As Israeli bombs are dropped throughout the Gaza Strip and Hamas missiles are launched into Israel, the media coverage has focused on discussing Gaza as a known yet ill-defined entity. We are made aware of roughly where it is (next to Israel), who lives there (Hamas) and what happens there (rockets are made and launched). But this reductionist view of Gaza doesn’t provide any insights into the common, everyday lived experience of the 1.8 million Palestinians who live in the 360 sq. km that makes up the Gaza Strip.
The lived experience of many Gazans can be communicated through the basic demographic indicators that reveal a place that is isolated, crowded, young and poor. But it must be kept in mind that the set of circumstances that define daily life in Gaza are neither the result of chance nor happenstance; rather, the conditions found in Gaza are the result of conscious decisions by political leaders in Palestine, Israel, Egypt and the United States.
Gaza is restricted by a blockade.
The Gaza Strip has been referred to by some as “the world’s largest open-air prison” because its borders are tightly controlled by its neighbors.
Israel has prohibited air traffic in Gaza since the 1993 Oslo Accords. Similarly, access to Gaza by sea has been heavily restricted by an Israeli blockade (represented in orange on the map) since the mid-1990s.
The land borders of Gaza are primarily managed by Israel and, along the Israel-Gaza border (represented in red on the map), Israel has erected a network of barriers and crossing points that control Palestinian ability to enter and exit the Gaza Strip.
Along the Egypt-Gaza border (represented in green on the map), the Egyptian government with Israeli assistance constructed a network of barriers to prevent Palestinians from entering Egypt. One checkpoint, Rafah, is controlled by the Egyptians and effectively offers the only legal entry and exit point for Palestinians living in Gaza. Egypt, often at odds with the ruling Hamas party in Gaza, has regularly closed the Rafah crossing, thus eliminating any opportunity for Palestinians to leave Gaza
Gaza is densely populated
The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. At 5,046 people per square kilometer, the Gaza Strip ranks only behind Macao, Monaco, Singapore and Hong Kong in population density for a country or semi-autonomous region.
The limited territory of the Gaza Strip (360 km2) provides little space for civilians to move out of harms way during military strikes waged by the Israeli military. Furthermore, Israeli air strikes into this limited territory with high population density ensures that innocent civilians will be harmed during military operations regardless of the depth of planning, oversight and review by the Israeli military.
Gaza is young.
The Gaza Strip has an estimated population of 1.8 million according to the US Census Bureau. 1.16 million – or nearly 64% of all Gazans – are 24 years of age or younger. Only 74,000 (4.1%) of Palestinians living in Gaza are 60 or older.
By way of comparison, in Israel those under 24 years of age represent 43% of the total population and those over 60 represent 15% of the total population. In the United States, 33% of Americans are 24 and younger; 20% are 60 and older.
The result, for Gazans, is a population that is heavily skewed towards its younger age cohorts. When combined with extreme poverty and increasingly curtailed social and physical mobility, the youth-dominated population of Gaza is a problematic mix.
Gaza is poor.
Gaza is economically crippled. This is due in large part to tight control and heavy restrictions placed upon the free flow of people, goods and money in and out of the Gaza Strip by Israel. Through its control of the Israel-Gaza border and the naval blockade of Gazan ports, Israel is able to not only monitor what enters and exits Gaza, but also determine whether or not the crossings are open or closed. Throughout the conflict, Israel has repeatedly closed the crossings in order to achieve political or military goals. This, of course, has resulted in Gazans digging tunnels underneath the Egypt-Gaza border and smuggling people, goods, money and weapons into the Gaza Strip.
By any metric, Gaza is in a worse economic position when compared to the West Bank. Economic output, as measured by GDP, is more than three times less than the West Bank. Unemployment is nearly twice as high as the West Bank and average wages are nearly a third lower. When considering that more than 60% of Gazans are 24 and younger and this age cohort experiences some of the greatest levels of unemployment, it is not difficult to begin to comprehend the hopelessness that plagues Gazan daily life.
Economic Indicators, 2013
Sources: UN OCHA OPT