Since the Israeli shelling of Gaza’s only power plant on July 29, the besieged coastal strip has plunged into darkness. Ninety percent of the population is without electricity, sharply affecting water and sanitation services, with only 5 percent of Gaza’s water fit for drinking. This has raised fears of an imminent public health crisis, according to the United Nations (PDF). And without electricity, communication with the outside world for many Palestinians in Gaza has slowed to a trickle.
The lack of electricity also boosts the need for increased fuel in Gaza to power water and sewage pumps and run backup generators, the U.N. said. Hospitals are especially vulnerable to electricity and water cuts as they try to cope with the influx of the injured and dead in addition to medical supply shortages. So far, roughly 1,300 Palestinians have been killed, nearly 70 percent of them civilians, and more than 6,000 have been injured, according to recent U.N. statistics.
Some 20 percent of Gaza’s population (PDF) has been internally displaced by the crisis. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is housing about 220,000 of them, according to Chris McGrath, its Washington liaison. But it’s unclear how much more the agency can do. “We’re stretched thin, and our supplies are running out,” he said. “There’s very little space left in our facilities.”
If the Israeli military targets more of Gaza’s neighborhoods, McGrath says, the UNRWA won’t have the capacity to house more internally displaced Palestinians. “We’re looking at large-scale homelessness” if that happens, he said. For now, the UNRWA has secured enough fuel to run its generators, and he says humanitarian organizations can still provide basic services. However, questions loom about the quality of life in Gaza.
A 2012 UNRWA report highlighted the already dire living conditions in Gaza, projecting that “herculean” and immediate efforts will be needed to meet the territory’s needs. The current crisis arrives on the back of those predictions and nearly eight years of an Israeli- and Egyptian-imposed blockade of the territory, including two other major Israeli military operations — all of which took a heavy toll on Gaza’s civilian infrastructure.
“Gaza was a very developed place, but over the last decade we’ve seen it de-developing. The ability of the population to build up infrastructure is limited,” McGrath said. The siege has vastly accelerated the de-development process. In 2000, he says, the UNRWA provided food assistance to 80,000 Palestinians in Gaza. Last year it provided assistance to 835,000 people, a number likely to increase significantly, at least in the short term.
These numbers raise concern about the long-term livability of the territory. The report estimates that Gaza’s population will exceed 2 million by 2020 and that electricity generation will need to double to meet demand. Before the current crisis, Gaza was short some 70,000 housing units; in the current violence alone, more than 7,000 families (PDF) have had their homes totally or partly destroyed.
The report also forecasts a need for an additional 440 schools by 2020, and current hostilities have damaged 136 schools. Most health care facilities in Gaza need to be rehabilitated or upgraded, and medical facilities will need an additional 1,000 doctors and 2,000 nurses. Meanwhile, 24 health facilities have been damaged or destroyed in the current fighting.
In 2012, 17 percent of Gaza’s land was inaccessible because of an Israeli-imposed security buffer. During the current operation, the Israeli no-go zone has increased to 44 percent, with populations being pushed toward the coastline. Eighty-five percent of Gaza’s waters are inaccessible to its fishermen because of Israeli restrictions, shrinking residents’ access to vital resources.
These statistics paint a grim outlook, particularly because international donors and the underground tunnel economy are what are sustaining Gaza. The destruction of tunnels by the Egyptian military, a policy that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s government has pursued aggressively since the toppling of President Mohamed Morsi last year, cripples even that mode of survival. Without an easing of the siege, it’s unclear how Gaza will obtain basic goods, let alone find some semblance of self-sufficiency or the resources to build and repair critical infrastructure.
Because Gaza is so densely populated, it is necessarily dependent on the outside world for economic growth. With its residents unable to travel to the West Bank and engage in trade with the outside world, the territory’s prospects for economic growth are severely limited. Ending the blockade of Gaza is thus cardinal.
Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas prevailed in Palestinian elections in 2006 and tightened it after Hamas seized power after a 2007 Fatah attempt to rout Hamas from power, a move that the U.S. and Israel supported. Both nations consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and Israel says it implemented the blockade in response to rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. In 10 years, the rocket attacks have killed 35 people.
Numerous human rights groups and U.N. investigations have condemned the rocket attacks as illegal, immoral and counterproductive. However, it’s important to note that Palestinian violent resistance does not emerge from a vacuum but from the context of Israel’s decades-long, often brutal military occupation of the Palestinian land. The rockets are thus not the cause of the current violence but a symptom of deeper issues that must be addressed as part of a comprehensive peace process.
In that regard, any cease-fire that does not contain provisions to end the blockade will merely be a Band-Aid. “The situation was bleak before this conflict, and if something is not done to address those longer-term challenges,” McGrath cautioned, “conflict is likely to flare up again in the future.”
Hamas has recently signaled its willingness to consider Israel’s legitimate security concerns. It put forth conditions for a 10-year truce that would allow for international monitors in areas of concern for Israel, including at border crossings, along the borders and at Gaza’s yet-to-be developed airport and seaport. Now is the time for cooler heads to prevail. Palestinians, like Israelis, deserve to live in peace and security and must be allowed to develop their economy. Any cease-fire that does not treat the parties equally will fall far short of addressing the legitimate security needs of both people — and consequently won’t be sustainable.
Moreover, if the blockade is not lifted as part of a cease-fire agreement, Gaza’s future will likely be filled with immense human suffering. “Is Gaza going to be a place where people can actually live in 2020?” McGrath asked. “The answer under current circumstances is no.”