Days of Palestine

Saturday, June 3

The Gaza Blockade Didn’t Begin in 2007


While 2022 marks 15 years since the siege of Gaza officially began, the strangling of the Gaza Strip by the Zionist state started long before that.

This year is supposed to mark 15 years since Israel imposed its devastating blockade on Gaza.

It’s been 15 years of systematic collective punishment, with entire generations growing up in Gaza virtually isolated from the outside world, with no idea about what life was like before the siege.

We were most recently reminded of this reality, that we have no escape, no way out, when Israel launched Operation Breaking Dawn on August 5. For three days, we were bombarded with airstrikes, as all the border crossings in and out of Gaza were completely shut off.

Forty-nine people were killed, including 17 children. Just as quickly as the operation started, it ended, and we were expected to go back to our normal lives.

For young people in Gaza like myself, who can remember what life was like “before,” we remember a time when most of our fathers and older brothers had stable jobs to offer their families a good education, food, and all their needs.

“We are born to suffer.”

Majd, 18, Gaza City

After the siege, everything changed — including people. Poverty and never-ending crises, coupled with wars and bans on our most basic rights, became commonplace. Rights that might seem trivial to some — the right to movement, to receive proper medical treatment, to be able to sail for fishing farther than the paltry few nautical miles that Israel allows us — often seem like the stuff of dreams to our generation.

“We are born to suffer,” 18-year-old Majd from Gaza City said. “I finished high school in a poor family that can’t help me. I’m the one who has to help my siblings, because my father can’t find work. He used to have his own business, but it went under because of the siege.”

These fifteen years of siege by land, air, and sea made Gaza synonymous with the term “open air prison.”

It is true that the commonly recognized starting point of the blockade, upheld by Israel and the Egyptian authorities, is in 2007. But while that official “start” of the siege marked a clear shift in Gaza’s way of life, it didn’t start there. The strangling of the Gaza Strip by the Zionist state was taking place long before that, representing a gradual tightening of the screw, or a process of slow suffocation, until we’ve now reached the point where we’re hardly able to breathe.

1948: the Nakba transformed Gaza

It started in 1948 like it started for everyone else, the catastrophic year that saw the ethnic cleansing of some 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. For Israelis, it was their year of “independence,” when Zionist militias stormed Palestinian towns and villages, razed them to the ground, and displaced the indigenous Palestinians by force of arms, establishing their “State of Israel” on the charred remains of Palestinians towns and villages. Hundreds of thousands fled, forced off their lands. Thousands more were killed in unspeakable massacres, the details of which are still being uncovered today.

According to Eliwa, the social and political impacts of the Nakba upon Gaza were transformational, and are still felt in the Strip to this day.

Those 750,000 people became refugees. Many of them found themselves in neighboring Arab states, unable to return to their homes. And others still, especially refugees from southern and coastal regions, fled towards Gaza. But when the dust of the war settled, they weren’t allowed to go back to their homes. Suddenly, the Gaza Strip had a whole new population, completely transforming it overnight.

“The wave of refugees put pressure on Gaza’s economy, and a new struggle between locals and refugees ensued,” political researcher and writer Nasr Eliwa told Mondoweiss. “The conflicts that arose concerned the distribution of jobs and competition.”

According to Eliwa, the social and political impacts of the Nakba upon Gaza were transformational, and are still felt in the Strip to this day.

Gaza became an important political center, due to the influx of people from different geographic, cultural, political, and social backgrounds, now all settled into one place. A new social class was born, as people were forced to start over after losing their homes, lands, and generational wealth.

Today, in addition to being one of the most overpopulated places on the planet, Gaza has one of the highest refugee populations, with 66% of its population made up of refugees, still waiting to return to their homes.

1967: the advent of military rule

The Gaza Strip was under Egyptian control when the war of 1967 broke out between Israel and the Arab countries of Egypt and Syria. It ended with Israel’s occupation of parts of both countries, as well as the West Bank and Gaza.

In his novel detailing the 1967 War, Nightmares Come in June, Palestinian writer Mohammed Ayyoub recounts his memories of Israel’s invasion and occupation of the Gaza Strip, to which he bore witness.

“Tanks entered Gaza from the city of Khan Younis in southern Gaza. They were raising Arab countries’ flags, like those of Egypt and Algeria,” he writes. “Palestinian citizens went out to welcome them, but the tanks killed them all. They were Israeli tanks, fooling the Palestinians.”


During the 1967 war, Palestinians were displaced once more. “Sixteen percent of Gaza’s population at that time, which was estimated to be 350,000 people, were displaced to Jordan and other nearby countries,” Eliwa said.

