Cornell University Press

The Crisis in Gaza: A Long(er) Story…

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In 2013, while crossing the Rafah Border Crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian fellow-traveler had remarked, “You see here. They treat Palestinians like cattle”. He was of course referring to the abhorrent treatment of Palestinians by Egyptian border security personnel. At the time, Gaza had been under a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt for six years and the border crossing had become a symbol of the devastating sociopolitical, economic and human consequences of a siege by land, air, and sea. Only a year prior to my visit, the United Nations had also published a report (“Gaza in 2020: A liveable place?”) that concluded that a persistent siege would ensure that the Gaza Strip would become uninhabitable by 2020.  It is therefore not surprising that the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a public health crisis.

But the current uptick in infections also confirms that the pandemic has only exaggerated the nexus of power/privilege/crisis/suffering that existed before its onset. In Gaza, this means that what the Palestinian enclave is facing today is part of a much longer story of the Palestinian liberation struggle. 

In fact, sounding the alarm during a phone interview back in May, a Gaza-based doctor had said, “We have medical staff who are working on half the salary because the Palestinian government cannot pay. We don’t have enough beds, medicines, or ventilators to fight this [pandemic]. We live in a high population density place where disease can spread, and we have a very poor population that cannot pay for health care. Because of all these problems, I am scared every day to come to work. We were already weak and COVID-19 made the situation even worse.”

But the current uptick in infections also confirms that the pandemic has only exaggerated the nexus of power/privilege/crisis/suffering that existed before its onset. In Gaza, this means that what the Palestinian enclave is facing today is part of a much longer story of the Palestinian liberation struggle. 

As I argue in Decolonizing Palestine, Gaza was acutely affected by the violent establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Of the 750,000 Palestinians expelled from their homeland, 250,000 made their way to the Gaza Strip. As a result, refugees were now the majority of the population. In the following decades, little was done to meet the socio-economic needs of the Palestinian refugees in Gaza. On the contrary, the enclave witnessed the steady de-development of its economic base under Egyptian and—after the Six Day War of 1967—direct Israeli rule.

Alongside a history of economic deprivation, the persistence of Israel’s settler colonial rule and denial of the Palestinian right to sovereign statehood, strengthened the resolve of the broader Palestinian liberation struggle. But it was in Gaza that early Palestinian liberation organizations found a home, as the Palestinian enclave was the training ground for several prominent resistance leaders and the place where Palestinian popular uprisings (like the First Intifada) took root.

It was then in view of this positionality in the wider politics of Israel-Palestine that Edward Said once declared Gaza to be the “essential core” of the Palestinian struggle—an impoverished place inhabited by the exiled who are intransigent in their anti-colonial spirit and for whom Israeli politicians have nothing but contempt.

And, as predicted by the UN, this has led to immense levels of political, economic, and infrastructural degradation—coupled with the material destruction from Israel’s ritual military campaigns against Gaza—making it all but uninhabitable today.

So, when the Palestinian Islamist faction Hamas unexpectedly won the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, subsequently refused to renounce its armed struggle and, preempting a Fatah-led coup, took complete control of the Gaza Strip, it is this contempt that led Israel to impose an immediate, crippling blockade over the enclave. The blockade, considered unlawful under international law, has persisted as a means of punishing Gazans for their anti-colonial intransigence. And, as predicted by the UN, this has led to immense levels of political, economic, and infrastructural degradation—coupled with the material destruction from Israel’s ritual military campaigns against Gaza—making it all but uninhabitable today. Of course, the onset of the pandemic has meant that the crisis is all the more severe. But this is only the latest chapter in a longer story of Gaza’s role (and suffering) as part of the broader Palestinian quest for liberation. 

*Featured photo from Unsplash.


Somdeep Sen is Associate Professor at Roskilde University. He is co-author of The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Follow him on Twitter @ssen03.

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