Gaza: After a Military Operation, a Humanitarian Crisis

Originally published on December 2, 2013, on Geopolitika.lt (in Lithuanian)

This November marks one year since the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip, Pillar of Defense, simply known as the 2012 War. It’s worth exploring what exactly was happening in Gaza a year ago, what the context of this operation was, and how it has affected the region. Not only does that explain in what state we still find Gaza today but also allows us to discuss what the future holds – or can hold – for Gaza. 

The Blockade 

When analysing any military action in the Gaza Strip it’s crucial to understand its context, including its geography. The Gaza Strip is a small piece of (360 km2) by the Mediterranean Sea, one of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Holding a population of 1.65 million, Haza is one of the world’s most densely populated areas. The borders of the strip are controlled by Israel and Egypt, currently technically allowing the Palestinians to cross them at two checkpoints. The citizens of Gaza can’t decide for themselves what to import or export: since 2007, Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza and decides what can enter Gaza. The blockade was intensified in 2009, when Israel set a three-sea-mile limit on how far away from its shores Gaza’s fishermen can sail, which has not only completely closed Gaza from the rest of the world, but also has significantly reduced the amount of fish that the fishermen can catch. Due to complete restrictions of freedom of movement and other Israeli, and, partially, Egyptian, policies, some call the Gaza Strip the world’s largest open air prison. 

Pillar of Defense and Cast Lead

What happened in Gaza in November 2012? According to the Israeli government, it was the rockets of Hamas that started flying into Israel, threatened its safety and, hence, provoked what a military operation was called Pillar of Defense. That is factually correct: the rockets killed six people (including four civilians) and over 200 people were injured. On November 14, at the very beginning of Pillar of Defence, Israeli military killed one of the leaders of Hamas and during the eight days of this operation aimed to maximise the harm to Hamas’ infrastructure. Although it’s difficult to assess how successful this operation was deemed by the Israeli government, it’s easier to assess its costs: between the beginning of hostilities until the armistice signed on November 21, 167 Palestinians were killed (87 civilians, including 32 children) and approximately 800 were injured.

Pillar of Defense is the biggest military operation in Gaza since the winter of 2008-2009, when another operation, Cast Lead, killed close to 1,400 Palestinians (773 civilians, including 320 children). Having lost 13 of its citizens (three of them children), Israel attacked Gaza and its civilians objects using different means of warfare including white phosphorus. This war crime remains unpunished, and the rebuilding of the infrastructure of the strip until this day is being limited by the already-mentioned blockade. 

Worsening Living Conditions and a Humanitarian Crisis

Although there have been no new military operations in the past year, we find the residents of Gaza in dire conditions. While local and international NGOs still operate in the strip and try to assist the children and adults affected by past military actions, the quality of life in this part of the Occupied Territories seems to be getting worse not by years but by months. In a recently published report, Gaza in 2020: a Liveable Place?, the UN draws a picture for Gaza that is beyond grim; it’s a picture of a humanitarian disaster. Increasing shortages of school and hospital places as well as medical supplies, growing unemployment, issues with agriculture, and diminishing water supplies that threaten to leave Gaza residents without drinking water by 2016: this is what is being projected for Gaza. Therefore, the issues that the residents of Gaza face comprise a wider spectrum of what could be typically associated with a military occupation or blockade.

Unfortunately, grave issues are not something awaiting Gaza solely in the future. On November 1, Gaza’s only power plant shut down due to fuel shortages, partially caused by Egypt having shut its illegal tunnels. This power plant produces 30% of Gaza’s energy, and the rest needs to be bought from Israel and Egypt. In addition to the fact that Gaza’s residents have access to electricity for only six hours a day, hospitals, factories and other civilian objects cannot function. These power cuts have stopped one of Gaza’s wastewater treatment plans, which resulted in raw sewage being released into the city streets. This is already being called a humanitarian disaster: there’s fear of an outbreak of infectious diseases and an increased dependency on humanitarian aid.

Prospects of Change

It’s clear that humanitarian aid is more of a response than an answer to Gaza’s issues, and that long-term progress is impossible with a political solution. Israel claims that removing or loosening the blockade of the strip would mean more rockets flying towards Israel, hence, it has to protect its citizens. What Israel is demanding is for Hamas to put down its weapons and recognise Israel as a Jewish state. A different view, not necessarily the dominant one in the mainstream media, is the attacks on Israel can only subside and stop only when the residents of Gaza are not physically and economically restrained by Israel and Egypt. 

Israel doesn’t seem to be willing to give its power up, and Hamas doesn’t seem to be promising not to engage in armed resistance. As the situation on the ground in the Gaza Strip is deteriorating, it could bring about political change: people might get disappointed with Hamas and start looking for alternatives. If that alternative would be more radical or more moderate than Hamas is difficult to say. If the international community more vocally recognised and condemned the role of the Israeli occupation in Gaza, that could potentially make it loosen its grip. 

Humanitarian Dead-end with Political Ways out

Rockets being shot at Israeli civilians cannot be justified. At the same time, one can’t treat Israel’s military action as self-defense when rockets are being launched at it from the territory that it occupies. What is the situation in Gaza telling us? It’s a reminder that a military occupation affects its population in multiple ways:  via electricity and water shortages, medical equipment that can’t run, children experiencing PTSD, and students forced to do their homework in candlelight. 

The current situation in Gaza is extremely alarming and could be perceived as a humanitarian crisis caused by external factors. However, when its essential context is taken into consideration, we can see how this humanitarian disaster is also an outcome of systemic policies that keep Gaza that way. If nothing changes in terms of Israeli politics and how Egypt and the international community sees Gaza, it’s difficult to expect real progress in the strip, even if there’s no further military action.

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