The Gaza Strip is located on the Mediterranean Sea and borders Israel to the north and east and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula to the south. It is inhabited by 1.4 million Palestinians (including nearly one million refugees from the 1948 war in which Israel conquered 78% of historic Palestine) and around 8,500 illegal Israeli settlers.

These settlers (0.6% of the population) and the Israeli soldiers who guard them control all of the land borders of Gaza, its access to the sea, its drinking water, its air space, and 30% of its land area.

Settlements and checkpoints split the small area in which Palestinians live into five sub-areas (Rafah, Khan Younis, Al Mawasi, Deir Al Balah, and Gaza City) that cannot be traveled between without Israeli permission. Settlers, on the other hand, can go back and forth freely on exclusive, heavily fortified roads that link them directly to Israel. The checkpoints between the five Palestinian enclaves areas are frequently closed. Many Gazans are not allowed to travel at all, and the people who are allowed through are subjected to humiliating body searches and sometimes abuse or even violence. Many patients have died at these checkpoints on the way to hospitals, and many babies have been born and died at them while waiting for Israeli permission to pass.

Israel’s decision to evacuate its settlers from the Gaza Strip, and relocate them in Israel and the West Bank, is a tactical decision designed to strengthen Israel’s Jewish majority and its illegal stranglehold over East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Haaretz recently ran a story that stated that Palestinians now outnumber Jews between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. The same story said that disengaging from Gaza will ensure a Jewish majority in Israel plus East Jerusalem and the West bank for another 20 years.

Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza is not a concession but rather a strategic choice to selectively obey international and Israeli law, which call for Israel’s withdrawal from illegally occupied Palestinian territory, in order to continue breaking the same law elsewhere, namely in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Currently Israel is busily building expanding dozens of settlements and outposts throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Israel’s High Court has ruled this summer that the illegal Israeli settlements within the Gaza Strip are not part of the State of Israel and are in an area of “belligerent occupancy.” Therefore it cannot order the state to make “border adjustments” and annex the settlements to Israel.

The West Bank and East Jerusalem are also under belligerent occupancy, but so far the High Court has avoided making a similar ruling about them since Israel wishes to annex vast areas of the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem to Israel illegally.

The most important thing to understand about the Gaza withdrawal is that it is not a move toward peace by the Israeli establishment. It is a move to shore up Israel’s hold on the West Bank settlement blocks and on East Jerusalem that will make a two-state solution impossible. It is a way to postpone a just and negotiated final settlement to the conflicts that have devastated both societies for decades, and if East Jerusalem and vital areas of the West Bank are stolen unilaterally and illegally by Israel, more bloodshed will surely result.

Israel also has not agreed to allow Palestinians to have any meaningful control over their land or sea borders or airspace in the Gaza Strip once the settlers leave. Palestinian goods and travelers may be forced to ask Israel’s permission to enter and exit the Gaza Strip, even if they are coming in from Egypt or another country via land, air, or sea.

If Palestinians must continue to submit to Israel’s expensive and humiliating searches of every import and export into and out of Gaza’s territory, former World Bank president James Wolfensohn believes Gaza’s shattered economy will have no chance to recover.

Israel also explicitly reserves the right to invade militarily any time it sees fit. If such is the case, the Gaza Strip will remain occupied territory under international law even after every settler leaves.

Basic Facts:

• The Gaza Strip is 27 miles (45km) long and 3-7 miles (5-12km) wide, an area of 141 sq miles (365 sq km) that is completely walled-in.

• Around 1.4 million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip, making it one of the most densely populated places on earth.

• Under the Oslo accords, Israel retains military control of 30% of the Gaza Strip, most of it reserved for 8,500 Israeli settlers (0.6% of the population).

• This 30% of Israeli-controlled land also includes military bases, bypass roads, a buffer zone along the border, and “yellow areas” (areas populated by Palestinians but under Israeli military control).

• Three-quarters of Gazans (nearly one million people) are refugees expelled from what is now Israel in the 1948 war, or their descendants. Approximately 500,000 of these people live in UN-registered camps. The main ones are Rafah, Khan Younis, and Jabaliya.

• The most densely populated camp is Jabaliya outside Gaza City, where 90,000 live in an area of 3 sq km.