Israel’s military occupation of Gaza ushered in another chapter of life in Gaza. The groundwork for the siege was being laid, as Palestinians were forced to register themselves from birth through the Israeli system, and checkpoints were established across Palestine, and between cities inside the Gaza Strip.

“In the early 70s, Palestinians in Gaza started to move past their poverty and improve their conditions. Workers joined the Israeli labor market, as well as the new farms and factories in occupied territories. The generation of the Nakba, which had always been concerned with education, were now working in Israeli jobs, repatriating their money to their families in Gaza. These funds that flowed into Gaza made the local market flourish,” Eliwah explained.

1993 – 1995: the Oslo years

The Oslo Accords were signed on the heels of the First Intifada (1987-1993), and the Palestinian Authority (PA) was created. Israel passed on its responsibilities as an occupying power to the newly formed government.

On the ground, people in Gaza welcomed the accords, and celebrated it as a move that could bring them one step closer to freedom and statehood.

New institutions were established left and right, and thousands of Gazans became employees of the newly-founded PA, drastically improving many people’s economic circumstances.

It was only years later when many Palestinians would come to realize the true implications of Oslo.

“Israel’s strongest motivator when signing Oslo was getting rid of the security cost of ruling Gaza and the West Bank. The population was increasing and Israel needed a middleman authority to rule them, but it had to be under Israeli control,” Eliwa said.

2000 – 2004: renewed isolation

In the midst of the Second Intifada, after years of violations of its commitments as signed under Oslo, Israel strengthened its brutalization of Palestinians, through home demolitions, assassinations, razing farmlands, closing borders, and preventing over 120,000 workers from going to work across the Green Line.

In 2002, Israel started to build its separation wall, isolating the West Bank. While previous agreements, including Oslo, considered the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as one unit, the wall served to erode the geographic contiguity between the two places, isolating Palestinians from one another.

Despite international condemnation, Israel kept building the wall, and Palestinian families in the West Bank and Gaza were separated. Israeli checkpoints were established all over Gaza, often closing for entire days at a time, cutting entire communities off from one another.

In schools, teachers traveling between the north and south of Gaza could not get to their jobs most days of the year. I remember being in school during these years, and having to be with 60 other students in a class because half the teachers weren’t able to make it to school.

2005 – 2007: the Israeli disengagement and its aftermath

In 2005, Israel announced its unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Four major Israeli settlements in Gaza, 8,600 Israeli settlers, and all the checkpoints, soldiers, and equipment, were evacuated from the Gaza strip.

On the ground, people celebrated it as a huge victory, as Gaza became free of Israeli checkpoints and settlements.

That sense of freedom did not last for long.

In the same year, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat passed away, and the first — and last — Palestinian presidential election was held, to be followed by legislative election in 2006.

The Hamas movement won the election by a stunning majority of 76 seats (out of a total of 132 seats) in the legislative council. Hamas was founded as a resistance group in 1987, with the goal of resisting the Israeli occupation. In the decades leading up to the group’s victory in 2006, Hamas had been gaining popularity in Gaza, as people glorified their resistance efforts, and empathized with its leaders, who were the target of many Israeli assassination attempts.

Hamas’ win was widely rejected, not only by Israel as a colonial power hostile to an armed resistance movement, but also by the Fatah-controlled PA in the West Bank. The US and other European countries declared Hamas as a terrorist organization, and refused to engage in any diplomatic relations with the group.

On June 10, 2007, a date Palestinians in Gaza remember as a black day in their history, internal fighting broke out between the Hamas movement and Fatah (including the PA police). The bloody infighting engulfed the Gaza Strip as Hamas emerged victorious, having used its military power to crack down on PA institutions and its supporters.

The internal conflicts resulted in the death of over 110 people. Hamas banned PA activities, jailing hundreds of their officials and supporters. Hamas became the official authority in the Gaza Strip. The conflict caused devastating social divisions as the social impact of seeing neighbors, colleagues, and friends turn on each other has lasted to this day.

2007: the siege takes effect

Within the same month of Hamas winning the elections and gaining control of the Gaza Strip, Israel enforced a complete blockade on the Strip, closing down all borders and crossings in and out of Gaza, including the Rafah crossing with Egypt in coordination with the Egyptian government.

Dejected, the people of Gaza experienced a rude awakening, as the euphoria of victory gave way to simmering social strife. Immense problems were immediately brought to the fore, as the PA ordered its employees to suspend their attendance at all governmental positions in the Gaza Strip. As the situation further deteriorated, divisions continued to harden inside Gaza. Schools and hospitals suffered from a lack of staff, and most alarmingly, there were now shortages in medicine, as the open-ended closure of border crossings prevented the facilitation of urgent medical transfers.

