Gaza: the world’s largest open-air prison

Kylee Marie DiGregorioSIPA Class of 2018

Just $3,000 and a bus ride separate flower farmer Mohamed Abu Abdelqader from the life-sustaining treatment he needs. But he will soon succumb to his cancer. The bribe to secure a seat is beyond his means, so the bus will make the illicit border crossing into Egypt without him.

Abu Abdelqader lives in Gaza. His medical center was bombed in the 2014 Israeli military operation now known as the 51 Day War. It was just one of 73 destroyed. Now, he and some 30,000 other Gazans in need of urgent medical care are trapped in what has for years been designated “the world’s largest open-air prison.”

Hamas comes to power

Gaza has been under siege since 2006, when the Palestinian Islamist and nationalist organization Hamas won an absolute majority in the Palestinian Authority’s legislative council. Throughout the decade that Hamas has remained in power, Israel has kept sealed Gaza’s perimeter. For 10 years, Palestinians have been effectively prohibited from entering or leaving.

“Gaza is a territory more surveilled, more enclosed, more perversely debilitated than any other,” said Palestinian journalist Laila El-Haddad, who writes primarily for The Guardian and Al Jazeera’s English-language website.

Yet within this “nightmare inside a nightmare,” is also a “voluminous will to live,” says Palestinian-American documentary filmmaker Helga Tawil-Souri. “Gaza is kids . . . peek[ing] behind a curtain while their mouth is still full of toothpaste, because there are no bathrooms, because you do what you can when you can and where you can.”

Situated along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and wedged between Egypt to the southwest and Israel to the east and the north, the Gaza Strip is just 25 miles long and 4-to-8 miles wide. With roughly 2 million residents, this enclave is among the most densely populated in the world.

“Gaza is a fenced place, surrounded by dead-ends,” says Jehad Abu Salim, Palestinian activist and doctoral candidate of International Affairs at New York University. “And, within it, a caged human sea with almost no hope or future.”

Nakba and the beginning of suffering in Gaza

This isolation and paralysis has largely defined Gaza since its creation in 1948, when nearly 200,000 Palestinians fled their homes and sought refuge along the Egyptian border following Israel’s declaration of independence and the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli War. What Palestinians call the Nakba—“the Catastrophe”— made way for the creation of the state of Israel.

The legacy of displacement still pervades Gaza, where refugee camps dot the horizon and shelter two-thirds of the population. “The Nakba is still present in Gaza,” said Abu Salim. “It continues on through the continuity of the rupture that it caused.”

The geographical separation of Palestinians in Gaza from Palestinians in the West Bank created an opening for political fissures to take root, carrying implications that reverberate today. On Oct. 3, the Palestinian high court in Ramallah ruled that municipal elections can be held this year, but “only in the West Bank and not in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip,” according to reports by Al Jazeera.

Punitive measures against Gazans

Gazans have experienced a litany of punitive measures since Hamas, widely regarded as a terrorist organization, expelled President Mahmoud Abbas’ Western-backed secular Fatah party from the Strip in 2007.

The U.S. and other members of the international community withdrew development aid, while Israel intensified its military presence at each of the territory’s seven land crossings; heightened its control of maritime space, enforcing a no-fishing zone; launched unmanned drones, F-16s and Apache helicopters into Gaza’s air space; and extended the pre-existing buffer zone further south to encompass 35 percent of the Strip’s available farmland.

“We live inside an ever-tightening noose,” olive tree farmer Abu Mousab told El-Haddad, the journalist, in 2015. “One day it will choke us of our livelihood.”

But hermetically sealing Gaza’s borders seems counterproductive, generating the proliferation of underground tunnels through which Hamas and other groups smuggle weapons and cross into Israel to fire rockets. It is under this pretext that Israeli Defense Forces justify the three military campaigns they have waged against Gaza since 2008.

Over these eight years, “life has been reduced to a panorama of rubble and destruction,” said Sara Roy, political economist at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. “It has fallen through the floor of any kind of humane standard.”

“Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020.”

A 2012 UN report concluded that only “herculean efforts” would prevent Gaza from becoming economically unviable. That was two years before the 51 Day War that further demolished the Strip’s infrastructure. Due to the blockade of materials needed for reconstruction, Gaza remains essentially as it did on the day of the ceasefire in August 2014.

The UN has since concluded that if the current trajectory persists, “Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020.”

Two out of five households now live below the poverty line, and 70 percent are food insecure. According to the World Bank, the unemployment rate is 43.9 percent, the highest in the world.

Gazans continue to value higher education

Remarkably, Gaza also boasts one of the world’s highest literacy rates, which stands at 96.3 percent. Despite the absence of job prospects and the lack of opportunity to work abroad, Gazans continue to value higher education.

“Gaza fights tooth and nail even when you have severed its limbs and broken its jaw,” said Tawil-Souri, the filmmaker.

Still, in quiet moments, the unassuming, forward-looking fortitude with which Gazans meet their reality gives way to despair.

“I’m a mother of two little boys,” said Gaza City resident Ghadeer al Omari. “Like any mother in this world, all I want is to keep my children safe and happy, but it seems this wish is just impossible.” A media officer at an unidentified human rights organization, al Omari was speaking to Voices of Gaza, a local group seeking to link Gazans with international journalists reporting on the Strip.

Asked why she feels this way, al Omari answered, “Because I’m a Palestinian and I live in Gaza.”

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2 thoughts on “Gaza: the world’s largest open-air prison

  1. Pingback: Gaza: what do we do about it? | The Morningside Post

  2. Pingback: Q & A with The Morningside Post’s EIC :: COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY - SIPA Admissions Blog

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