History of the Gaza Strip

Maha Nassar provides historical context to the current violence in the densely populated and besieged enclave.

Gaza: Life among the ruins, May 2015. (EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

By Maha Nassar
University of Arizona

The focus of the conflict in the Middle East has again returned to the Gaza Strip, with Israel’s defense minister ordering a “complete siege” of the Palestinian enclave.

Israel’s military operation, which involves extensive bombing of residences, follows a surprise attack on Oct. 7 by Hamas militants who infiltrated Israel from Gaza and killed more than 900 Israelis, which set off reprisal airstrikes by the Israel military and a mounting death toll among Gazans.

The order to cut off all food, electricity and water to Gaza will only worsen the plight of residents in what has been called the “world’s largest open-air prison.”

But how did Gaza become one of the most densely populated parts of the planet? And why is it the home to militant Palestinian action now? As a scholar of Palestinian history, I believe understanding the answers to those questions provides crucial historical context to the current violence.

A Brief History of Gaza

The Gaza Strip is a narrow piece of land on the southeastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C., it is wedged between Israel to its north and east and Egypt to its south.

An ancient trade and sea port, Gaza has long been part of the geographic region known as Palestine. By the early 20th century, it was mainly inhabited by Muslim and Christian Arabs who lived under Ottoman rule. When Britain took control of Palestine following World War I, intellectuals in Gaza joined the emergent Palestinian national movement.

An Arab protest gathering against British policy in Palestine, 1929. (Wikimedia Commons)

During the 1948 war that established the state of Israel, the Israeli military bombed 29 villages in southern Palestine, leading tens of thousands of villagers to flee to the Gaza Strip, under the control of the Egyptian army that were deployed after Israel declared independence. Most of them and their descendants remain there today.

Following the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the Gaza Strip came under Israeli military occupation. The occupation has resulted in “systematic human rights violations,” according to rights group Amnesty International, including forcing people off their land, destroying homes and crushing even nonviolent forms of political dissent.

An Israeli gunboat passes through the Straits of Tiran near Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, during the Six Day War in 1967. (Israel Government, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Palestinians staged two major uprisings, in 1987-1991 and in 2000-2005, hoping to end the occupation and establish an independent Palestinian state.

Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist militant group centered in Gaza, was founded in 1988 to fight against the Israeli occupation. Hamas and other militant groups launched repeated attacks on Israeli targets in Gaza, leading to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

In 2006, Palestinian legislative elections were held. Hamas beat its secular rival, Fatah, which had been widely accused of corruption. Elections haven’t been held in Gaza since 2006, but polling from March 2023 found that 45 percent of Gazans would back Hamas should there be a vote, ahead of Fatah at 32 percent.

After a brief conflict between Hamas and Fatah militants in May 2007, Hamas took complete control of the Gaza Strip. Since then, Gaza has been under the administrative control of Hamas, even though it is still considered to be under Israeli occupation by the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and other international bodies.

Who Are the Palestinians of Gaza?

The more than 2 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip are part of the 14 million-strong global Palestinian community. About one third of Gaza’s inhabitants trace their family’s roots to land inside the Gaza Strip. The remaining two-thirds are refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants, many of whom hail from towns and villages surrounding Gaza.

The Palestinians of Gaza trend young: nearly half the population is under 18. The enclave is also very poor, with a poverty rate that stands at 53 percent.

Despite this grim economic picture, education levels are quite high. Over 95 percent of Gazan children ages 6-12 are in school. The majority of Palestinian students in Gaza graduate from high school, and 57 percent of students at the prestigious Islamic University of Gaza [which was hit by Israeli air strikes on Wednesday]  are female.

But because of the circumstances of their surroundings, young Palestinians in Gaza find it difficult to live fulfilling lives. For graduates between the ages of 19 and 29, the unemployment rate stands at 70 percent. And a World Bank survey earlier this year found 71 percent of Gazans show signs of depression and high levels of PTSD.

There are several factors that contribute to these conditions. A major factor is the crippling, 16-year blockade that Israel and Egypt – with U.S. support – have imposed on Gaza.

Years of Blockade

Shortly after the 2006 elections, the Bush administration tried to force Hamas from power and bring in a rival leader from the Fatah party who was considered friendlier to Israel and the U.S. Hamas preempted the coup and took full control of Gaza in May 2007. In response, Israel and Egypt – with U.S. and European support – closed the border crossings into and out of the Gaza Strip and imposed a land, air and sea blockade.

The blockade, which is still in effect, limits the import of food, fuel and construction material; limits how far Gaza’s fishermen can go out to sea; bans almost all exports; and imposes strict limitations on the movement of people into and out of Gaza. In 2023, Israel has allowed only around 50,000 people a month to exit Gaza, according to U.N. figures.