Even in the early days of the siege, people felt trapped, wondering how long it would continue and how life would begin to look like under this new reality.

Gaza’s only gate to the rest of the world suddenly fell under exclusive Israeli control, which proved merciless.

The Israeli government enforced strict bans on goods and materials in and out of Gaza, citing reasons of “double use” (that is, raw materials such as iron and steel that may be used by Hamas for military purposes). But the list of products the fell under the potential for “double use” was, in practice, ridiculously broad — including everything from iron, to wood, cement, pesticides, plastic, foodstuffs, and a list of 400 other items.

Dozens of factories that used to export clothes, fruits, and vegetables, were shut down, laying off their workers. Thousands of laborers were prevented from reaching their workplaces in Israel and the West Bank. The Israeli blockade essentially severed the main arteries of Gaza’s economy.

2008 – 2022: the monotony of siege only interrupted by wars

The siege on Gaza made every part of life seem impossible. Even something as simple as getting coffee became difficult — another result of the restriction on the flow of goods.

“Gaza is now the only place closed off to the world due to the Israeli siege. The only place where its people live, move, travel, and work in a complicated and humiliated way,” Eliwa said

In an effort to break the siege, the people of Gaza began to dig tunnels to bring goods in through Egypt. Tunnel trade expanded during the blockade, as traders found it the only way of getting their wares in and out of the Strip. Gazans used to get everything through these tunnels, including some of their most basic needs.

However, the tunnels quickly became a target of both the Egyptian and Israeli authorities, with the former flooding a series of tunnels in 2015, and the latter bombing the networks over the course of many air offensives. Palestinians were burrowing underground in search of the sky, only to be summarily thwarted.

Israel’s first destructive war against Gaza began in 2008. For 22 days, Israeli warplanes, tanks, and naval ships attacked Gaza from every direction. This war changed something in Gaza, instilling a new type of fear in people that despite all the misery hadn’t been there before — it was the very real threat that at any moment, you could be ripped away from your loved ones through mortar and missile.

We experienced that feeling again in 2012, and later in 2014, and most recently in 2021. We were bombed inside a prison, with nowhere to escape.

People were barely recovering from the bombings of last year, when we were bombarded again in early August with airstrikes for three days, as part of another Israeli operation. 49 people were killed, and hundreds more homes were destroyed.

Over the years, thousands of Gazans were killed, thousands more were wounded and disabled, and countless more lost their homes. We’re still trying to recover.

Even outside of “wartime,” Israel targets Gaza’s infrastructure, spraying toxins on Palestinian farmlands near the Gaza border, and repeatedly bombs the sole power plant in the Strip, causing damage and regular power cuts. Today, Gazans receive a total of five hours per day of electricity, though sometimes it is even less, and in the last war this August, power was shut off to the Strip completely.

During the past 15 years of the blockade, the unemployment rate in Gaza jumped from 23% in 2005, to 50% by the end of 2021. Poverty rose from 40% in 2005 to 69%.


Imagining the future

This harrowing cycle has not been kind to Gaza’s most vital sectors, most importantly foodstuffs, a drinkable water supply, power, and education. According to OCHA, 1.3 million out of 2.1 million Palestinians in Gaza (62%) require food assistance, and 78% of the water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption.

While the entire period was punctuated by misery, the current period feels like the hardest for most, reducing existence to mere survival. The people of Gaza spend most of their time in the dark and child labor has skyrocketed, as “31% of households in Gaza have difficulties meeting essential education needs such as tuition fees and books, due to lack of financial resources,” according to an OCHA report.

People invent new jobs to remedy the poverty of their circumstances, like digging into garbage looking for something to sell. Young people are putting off marriage, unable to start a family due to the financial burdens, and patients are dying due to lack of medication and tight restrictions on medical transfers out of Gaza. Trying to look to the future in these circumstances becomes an exercise in masochism.


In these last 15 years of never-ending siege, Gaza’s society underwent yet another radical transformation, much like the social transformations wrought by the Nakba before it. But whereas in 1948 most of Gaza’s population became made up of refugees overnight, the last 15 years have plunged 62% of Gaza’s people into abject poverty.

But the effects of this recent transformation are even more pernicious than the statistic suggests, as it has led to an insidious shackling of people’s imaginations — not only their material conditions. It becomes hard, even impossible, to imagine a different state of affairs, or to expect that things will ever get better.

The effect this has had on our generation is frightening to consider.