In 2012, the United Nations published an alarming report on the future of the Gaza Strip warning that by 2020, without urgently needed remedial action, the territory would no longer be a ‘liveable place’. The report added: ‘There will be virtually no reliable access to sources of safe drinking water, standards of healthcare and education will have continued to decline, and the vision of affordable and reliable electricity for all will have become a distant memory for most’.
These dire forecasts of a creaking infrastructure unable to meet the needs of two million Gazans have been sadly realised. According to Save the Children, 90% of Gaza’s drinking water is unfit for human consumption, electricity is available for just 2-4 hours per day, water-borne diseases are spiking, health and emergency services are breaking down and fresh food is unavailable because of a lack of refrigeration.
With over 108 million litres of untreated sewage discharged daily into the Mediterranean Sea, over 60% of the sea is contaminated and the ground water increasingly compromised with pollutants. Gaza has truly become an unliveable place and, yet, two million Gazans are forced to live in what is famously described as the world’s largest open air prison.
Blockade of Gaza
The primary cause of this ‘unliveable’ environment is a highly restrictive Israeli blockade, now in its 13th year, which has reduced Gaza to the point of ‘systemic collapse’. Ostensibly imposed on the basis of a security protocol following the election of a Hamas government in Palestinian elections in 2006, Amnesty International believes that Palestinians in Gaza are being ‘collectively punished’.
What distinguishes the humanitarian crisis in Gaza from the disasters and emergencies that normally push civilian populations to the edge of catastrophe, is that it is not the result of a hurricane, flood, tsunami, drought or famine but a human-made policy that is entirely avoidable. Although it withdrew its settlers and troops from Gaza in 2005, Israel remains the occupying power in the territory as it controls the airspace, territorial waters and all but one of the border crossings. According to Amnesty, this means Israel ‘is responsible for the welfare of the inhabitants in the strip under international humanitarian law’.
The blockade has choked off Gaza’s economy, described by the UN as ‘fundamentally unviable’, given tight restrictions on the trade of goods and services. The unemployment rate is the world’s highest at 52% but that rises to nearly 70% for young people and 75% for women. Nearly 75% of Gaza’s population are registered refugees, of whom 900,000 receive emergency food assistance from the UN and 500,000 live ‘below the abject poverty line’.
However, the effects of the blockade have been exacerbated and compounded by other factors not foreseeable in the 2012 report. In October 2014, the Egyptian-controlled Rafah Crossing to the south of Gaza was effectively closed by the new military ruler, President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, who also severed the economic lifeline of smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt.
Operation ‘Protective Edge’
Also in 2014, Israel launched Operation ‘Protective Edge’ in Gaza, its third military operation in the territory since 2007, which resulted in 2,251 Palestinian fatalities, of whom 1,462 were civilians and 551 children; six Israeli civilians and 63 troops were killed in the conflict. Gaza’s civilian infrastructure was also greatly diminished with 18,000 housing units damaged or destroyed, together with several hospitals, clinics and schools. This operation has contributed to severe mental health problems in Gaza with the UN reporting in 2019 that trauma was reaching ‘epidemic proportions’.