 million Palestinians. It is made up of 5 territories namely (from north to south) North Gaza, Gaza City, Deir al Balah, Khan Yunis, and Rafah.


Bordering Egypt on the south-west and Israel on the north and east, the Gaza Strip is a strip of land running along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It is about 41 kilometers in length, and 12 kilometers in width at its widest point -covering a total area of 360 square kilometers.


Historical Background


In 1517 Gaza became part of the Ottoman Empire up until it was occupied by the British in 1917 during WWI. After the end of the war, Gaza became part of the British Mandate of Palestine.


The Arab-Israeli War of 1948 occurred after Israel declared its independence following the dissolution of the British mandate of Palestine. In 1949 an Armistice Agreement was signed between Egypt and Israel. Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip from 1949 until it came under Israeli occupation again in 1967 during the Six-Day War.


After the 1994 Oslo Accords were signed by the Palestinians and Israelis, the Palestinian Authority (PA) started to gradually take control of the Gaza Strip. With Israeli forces leaving Gaza City, it became the PA’s first provincial headquarters.


As a result of the Second Intifada which erupted in September 2000, the Israeli government proposed a unilateral disengagement plan from the Gaza Strip in 2005. On 12 September, 2005 the Israeli cabinet formally declared an end to Israeli military rule in the area with full PA administrative authority.


However, Israel remains in control of air space, territorial waters, offshore maritime access, the population registry, entry of foreigners, imports and exports as well as the tax system.


Recent Events


In June 2007, violence erupted between Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) and Fatah (Palestine Liberation Movement) – two factions which were already part of the PA’s Unity Government. As a result of the violent outbreak, Hamas managed to take over control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, declared itself the legitimate government of the PA, and expelled forces loyal to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas from the Strip. Hamas is politically and -it is believed- logistically supported by Syria and Iran.


Following Hamas’ takeover of Gaza, Abbas declared a state of emergency, dissolved the unity government and formed a new government in the West Bank without Hamas participation. The Hamas government in the Gaza Strip faces international diplomatic and economic isolation while Abbas’ government has won widespread international support.


Since Hamas’ overtake of Gaza, Israel has blockaded the city allowing only basic food items and some humanitarian supplies. This, Israel claims, is in retaliation to the rocket attacks being launched by Hamas into Israel. On January 20th, 2008, however, Gaza City was plunged into total darkness after Israel blocked the shipment of fuel that powers its only electrical plant. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency – the organization in charge of Palestinian refugees warned the blockade would direly affect hospitals, sewage treatment and water facilities.


On January 23, 2008, parts of the wall dividing Gaza and Egypt in the town of Rafah were destroyed in an attempt to end the blockade. Thousands of Gazans crossed the border into Egypt seeking food and supplies until the borders were sealed again 12 days later.


In February 2008, the Israeli-Palestinian standoff intensified with rockets launched at Israeli cities and Israel attacking Palestinian militants and civilians alike. A heavy Israeli military action took place on March 1st, resulting in the death of over 100 Palestinians and 2 Israeli soldiers.


The Humanitarian Side


Gaza is currently facing a huge humanitarian crisis. A recent report sponsored by Amnesty International, Care International UK, Cafod, Christian Aid, Medecins du Monde UK, Oxfam, Save the Children UK and Trocaire describes the humanitarian situation in Gaza as an implosion.


It explains that, “Israel prevents the import of a list of specific essential humanitarian goods requested by aid agencies, including some fuel supplies, spare parts, cement, technical assistance and cotton for hygiene items.”


The report mentions many other shocking facts. Food prices are very high with essential items such wheat flour, baby milk and cooking oil being very scarce. Business and industry are also greatly affected with a 40% unemployment rate and 3,500 out of 3,900 factories closed. Agriculture is also suffering because of Israeli restriction on crops. The report mentions that “Israel insists that no crop is allowed to grow over 40cm high, limiting farmers to cash crops which are costly to produce and heavily reliant on accessible export markets.”


A few other equally shocking facts from the repor include the following:


– Israeli allows 2.2 million litres of EU-supplied industrial diesel per week – not enough to keep Gaza‘s main power plant operating at full capacity with implications for hospitals, sewage works, water supply and other public institutions.


– Between 25-30% of the population of the Gaza Strip does not receive running water at home because electricity is not available for pumping. About 30-40 million litres of sewage flows untreated into the sea every day.


– Hospitals experience power cuts for 8-12 hours a day and depend on generators to run basic facilities. Spare parts for generators are almost impossible to obtain.


– Access to lifesaving treatment outside Gaza has become more necessary, but in December 2007 only 64% of applicants were given permits to leave the strip by Israel, leading to dozens of patient deaths.


– Almost 2,000 Palestinian pupils have dropped out of school this academic year. A UN survey indicated 80% failure rates in most years.


Diplomatic efforts -it seems- are not able to slow down the unwinding of military actions between the Palestinians and Israelis and accordingly alleviate the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza. On March 6th, a Palestinian killed 8 students in a Jewish seminary with his machinegun. Later in the week Israeli soldiers killed four members of the Islamic Jihad –a militant Palestinian group- who accordingly retaliated with rocket attacks from Gaza. As the events seem to intensify, civilians are increasingly having to bear the foul fruits of the situation with no diplomatic solutions looming in the distance.

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