In 1998, US president Bill Clinton flew into Gaza International Airport with six helicopters. Palestinian and American flags fluttered.
Yasser Arafat met Clinton, and they enjoyed ceremonies, meetings, speeches, a meal of lamb and three kinds of fish, according to reports at the time. Palestinians said they felt Clinton’s visit was a recognition of their demands for statehood. Twenty years later, the Gaza airport is in ruins, its runways and terminal, whose opening Clinton had overseen, are bulldozed and destroyed.
It’s been 20 years since Gaza had high hopes of being something other than the Hamas-run isolated tragedy it has become.
With the eight weeks of the “Great Return March
” from March to May, the Palestinians in Gaza sought to put themselves back on the map of world attention. They may try again on the anniversary of the Six Day War, “Naksa Day,” to stage more protests. It’s still unclear if Hamas or the tens of thousands who turned out for the rallies, and the thousands who were wounded by live fire during the protests, succeeded in changing anything in Gaza. It’s worth pausing to consider how we got here.
The population of the Gaza Strip has increased from around 100,000 in 1947 to 500,000 in 1967 and 1.9 million today.
According to UNRWA, there are 1.3 million Palestinian refugees in Gaza. Under the Oslo Accords, parts of Gaza were handed over to the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s. When the Second Intifada broke out, Gaza become the scene of some of the most iconic battles, including the death of Muhammad al-Durrah in crossfire in September 2000.
The cost of battling in Gaza, and the realization that it was not worth the burden of administering it, led to the “disengagement” in August 2005 in which around 8,000 Israelis were forcibly withdrawn from 21 communities in Gaza. Those communities were bulldozed, save the synagogues and the greenhouses.
Israel would continue to control the airspace and territorial waters as well as the entry points to the Strip.
In a portent of things to come, US donors stepped forward to spend $14 million to buy 850 acres of Israeli greenhouses in Gaza to give to the Palestinians. By September, the greenhouses had been looted and all the investment wasted. Like the airport, bombed in January 2002 during battles of the Second Intifada, the greenhouses were one more lifeline for the Strip that was torn up.
Initially, Gaza had a border crossing with Rafah in Egypt, opened in November 2005 and monitored by the US and EU. A special European Union Border Assistance Mission at the Rafah Crossing Point (EUBAM) was set up. In January 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections, receiving widespread support in Gaza.
The Hamas electoral victory set in motion the isolation of Gaza. In April, PA President Mahmud Abbas sought to bypass the Hamas-led Interior Ministry. On June 25, 2006, Hamas launched an attack on Israeli forces stationed along the Gaza Strip, killing two and kidnapping Gilad Schalit. This provoked an Israeli military response, tempered because of the Lebanon War. Schalit would not be released until an October 2011 prisoner swap. In August 2006, a Fox News film crew was kidnapped in Gaza. It would be one of several kidnappings of foreigners, including the BBC’s Alan Johnston in 2007, and the murder of Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni.
In Gaza, Hamas and Fatah fought an increasingly violent civil conflict. PA personnel were chased away from the Rafah border crossing in December 2006, and by June 2007, Hamas had seized control of the Strip. Fatah members were murdered, and some were thrown off rooftops.
In control of Gaza, Hamas was able to perfect its Kassam rocket program, which it had already inaugurated years before. It graduated from mortar fire to using Kassams in October 2001 – they could only go several kilometers – to increasingly larger rockets. From the moment Israel withdrew from Gaza, the rocket fire increased, from 1,123 in 2006 to 2,427 in 2007 to 3,278 in 2008. Iron Dome would not be ready until 2011, and Israelis along the border, particularly in Sderot, bore the brunt of the assault.
In response, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, beginning with massive air strikes on December 27 that killed 140 Hamas members.
During the campaign, around 1,000 civilians were killed, prompting the UN fact-finding mission that led to the September 2009 Goldstone Report. Israel and Hamas were accused of war crimes.
The 2009 war led to a series of conflicts with Gaza in 2012 and then 2014. In each, Hamas employed new tactics. During the 2014 war, an M-302 Hamas rocket reached Hadera, 100 km. from Gaza. Although Hamas had added to its arsenal, smuggling equipment via Sinai, it now faced Israel’s Iron Dome, which neutralized the threat.
Hamas also dug tunnels into Israel, most of which were discovered before they could be used. By 2017, Israel was making major progress in finding the tunnels, and the threat seemed to have been neutralized. Hamas trained frogmen and naval commandos, but they also failed.
Internationally, Hamas became increasingly isolated as well. When Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi was ejected from power in Egypt, it lost him as a friend. It received support from activists abroad, particularly the Turkish IHH, which launched the massive Gaza flotilla in 2010 to break Israel’s sea blockade. When Israel raided the flotilla in May 2010, nine Turkish citizens were killed in clashes.
By 2011, the Gaza flotilla phenomenon had wrapped up, as some European-crewed ships found themselves interdicted in Greek ports and elsewhere. Gaza still got hundreds in millions in aid from Gulf states, particularly Qatar, which had a special representative to the Strip named Mohammed Al-Emadi.
Hamas also received some support from Damascus and Tehran, but overall, its international profile dimmed. Only Turkey appears to provide it much lip service of support today.
Hamas and Fatah tried to commit themselves to various reconciliation agreements over the years. They signed one in 2011 in Cairo and another in 2012, and in 2014 they agreed to form a national reconciliation government and then signed another deal in October 2017. By this time, Hamas clearly felt isolated. Having failed at all its attempts to fight Israel and having watched Egypt flood and destroy its smuggling tunnels from Sinai, it had no where else to go.
The October agreement was supposed to foresee the return of the PA to the border crossings and then Gaza itself. In March, however, someone tried to assassinate PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and security chief Majid Faraj on a trip to Gaza, setting back the reconciliation.
Years of blockade and conflict have brought ruin to Gaza. UNRWA says 80% of the population is dependent on international assistance.
Unemployment is at 41%. There is only enough electricity for six to eight hours a day of use. Sewage, lack of water and other basic infrastructure needs are a struggle.
Gazans find it difficult if not impossible to travel abroad.
The median age in Gaza is 18, which means half the people in the Strip have spent most of their lives under siege and under Hamas rule.
It is this sense of isolation that leads many to refer to Gaza as a giant prison. The question is whether the keys to that prison are held by Israel, Egypt or Hamas or a combination of the three.
There does not appear to be any path forward for Gaza. Reconciliation agreements never work, wars don’t result in change, Gazan protests don’t make an impact, and various initiatives over the years that imagined Gaza as becoming a “new Singapore” of development, with an offshore island or lush greenhouses and an airport, have all been turned to ruin. How any of the stakeholders – whether Israel’s security forces and politicians, Egypt’s leaders, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas or Gazans – intend to get to a better future is unclear.