Map by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs of the Gaza–Israel barrier in 2019. (Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

The years of closure have devastated the lives of Palestinians in Gaza. Inhabitants there don’t have enough water for drinking and sanitation. They face electricity cuts that run 12-to-18 hours each day. Without adequate water and electricity, Gaza’s fragile health care system is “on the brink of collapse,” according to the medical rights group Medical Aid for Palestine.

These restrictions hit the young and the weak of Gaza particularly hard. Israel routinely denies sick patients the permits they need to receive medical care outside of Gaza. Bright students with scholarships to study abroad often find that they are unable to leave.

U.N. experts say this blockade is illegal under international law. They argue that the blockade amounts to a collective punishment of the Palestinians of Gaza, a violation of the Hague Convention and the Geneva Conventions that form the backbone of international law.

No End to the Suffering

Israel says that the blockade on Gaza is necessary to secure the safety of its population and will be lifted when Hamas renounces violence, recognizes Israel and abides by previous agreements.

But Hamas has consistently rejected this ultimatum. Instead, militant fighters stepped up the firing of homemade rockets and mortars into populated areas surrounding the Gaza Strip in 2008, seeking to pressure Israel to lift the blockade. They have sporadically attacked Israel in this way in the years since.

Israel has launched four major military assaults on Gaza — in 2008-09, 2012, 2014 and 2021 — in efforts to destroy Hamas’ military capabilities. Those wars killed 4,000 Palestinians, more than half of whom were civilians, along with 106 people in Israel.

A Palestinian man in the ruins of Al Jawhara Tower at the center of Gaza CIty after it was bombed the previous night, May 12, 2021. (M. Hajjar/NRC)

During that time, the U.N. estimates that there has been more than $5 billion worth of damage to Gaza’s homes, agriculture, industry, electricity and water infrastructure.

Each of those wars ended in a fragile cease-fire but no real resolution to the conflict. Israel seeks to deter Hamas from launching rockets. Hamas and other militant groups say that even when they have upheld previous cease-fires, Israel has continued to attack Palestinians and has refused to lift the blockade.

Hamas has offered a long-term truce in exchange for Israel ending the blockade on Gaza. Israel has refused to accept the offer, sticking to its position that Hamas must first end violence and recognize Israel.

In the months leading up to the latest escalation, conditions in Gaza have deteriorated even further. The International Monetary Fund reported in September that Gaza’s economic outlook “remains dire.” Conditions became more dire when Israel announced on Sept. 5 that it was halting all exports from a key Gaza border crossing.

Without an end in sight to the suffering caused by the blockade, it appears that Hamas has decided to upend the status quo in a surprise attack on Israelis, including civilians. Israel’s reprisal airstrikes and its imposition of a “complete siege” on the strip have heaped even further suffering on ordinary Gazans.

It is a tragic reminder that civilians bear the brunt of this conflict.The Conversation

Maha Nassar is associate professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies, University of Arizona.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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23 comments for “History of the Gaza Strip

  1. Dr. Hujjatullah M.H.Babu Sahib
    October 14, 2023 at 23:43

    4,000 Palestinians killed to 106 Israeli dead ? And these are called wars ? What rubbish, the disproportion of the slaughter alone attests that these are blatant genocide against the poor Palestinians with the unwitting complicity of the morally-blind so-called “international community”, what a disgrace !

  2. John Zeigler
    October 13, 2023 at 21:33

    Bishop Desmond Tutu correctly identified the State of Israel as an apartheid state, due to its oppression of the indigenous Palestinians. One does not back an animal, let alone human beings into a corner without expecting some kind of reprisal. The far right regime of Netanyahu in Israel is busy digging more and more graves for Jews and Palestinians alike, in order to keep from going to trial himself. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and the U.S. continues to be the arms supplier for Israel and much of the world. Go figure.

  3. Templar
    October 13, 2023 at 21:30

    Imagine a ‘hypothetical’ scenario where the sequence of events is reversed. Palestinians (Arab forces) won the 1967 war and it is the Jewish population that was forced to flee to what is now Gaza and the West Bank. Does anyone seriously believe, under an Arab military occupation supported by the US, that the Jewish residents, in the open-air prison of Gaza, would not be resisting the occupation in the same way as Hamas? Israel does not hold the high moral ground.

