Israel’s illegal occupation and blockade of Gaza, 15 years on

Since 2007, Israel has cemented a blockade of Gaza in an act of illegal collective punishment. The blockade and accompanying military offensives have killed thousands of Palestinians, and devastated social and economic life in the enclave.

June 17, 2022 by Tanupriya Singh
Destruction in Gaza. Photo: Hosny Salah

15 years have passed since Israel began the imposition of an illegal and cruel blockade on the Gaza Strip, turning the approximately 362-square kilometer coastal enclave into the “world’s largest open air prison,” trapping and isolating over 2 million Palestinians.

Imposed under the guise of containing Hamas and ensuring “security,” the blockade of Gaza has been internationally recognized as a form of collective punishment, pushing its economy into collapse and violating essential rights including the right to life. In 2021, two out five people in Gaza were food insecure. The overall unemployment rate reached 50.2%, with the figure soaring to 71.8% among young people between the ages of 15 and 29. According to a World Bank report the poverty rate in Gaza reached 59% in 2021.

40% of Gaza’s population is children aged 14 years and younger– many of whom have been injured, killed, traumatized and otherwise harmed by four major Israeli military assaults, and the accompanying blockade, within their lifetime. The most recent attack took place in May 2021 in which over 260 Palestinians were killed and over 2,000 were injured. A recent Save the Children report found that “four out of five children in the Gaza Strip reporting that they live with depression, grief and fear.”

Emboldened and armed by the West, Israel has continued to commit gross human rights violations and war crimes against the besieged population of Gaza. This violence is cyclical, given that 66% of the enclave’s population are refugees who were forcibly displaced from their homes during the 1948 Nakba. Israel killed 2,219 Palestinians in its 2014 war on Gaza, officially known as ‘Operation Protective Edge’. Data collated by Visualizing Palestine, Al Haq, and other organizations shows that 56% of the people killed were refugees.

Aftermath of Israeli shelling at the Jabalia refugee camp in July, 2014. Photo: Credit: Shareef Sarhan/UN

Israel continues to deny Palestinian refugees their internationally recognized and guaranteed right of return. This sparked the historic Great March of Return protests in 2018. Over the course of the next nearly 2 years, Israel killed over 200 people and injured over 33,000. Israel’s response to any form of Palestinian resistance, be it protests or armed struggle (a legitimate right enshrined in international law), has been disproportionate, deadly, and illegal. Buoyed by the US, Israel has continued to evade accountability for its illegal colonial occupation and crimes in Palestine.

In the case of the Gaza Strip, it has tried to claim that it is no longer an occupying power and as such cannot be held to corresponding obligations. However, this is decidedly false. This was most recently documented in the first report of the UN-backed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem and Israel:

“Despite the claim by Israel that it disengaged from Gaza in 2005, the Commission notes the positions of the Security Council and the General Assembly…, and the positions of previous commissions of inquiry, along with the lack of authoritative findings to the contrary, that Israel remains in occupation of the territory by virtue of the control exercised over, inter alia, its airspace and territorial waters, land crossings at the borders, supply of civilian infrastructure, including water and electricity, and key governmental functions…

The origins of the ongoing blockade: 1990s to the present 

While the blockade in its current form is 15 years old, Israel’s restrictions on Gaza can be traced back to at least the early 1990s, in the wake of the First Intifada. Even though the terms of the Oslo Accords dictated that Gaza and the West Bank be treated as a “single territorial unit,” Israel continued to impede free movement, proceeding to enclose Gaza behind a fence and a wall in 1995. Gaza was cut off almost completely from the West Bank after the Second Intifada. Work and travel permits were revoked, family and spousal reunification visits to Israel were prohibited, and imports and exports were severely restricted.

In 2005, Israel abandoned its settlements, removed 8,000 settlers, and redeployed its troops from Gaza under a “disengagement plan” – nearly 5 decades after occupying the enclave in the 1967 war. Following the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006, Israel tightened restrictions on Gaza. The brutality of what was to come was captured in a statement by Dov Weisglass, then senior advisor to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, stating that the purpose of Israeli policy towards Gaza was “to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not make them die of hunger.”

After Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, Israel cemented the blockade— seizing control of crossings and prohibiting the movement of people, and further restricting the import and export of goods in and out of the enclave.

Documents exposed in a Freedom of Information petition filed by the Gisha organization revealed that Israel had deployed a “deliberate reductive policy” to determine the amount of food imports to be allowed into Gaza. Calculations were made on the minimum caloric intake required to keep Palestinians effectively just short of starvation.

In the years since, Israel has retained control over two crossings out of Gaza including Beit Hanoun. The only other way out is through the Rafah crossing which is controlled by Egypt. Israel also prohibits the operation of air and sea ports in Gaza. As part of the blockade, it also restricts access to fishing areas, arbitrarily restricting permissible zones to just 3 nautical miles. Palestinian fisherfolk are routinely subject to threats, arrests, and attacks by the military.

The blockade and successive military attacks have forced the closure of 90% of workshops and factories in Gaza. Exports have been reduced by 70% since pre-2007 levels.

“Unlivable by 2020”: the destruction of Gaza’s resources and infrastructure 

For over a decade, the UN has warned that Gaza will become uninhabitable due to “grave violations of economic, social, and cultural rights resulting from the occupation and ongoing long-term land, air, and sea blockade and repeated attacks that have destroyed essential infrastructure.”