• Jabaliya Camp was invaded in October 2004 by the Israeli army in an operation called “Days of Penitence” following the death of two young children from Sderot due to Palestinian rocket fire. During the invasion, 133 Palestinians were killed, including 31 children. 77 homes were destroyed, hundreds more were damaged, and 150 acres of farmland were razed. Police and security posts, schools, mosques, and kindergartens were damaged or destroyed. Israel had engaged in several similar invasions before.

• On May 19, 2004, Israeli helicopters and tanks opened fire on a civilian demonstration near Rafah, killing 18 and wounding dozens, mostly children. The demonstrators had been protesting a deadly Israeli invasion into a neighboring refugee camp.

• The Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip is growing rapidly, at over 4% per year. Half of the population is under age 15.

• The majority of Gaza’s adults are unemployed. The poverty rate stands at about 70%.

• Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip are all illegal under international humanitarian law. Built mainly on expropriated land, settlements disrupt the territorial contiguity of Palestinian areas and are used to justify the Israeli military presence.

• Settlements are heavily fortified and linked to Israel by roads that are off-limits to Palestinians. Settlers in the Gaza Strip have virtually no contact with the Palestinian population. They enjoy exclusive roads and four border crossings to enable them to enter and leave Israel.

• The only crossing point for Palestinians into Israel is Erez checkpoint at the northern tip of the strip.

• Before the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, the Gazan economy was valued at approximately $US 1 billion. The service sector is the largest part the economy, followed by agriculture.

• According to the United Nations, the Palestinian economy contracted by 50% during the last quarter of 2000 due mostly to severe movement restrictions imposed by Israel. Approximately 24,000 Gazans who used to work in Israel are now unable to reach their jobs due to Israeli border closures.

Buildings damages or destroyed in the Gaza Strip – September 2000 to May 2005

Number of completely destroyed homes in Gaza Strip: 4,662

Number of partially damaged homes in Gaza Strip: 22,807

Number of damaged public buildings in Gaza Strip: 30

Number of damaged security buildings in Gaza Strip: 340

(Source: Ministry of Public Works and Housing, 2005)

History of Gaza

“A city so rich in trees it looks like a cloth of brocade spread out upon the land,” wrote the 14th-century Syrian scholar al-Dimashqi of his expansive view of Gaza. He was not the first to pen the city’s praises: Herodotus, Pliny, Strabo and others had all complimented it in antiquity. Indeed, as early as 1500 BC, Pharaoh Thutmose III had chiseled into the Temple of Amun at Karnak a note that Gaza was “flourishing,” and today, Gaza historian Ibrahim Skeik recalls seeing, in the early 20th century, “trees all about the city, olives and almond groves.”

Cradled in the southeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, near the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa, what is now known as the Gaza Strip has changed hands many times over the millennia. Its fertile land and value as a trade route and seaport have been prized by successive invaders.

The earliest known inhabitants of the area were the Canaanites, and in ancient times Gaza City served as the residence of the Egyptian governor of Canaan. In the 13th century B.C. it was taken over by the Philistines, who created a coastal power base with Gaza City as its principal center. The Philistine city came successively under control of the Israelites, Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Persians until it was conquered by Alexander the Great in the 330s BC.

Following the Roman conquest in 63 BC, the area known historically as Canaan became known as Palestine. It later came under Byzantine rule.

Gaza became a Muslim city in 635 when it was captured by adherents to the new religion. It was captured by Christian Crusaders in the 1100s but recaptured by the Muslims in 1187.

The Ottoman Empire took control of Gaza in the 1500s. The French under Napoleon briefly controlled Gaza beginning in 1798 after defeating the Egyptian Mamluks who were allied with the Ottoman Sultan of Turkey. Napoleon stayed three days in the modest palace of the governing Radwan family; in Gaza City today, the palace, now a girl’s school, is still called “Napoleon’s Castle.” The French were driven out years later by a combination of Brits, Turks, Mamluks, and Arabs.

During World War I, in 1917, the Third Battle of Gaza ended with British forces capturing Gaza. During the war of 1948, following an ill-considered plan to partition Palestine into a 55% Jewish state and 45% Arab state (despite the fact that Jews at this time only owned about 7% of the land), 78% of historic Palestine was captured by Jewish forces.

During the devastating 1948 war, Jewish gangs and armies drove approximately 800,000 Palestinian Arabs, including Christians and Muslims, farmers and bankers, women and children, from their homes in what became known as Israel. Many of these refugees fled into Gaza, swelling its population; many still have the keys and deeds to their homes and lands inside Israel. Of the 22% of historic Palestine not captured by Jewish forces, Jordan annexed the West Bank, and Egypt annexed the Gaza Strip.