  4. bill
    October 13, 2023 at 16:51

    to comment and lead on from what Wrinkle and Doris above have written,its also very possible that this Hamas op was allowed to happen given that Israeli intelligence is amongst the best in the world and must surely have known what was coming, so as to manipulate and justify to Western audiences without any context the genocide now taking place across all Palestine ; and yes Hamas may in fact be run by Mossad. I detected that a Zionist evangelical program has been run across Western churches which has helped airbrush out of the narrative the terrible Israeli oppressions of Palestinians .I attended one such sermon myself and made known my annoyance over it then almost had a severe falling-out with a close friend who had obviously and unquestioningly heard a similar sermon – he really and truly didnt know the facts and was almost brainwashed.

  5. Greg Grant
    October 13, 2023 at 16:15

    Israel obviously covets all that beautiful coastline in Gaza and will do anything to take it over.
    All countries want more coastline.
    Israel is going to do what the U.S. did with the Indians, kill as many as possible and push the rest onto the worst lands nobody else wants.
    Then 100 years from now when the dust settles and they can blame their ancestors who are dead, they’ll come clean about the wrongness of it all and maybe give the Palestinians a couple of casinos to clear their conscience and call it even.
    And Israel will of course never give back any of that beautiful coastline.

    • Valerie
      October 13, 2023 at 17:47

      “Israel obviously covets all that beautiful coastline in Gaza and will do anything to take it over.
      All countries want more coastline.”

      Well first off Greg, the Mediterranean sea is the most polluted and temps are rising 20% faster than the global average. And even real estate companies here in southern europe are advising people not to buy on the coast because of rising sea levels. (Antartica ice melt)
      I have doubts of people living in that region in 100 years. It is estimated that in 70 years the whole Gulf region will be uninhabitable.

      • Gerry L Forbes
        October 14, 2023 at 22:11

        Apparently there are huge natural gas reserves just off Gaza’a coast.

        • Valerie
          October 15, 2023 at 14:42

          Well if there are Gerry, is anything/anyone stopping the Israelis or anyone else from exploiting them? I mean i don’t believe the Palestinians are allowed to go very
          far out to sea. In fact see this:


      • Steve
        October 15, 2023 at 12:44

        Agreed pollution is a problem, but that is true literally everywhere where mankind rocks up; the UK is particularly bad with sewage polluting all rivers and coastlines, the Mediterranean is no worse. And, it’s more likely that as the African continental plates push into the European Plates that the Mediterranean will become an inland lake separate from the Atlantic Ocean – but not in our lifetime. I don’t think real estate companies are the best soureces for environmental information as they are profit driven. Follow the money, the rich will inherit the Earth, especially the nice bits.
        Also, note ‘the Gulf’ (AKA Persian Gulf) and the Mediterranean are geographically separated areas.
        Of course, such a story fits in well with the Israeli agenda. But I don’t believe it !

        • Valerie
          October 15, 2023 at 14:20

          Well Steve, you may have it backwards as far as the Mediterranean goes. See this article on the origins:


          And i’m sure the real estate agents would not deny themselves profit. Properties on the coast are worth a lot more than inland. It’s just an article i read in my local english language newspaper. Maybe there are real estate agents who really care about their clients. Stranger things have happened.

          “the Mediterranean is no worse.”:

          Jacques Cousteau, if he were alive would probably disagree with that statement.

          And yes, i do know the Gulf and the Med are separated areas. My last sentence was not connected to my second last sentence. They were generalisations; which could be applied to many regions on the planet as far as time scale goes.

          “Of course, such a story fits in well with the Israeli agenda. But I don’t believe it !”

          Me neither.

    • irina
      October 14, 2023 at 13:54

      It’s not just the coastline, it’s the offshore natural gas reserves :


      No one seems to be talking about that !

  6. Erik
    October 13, 2023 at 12:08

    Thanks to Maha Nassar and CN for this very informative article.
    The UN is debilitated from enforcing human rights, and must be replaced.
    The Muslim nations should bribe US politicians even more than Israel to be accorded rights.
    The US would be glad to send them $3 billion a year if they too would send back the bribes.

  7. jamie
    October 13, 2023 at 11:32

    What is even more tragic is the unilateral support of Israel “right to defend itself at all costs and conditions” by western countries mostly; as a result, now there are more children killed in less than a week than in two years-war in Ukraine; at this rate, by the end of the month, the children killed will be thousands. 2-3 thousands children killed by the western nations that not only supported Israeli indiscriminate military response but also called into question whether to cut humanitarian aids to Palestinian people; decision, apparently supported by some unknown phantomatic proofs that aids were diverted to Hamas’ extremists. While, in the meantime, proofs emerged that western weapons sent to Ukraine ended up in Palestine. How come?