In March, Gaza’s Water and Environmental Quality Authority stated that 98% of water in the enclave was unfit for human consumption. In its 2021 report, Amnesty International stated that Israel had consolidated full control over all water resources and related infrastructure in Gaza. It has also colonized 85% of the West Bank’s water resources, prohibiting the transfer of water to Gaza. The Coastal Aquifer, which is the enclave’s only source of freshwater, is being increasingly depleted due to over-extraction and contamination from sewage and seawater. Existing water and sewage treatment systems are unable to function properly due to widespread electricity blackouts lasting over 12 hours a day.

One quarter of disease spread in Gaza has been attributed to water pollution, and 12% of the deaths of young children have been traced to intestinal infections from contaminated water. The water crisis has been compounded by successive Israeli military assaults, most recently the 11-day long bombing in May 2021 which damaged 290 water facilities in Gaza, including the sole water desalination plant in the northern part.

Israel also continues to occupy 35% of Gaza’s agricultural land, and over 15% of its total area, through the establishment of illegal “buffer zones” in its eastern and northern areas. Access to these illegal zones is prohibited, with Israeli forces authorized to open fire at Palestinians found inside the area. According to the UN, Access Restricted Areas (ARAs) have reached upto 1,500 meters from the fence into Gaza, including a “no go zone” of up to 500 meters.

Another tactic deployed by Israel to deny access to areas near the border fence which, to reiterate, includes farmland is through the spraying of herbicide on crops. According to the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network (PENGON), this spraying has damaged nearly 5,000 dunums of agricultural land. Farmers in Gaza have continued to grow food and resist against such violence and threats.

Gaza’s soil has also been contaminated with heavy metals and toxins following Israeli military offensives in 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2021. During the attack last May, Israel damaged over 300 commercial and industrial facilities and destroyed seven factories. Among the targets hit was the Khudair Pharmaceuticals and Agricultural Tools warehouse, the largest agro-chemical warehouse in Gaza. Incendiary artillery shells set fire to hundreds of tons of pesticides, fertilizers, and materials including plastic, nylon, and water pipes.

While the Israeli army did not provide a statement on the attack, Palestinian rights group Al Haq conducted an investigation into the incident. It found that a toxic plume had affected an area of 5.7 square kilometers, spanning Beit Lahiya and its agricultural zones, and the densely populated Jabalia refugee camp.

Based on its findings, Al Haq stated that Israel’s shelling of the Khudair warehouse, with knowledge of the presence of toxic chemicals stored therein, “is tantamount to chemical weapons through indirect means.” Areas hundred of meters away from the site had high concentrations of sulfur dioxide and phosphorus pentoxide, indicating a “high risk of irreversible damage to human health.” Two residents nearby reported that they had suffered a miscarriage shortly after the attack.

The lives and health of Palestinians in Gaza have been endangered both by the “slow poisoning” of natural resources, and deadly military operations. Access to health has been further jeopardized by the explicit targeting of the health care system. According to a report by the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, direct and indirect Israeli military attacks damaged four hospitals, 34 medical centers and clinics, three laboratories and nine pharmacies in May 2021. The entry of infrastructure materials and medicines needed to repair and rebuild the healthcare system is prohibited by the blockade.

By the end of 2021, 40% of essential drugs and 19% of medical disposables were are ‘zero stock’, or less than one month’s supply, in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority submitted 120 requests for the entry of radiology and imaging equipment last year. Only 30% of these were approved by February 2022. In October, Israel banned the entry of 14 imaging devices used to diagnose patients for COVID-19. It also excluded Gaza from its vaccination programs, in violation of its legal obligation as an Occupying Power. Gaza’s Ministry of Health was also forced to dispose of 50,000 doses of the ‘Sputnik Light’ vaccine which were damaged due to Israeli movement restrictions.

“Israel’s closure and blockade is the root cause of the deterioration of living conditions in Gaza, including inaccessibility and unavailability of many key social, economic, and environmental determinants of health. In particular, Palestinian health is challenged by soaring rates of poverty, unemployment and food insecurity, the lack of adequate housing, and the psychological effects of pervasive human rights violations and violence,” the Al Mezan stated in its report.

Restrictions on movement 

The occupation–controlled Erez crossing in northern Gaza is the only way for civilians to travel from the enclave to Israel. According to Gaza Unlocked, the number of Palestinians permitted to leave Gaza averaged only 86 people per day in the first nine months of 2021. This was 17% of the daily average of 2019, and less than 1% of the figures before the start of the Second Intifada. Israel’s illegal control of Gaza’s border crossings continues to prevent Palestinians from seeking education and work, reuniting with family members.

The implications have been particularly drastic for people in need of medical care. Services including radiotherapy, genetic medicine, and certain cardiac surgeries are completely unavailable inside Gaza. As a result patients must be referred out of Gaza, which then subjects them to Israel’s discriminatory permit regime. Analysis by Al Mezan shows that 36% of all permit requests in 2021 were either rejected, received no response, or were delayed by the Israeli authorities. Following this refusal, four patients, including two children, died in Gaza last year.

Even in cases where Palestinians are able to secure a travel permit, they still face arbitrary arrest, interrogation, deliberate delays and detention at the Erez crossing.

The systematic and discriminatory attacks on the rights of Palestinians in Gaza are an integral part of Israel’s ongoing colonial occupation and apartheid. The UN Commission of Inquiry also noted in its report that the “continuing occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, the 15 year blockade of Gaza and longstanding discrimination within Israel are intrinsically linked, and cannot be looked at in isolation.” Palestinians have repeatedly warned that the conditions in Gaza must not be reduced to, and depoliticized as, a humanitarian crisis– rather, the resolution lies in an end to blockade and the occupation as a whole.

The blockade of Gaza is a function of Israel’s attempts to isolate, segregate and fragment the Palestinian people to weaken their struggle for national liberation. However, 2021’s Unity Intifada has demonstrated that these attempts are sure to fail.