We have heard an enormous amount about Gaza in the news of late. Leading up to 70th anniversary of the Nakba (the flight of approximately 750,000 Palestinian’s on Israel’s creation in 1948). Palestinian’s in Gaza have been commemorating this event by conducting a ‘March of Return’ beginning on the 30th March 2018. The purpose of the March is quite simply to reclaim land that used to be a part of historic Palestine but is now part of Israel. The protests have been fundamentally peaceful (certainly no reporting of guns) with protestors gathering at a fence separating Gaza from Israel. May 14th saw the bloodiest day of the protests when approximately 60 Palestinians were killed and 2400 hundred injured: this coincided with the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem (itself a deeply provocative act). In all, in this period according to the Gaza Ministry of Health over a hundred Palestinian’s were killed and approximately 13,000 injured. By contrast, one Israeli soldier was slightly injured: reinforcing the peaceful nature of the protests.
For me, this whole episode led to several questions, such as what drives a person, another human being, to knowingly risk their lives in such a fashion? Is it the cause (worthy though it no doubt is)? Many of us who live comfortably in the West to die in such a manner would be nothing short of unimaginable no matter what the cause. Most of all I wondered what life is like for those living in Gaza. In this piece, my approach will be simply to focus on the facts in-order to depict the reality of life in Gaza so that readers can get an insight into what it’s like to live there. This then enables us to better understand and explain the behaviour of many of its inhabitants.
Gaza is circa 5,000 years old, one of the world’s oldest cities it was at one point a thriving port. In 1948 it was initially occupied by Egypt after the war between Israel and the Arabs. In the six-day war of 1967, however, it was seized by Israel and Israel controlled or occupied the territory until it withdrew its troops and approximately 7,000 settlers in 2005. Hamas won what by most accounts were credible legislative elections in 2006. The situation deteriorated the following year when a unity government between Hamas and Fatah (which controls the West Bank) collapsed amid violence that resulted in the deaths of around 120 people. Since 2007 Hamas has effectively controlled the territory. With Hamas in charge, Israel blockaded Gaza with Egypt blockading the Southern Border. Home to 1.9 million people, Gaza is 41km (25 miles) long and 10km wide, an enclave bounded by the Mediterranean Sea, Israel and Egypt. The vast majority of Gazan’s are refugees from Israel.
War and Conflict
In recent years, Gaza has seen three wars. In 2008, in an apparent response to Hamas’s provocation Israel launched an offensive against Gaza, followed by 2 more in 2012 and 2014. These offensives used disproportionate violence and have caused enormous damage to Gazas physical infrastructure including mosques, houses, medical facilities and schools. Israels justification for targeting such places was they were harbouring terrorists, and that Gaza is densely populated. Precise casualty figures aren’t readily available but anywhere between 3000-4000 Palestinian’s were killed during these offensives including many civilians and in 2014 alone over 500 children were killed. Israel’s casualties were low in the first two conflicts but Hamas (learning from Hezbollah and using a sophisticated network of tunnels) improved upon its defensive capabilities and in 2014 killed 71 Israels of which 66 were soldiers.
Education and Economy
Gaza is poorer than it was in the 1990s. Its economy grew by only 0.5% in 2017 according to a World Bank report. The unemployment rate is 49% (that’s effectively one in 2 people of working age) and youth unemployment stands at a staggering 60%. Its poverty rate is approximately 40%: double that of the West Bank. The poverty rates would likely be worst if it wasn’t for social aid payments mainly from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency(UNRWA).According to UNRWA, around 80% of Gazas population receive financial assistance.
Gazas schools are under enormous strain. According to UNRWA, over 90% of schools run a double shift system, with one shift in the morning and another in the afternoon. UNRWA runs approximately 250 schools in the territory but non-UN schools have suffered immensely. The 2014 conflict damaged over 500 schools, kindergartens and colleges, many of which are still unrepaired. This clearly affects class sizes (and by implication teaching quality) with the UN reporting an average classroom of around 40 pupils in 2017. A report by the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) predicts that due to population growth Gaza will require approximately 900 more schools and 23,000 more teachers by 2030.
Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on the planet. On average, some 5,500 people live on every square kilometre in Gaza. That’s expected to rise to over 6000 people per square kilometre by 2020. The population is expected to rise to over 2 million by 2020 and over 3 million by 2030. Israel declared a buffer zone in 2014 along the border (to ostensibly protect itself from attacks) thus reducing the size of inhabitable land in Gaza. According to the UN, there is a shortage of approximately 120,000 housing units due to natural population growth, as well as damage caused by the 2014 conflict. They estimate that circa 29,000 people remain displaced since the end of 2014 conflict. The strip also has one of the worlds youngest populations with more than 40% younger than 15 years old.
Food, Water and Health
The public health picture is no less depressing. The closure of the Rafah gate by Egypt on Gazas southern border reduced the number of patients travelling to Egypt for treatment. Before 2014, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported a monthly average of 4,000 people crossed into Egypt for health reasons alone. Israel has also reduced exit passes for medical reasons significantly in recent years dropping from 93% in 2012 to 54% in 2017. Further, medicines, supplies and equipment are all restricted because of the blockade – including dialysis machines and heart monitors.
As in education, the UNRWA provides assistance running 22 healthcare facilities. But a number of medical facilities were damaged or destroyed in previous conflicts with Israel, for instance, the number of primary health care clinics falling from 56 to 49 since 2000 – whilst in the same period the population has doubled.
Gaza has little rain and no major fresh water source to replenish its underground water supplies, which are not large enough to keep up with demand. Most households are on a piped water network; however, the supply is inconsistent and often of poor quality. According to UNRWA, over 90% of the water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption. Over 95% of Gaza households depend on water delivered by tanker trucks. Sewage is another issue: 95% of groundwater in the Strip is polluted.
Many Gazans also have serious mental health problems. Large numbers, including children, suffer from anxiety, distress and depression. The UNRWA has provided counselling to some children dealing with a range of problems, including fear of violence, sleeplessness, a lack of motivation in school or the inability to concentrate.
More than a million people in Gaza are classed as ‘moderately-to-severely food insecure’, according to the UN, despite many receiving some form of food aid. Israeli restrictions on access to agricultural land and fishing makes life even more difficult. Palestinians are not allowed to farm in the Israeli-declared buffer zone – which has resulted in a loss of an estimated 75,000 tonnes of produce a year.
The restricted area also happens to be some of the most arable land in the strip leading to a fall in agriculture’s share of the GDP from 11% in 1994 to less than 5% at present. Israel imposes a fishing limit meaning Gazans can only fish within a certain distance of the shore (and occasionally kills fishermen who they believe have transgressed). The UN reports that if the limit were lifted, fishing could provide employment and a cheap source of protein for the people of Gaza. At times, depending on its relations with Hamas Israel either extends or shortens the area for fishing.
Power cuts are an everyday reality in the strip. On average, Gazans only get anywhere between 3 to 6 hours of electricity a day (which clearly affects the ability to deliver vital services such as medical facilities). Gaza is dependent upon Israel for most of its energy needs, with some provided by its sole power plant and a small amount from Egypt. However, according to the World Bank this all only amounts to a third of Gazas energy needs. Further, both the Gaza Power Plant (GPP) and peoples individual generators depend on diesel fuel, which is very expensive, in short supply and environmentally damaging. The GPP was originally designed to run on natural gas, and the World Bank estimates reconverting the plant to run on gas would save millions of dollars and increase output fivefold. Offshore there is a gas field which the UN says could provide all the territorys power needs if it were developed.
It’s clear that life for the Palestinian’s of Gaza is nothing short of inhumane. Some forecast that the place will be unliveable by 2020. It’s no wonder that many of its inhabitants describe it as a prison or a ghetto. There are many including large numbers of children who display both the mental and physical scars of war and gunshot wounds. Blockaded from both the north and the south, suffering from regular wars, malnutrition, lacking in basic medical supplies, electricity and drinking water it is no wonder that many Gazans say they would rather die than live like this. It truly is an unbearable life. It’s also abundantly clear that it doesn’t need to be this way and that many of Gaza’s problem’s are the result of conscious political choices and actions.
By Faisal Khan