    What difference did it make? that we defeated the NAZI but the same discriminatory and dehumanizing process hand survived and still dictates western international policy; when all civilians are indiscriminately tagged (enemy, monsters, the others), targeted and slaughtered. The decision to size Gaza, to cut electricity, food, fuel and water (?) was similar to the most brutal strategies adopted by the most cruel and barbaric army that Europe and the world has ever seen; including the NAZI (like Chris Hedges explained in: Palestinians Speak Israel’s Language)
    It hurts even more that three (US, Switzerland, Austria) of the four countries that host UN headquarters had unilaterally sided with Israel, “its right to defend itself” enabling the carnage and the killing of thousands of innocents. Even more abominable that Switzerland hosts the UN The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in the historic Palais Wilson building in Geneva, Switzerland. along with red cross, etc.
    Even more depressing is that western countries have actually created the two “monsters”, fanatic Zionism and Islamic extremism, by using Israel has their own military base in middle east and a tool for economic interest and leverage; they have most likely failed on purpose to find a peace deal between the two countries – as Israel expansion is western expansion.
    And what about the non-aligned countries, such as Russia, China, etc what have they done to solve the problem? Nada. I hope they find a new “war” front in countering the western policy in the middle east, by actively pushing for a two state solution.
    And what about the countries on the region, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkye, UAE, Quatar, etc what they have done to unite the Arabs, to create a front that counter western domination? they talk about religion but I guess money talks better than God even in the middle east.

    • Valerie
      October 13, 2023 at 17:54

      I like what you say jamie. It’s the truth.

    • Steve
      October 15, 2023 at 13:08

      Israels “right to defend itself”. A nuclear armed country of around nine million, most of whom are in, or associated with, the military. That has an army, navy and airforce armed with the latest weaponry and who receives nearly Four Billion dollars annually from the USA.
      Gaza, a poverty ridden compound of two million people of whom around half are women and children, whose food, water, electric and health services are totally controlled by Israel and who have been blockaded by Israel and western countries since 2007, and that have no formal military forces or modern armaments.
      Evenly matched ? David and Goliath ? Psychopathic school bully ?

  8. doris
    October 13, 2023 at 11:27

    The State of Israel (God’s chosen!), is the key to the second coming of Christ in the book of Revelation, so naturally the (Christian) US should protect and defend God’s chosen children’s murderous behavior inflicted in the name of righteousness, just as it defends its own murderous behavior inflicted in the name of its god. Their Jesus, Lord of Love/Prince of Peace, who allegedly loves ALL the little children of the world, must be SO proud!

    • Steve
      October 15, 2023 at 13:15

      I think you’ll find that anyone and everyone who is not of the Judaic faith will be damned to eternal damnation with the coming of the messiah. Old testament style.
      The (Abrahamic) Jewish faith is not christian and they don’t worship Jesus.

  9. Wrinkle
    October 13, 2023 at 11:15

    See what Netanyaru said in March 2019, with photo.


  10. Wrinkle
    October 13, 2023 at 11:08

    ‘Hamas, an Islamist militant group centered in Gaza, was founded in 1988 to fight against the Israeli occupation.’

    Strange it doesn’t say that Israel formed and financed Hamas to forge a split between it and Fatah so that the two state solution would never come about, just what Netanyaru et al want of course.

  11. Vera Gottlieb
    October 13, 2023 at 10:44

    I am utterly ASHAMED of my Jewish background. What the Nazis did to the Jews…these now doing it to Palestinians. And where are the Muslim nations???

    • JonnyJames
      October 13, 2023 at 19:59

      It’s a personal issue I know, and really none of my business, but you shouldn’t be ashamed as Israel does not speak for all Jews, most Jews don’t live in Israel, and many Jews are not Zionists.

      The Arab and Muslim nations are either unwilling or unable to do anything in the face of the US and vassals. Israel bombs Syria regularly, the US/Israel occupy part of Syria. Iraq and Libya are failed states thanks to US war crimes. KSA and the Gulf States are under control. Iran is the only country that resists and they are demonized, and accused of all sorts. Hezbollah is also a force to be reckoned with.

      This is a tricky situation Vera, we don’t want these nutters to start up a nuclear war. Let’s say Iran threatens Israel with a missile and drone attack (unlikely, but)…

  12. Eric Arthur Blair
    October 13, 2023 at 09:56

    The Gaza strip has been a de facto concentration camp for many years, imprisoning millions of Palestinians who had been forcibly evicted from their homes.
    The Israeli “defense” minister recently called Palestinians “human animals”.
    The Zionists are now committing wholesale slaughter of civilians, collective punishment, by indiscriminate carpet bombing and use of white phosphorus.
    An overcrowded concentration camp, in which the untermenschen are herded together, in order to achieve a “final solution”.
    Sound familiar?

    • Gerry L. Forbes
      October 14, 2023 at 22:15

      It does sound familiar but it is unclear whether America or Canada first used the phrase “final solution of the Indian problem”.

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