Gaza today isnt like a ghetto – it is a ghetto: a discrete area, cordoned off, populated by a group Israel deems undesirable, with Israel controlling everything and everyone going in and coming out. Its blockade is so restrictive that it’s devastated the economy and undermined the life and health of Gaza’s 1.8 million Palestinians. Gaza is approximately the size and density of a large US city – about 10% larger than Philadelphia, but with 20% more people – and so must depend on imports for food and other vital goods. The unfortunate residents of Gaza – more than 99% of whom are Sunni Arabs – suffer one of the lowest living standards in the world. Malnutrition is common among Gaza’s many children; shortages of fuel and water are chronic.
This situation is entirely attributable to a blockade so tight that smuggling isnt merely profitable – it’s essential to the life of the region. The more Israel constricts the movement of goods above ground, the more the network of tunnels below proliferate – and once built, they can be used for munitions as readily as for food, medicine, fuel and other ordinary goods. Poverty, unemployment and desperation, along with an extraordinarily large number of young people, has turned Gaza into what Israel feared most: the ideal breeding ground for terrorism. This is why some today suggest that the elimination of Hamas would likely lead to something even worse in its place, akin to Al Qaeda or ISIS.
For 20 years, under Israeli military administration, Gaza was poor, densely populated, but relatively tranquil. Palestinians largely accepted the indignity of Israeli occupation, as Israelis and Palestinians became more and more economically integrated, with tens of thousands of Arabs traveling from Gaza into Israel on work permits every day, and goods moving freely between Israel and the occupied territories.
However Israel never sought to normalize the status of Gaza’s then 1 million (now 1.8 million) Palestinians. In fact, numerous policies only made the occupation more and more harsh, with Israel resorting to Nazi-style “Iron Fist” tactics in the face of any incipient Palestinian unrest or organized resistance. Palestinians were frequently arrested, beaten, subject to collective punishment, and otherwise harassed by their military occupiers. Palestinian lands were seized (20% of all of Gaza), and on them, Israeli colonies were built. (Lacking other prospects, Palestinians supplied the bulk of the labor for the building of those colonies.) The first intifada began in 1987 as a surprise to everyone. It had no leadership – rather, it seemed to coalesce from a common dissatisfaction shared by Palestinians about the unfairness of the conditions that Israel had forced upon them. And so it is that present-day Gaza is the product of failed Israeli policies of apartheid, oppression and colonization.
Israeli tactics today are no less awful. In response to the killing of 3 Israeli teenagers, and (generally non-lethal) rocket attacks out of Gaza, Israel has, in its ongoing incursion into Gaza, killed 1000 Palestinians, of whom up to 900 are civilians, and 200 are children. The massacre will serve only to feed the culture of violence, which has gestated during what will soon be a half-century of Israeli military occupation. Violence is now part of Gaza culture – and a culture cannot be met and destroyed on the battlefield. It took decades for Hamas – and Gaza’s many other political factions with a violent bent – to be born in an environment that Israel created. It will take decades more for them and the culture that sustains them to fade away.
The long term cure will only come through open borders, commerce, economic opportunity and, ultimately, Israeli recognition of an independent Palestinian state in Gaza. Instead of rolling in tanks, Israel, if it wants peace, should be liberalizing trade, and investing in Gaza infrastructure and youth programs. Given Gaza’s high poverty rate, sky-high birth rate, unfathomably high unemployment, and utterly desperate living conditions, the cycle of violence may well continue indefinitely – with every act of Israeli aggression leading only to the alienation of moderates within Gaza, and the strengthening of groups like Hamas, and worse.