During the 1967 war, the West Bank, Gaza, Syria’s Golan Heights, and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula were conquered and occupied by Israel. The annexations were not recognized under the new regime of international law. Israel later gave the Sinai back to Egypt, but the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan remain under illegal occupation.

When Palestinians reached the breaking point with regard to the oppression, humiliation, and subjugation inherent in foreign military occupations, the Palestinians engaged in a popular revolt known as the First Intifada. Israeli forces engaged in excessive violence to put down the revolt, killing hundreds of Palestinians and injuring and imprisoning thousands.

In response, Israel signed the Oslo Accords in 1993 in order to transfer social responsibility for Palestinians onto a new body called the Palestinian National Authority. Meanwhile Israel maintained security control over the Palestinian territories and maintained severe restrictions on freedom and movement. From the day it was signed until the Second Intifada broke out, Israel accelerated its project of building Jewish-only cities called settlements in the West Bank and Gaza in order to strengthen their position there in the hopes that they could eventually annex all of this territory outright.

The Second Intifada, which began in September 2000 with an explosive visit by Ariel Sharon, a known war criminal, to the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, has resulted in the deaths of around 4,000 Palestinians, including over 700 children, and 950 Israelis, including about one hundred children.

Israel’s population within the ’67 borders is currently around six million, 20% of whom are Arab-Israelis, or indigenous Palestinians who remained in Israel despite the ethnic cleansing of 1948. Thus, along with the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza, the number of Jews and Palestinians is roughly equal between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, and the Palestinian population is growing much faster.

The Second Intifada forced Israel to realize that it was impossible to keep total control over the 3.7 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza. This combined with the Palestinians’ high birth rate and Israel’s inability to bring in the millions of Jews they needed to ensure a Jewish majority between the Jordan and the Mediterranean led to Sharon’s announcement in 2004 that he was leaving the Gaza Strip.

He did so because he reached the inescapable conclusion that Israel can only choose two of the following three choices: Jewish, democratic, and occupying all of historic Palestine. If Israel wants to be Jewish but annex all of the land of historic Palestine, it cannot be democratic, as Palestinians will soon outnumber Jews between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. If it chooses to be democratic and occupy all of historic Palestine, it will no longer be dominated by Jews. Thus the only viable choice for a Jewish democratic state is to tactically retreat from at least the population centers of the West Bank and Gaza. And with the disengagement plan, Sharon is excising 1.4 million Palestinians from the Israeli population at a stroke.

In other words, if Israel doesn’t find a way to “disengage” from the rapidly-growing Palestinian population, whom some say already outnumber Jews, Israel will be forced to replace its de facto Apartheid policies with official de jure Apartheid policies in order to maintain its Jewish dominance. Sharon bases his actions on the knowledge that Israel has enormously more power than the Palestinians and the belief that this disengagement and the inevitable ones to follow should happen on Israel’s terms rather than through a negotiated solution based on international law.

Gaza Today

Today, the past endures, scattered amid streets dense with homes and small shops. Only the Mosque of Umar—the converted crusader church—and the small Greek Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrius, which still serves Gaza’s 700 Christians, hark back to pre-Mamluk times. The Mamluk maze of arched, covered streets collapsed under World War I’s shells, except for a lone, musty passage in Gaza’s gold market. The tomb of the Prophet Muhammad’s great grandfather, Hashim, still lies in a corner of a 19th-century mosque and former pilgrim’s hostel.

Several smaller, Mamluk-era mosques and tombs dot Shuja’iyyah, Gaza’s old Lower Town; one, the Mosque of ibn Uthman, is considered by historian Salim al-Mobayed to be architecturally “the purest Islamic mosque in Gaza.” Mamluk baths open in the morning for men and in the afternoon for women, and in the narrow, ancient quarters of Daraj and Zaytun, cinder-block walls rise everywhere atop the worn stones and antique arches of earlier eras.

Many details of Gaza’s past hang today as equally unanswered questions. Where was the crusader castle? Where was [Roman Emperor] Hadrian’s famous stadium? What of the sixth-century library and school of rhetoric, known throughout the Mediterranean, or the eight Greek temples? Or, indeed, what of the remains of Gaza’s cultural life in every era? And who, at the dawn of history, really founded Gaza, the city whose name has meant “strong,” “treasure,” and “the ruler’s prize”?

For a more detailed satellite map, see: