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15-years of Israeli Blockade of Gaza has created a Humanitarian Crisis

Stephen McCloskey

Gaza: not a liveable place

Ten years ago the United Nations published an alarming report on the future of the Gaza Strip warning that without urgent remedial action, the territory would not be a liveable place by 2020 and its economy would become ‘fundamentally unviable’.  Far from receiving the infrastructural investment it so desperately needs, Gaza has been catapulted into a deeper humanitarian crisis and the UN’s dire predictions have been realised.  According to the World Bank, Gaza’s unemployment rate is 50% and 62% of its people are food insecure.  So, Gaza is not a liveable place yet 2.1 million Palestinians live in the tiny coastal enclave, of whom 1.4 million (over 70% of the population) are registered refugees with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).  The primary cause of this ‘unliveable’ environment is a highly restrictive Israeli blockade, now in its 15th year, which, according to Oxfam, ‘has devastated Gaza’s economy, caused widespread destruction and left most people largely cut off from the outside world’.  Ostensibly imposed on the basis of a security protocol to prevent rocket attacks on Israel, Amnesty International argued in 2008 that ‘the Israeli blockade does not target the Palestinian armed groups responsible for attacks – it collectively punishes the entire population of Gaza’.  Michael Lynk, the UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Territories, has condemned this collective punishment which he argues is ‘clearly forbidden’ under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, adding that ‘no exceptions are permitted’. 

Military offensives

Although Israel withdrew its settlements from Gaza in 2005, it continues to control the territory’s borders, coastline and airspace and is internationally recognised as the occupying power with responsibility for the safety and welfare of civilians under its occupation.  Yet, since 2008 Israel has launched four major military offensives on Gaza which have killed 2,700 Palestinian civilians and,  ‘caused huge destruction to civilian property and infrastructure including electricity, water and sewerage networks’.  The most recent offensive, in May 2021, resulted in 261 Palestinians killed, over 2,200 injured, US$380 million in infrastructure damage and $190 million in economic losses.  But beyond the material hardship created by poor housing, malnutrition, sanitation and high unemployment is the silent epidemic of a mental health crisis.  A 2020 UN report found that 22% (410,684) of Gaza’s population was in need of psycho-social support, of whom 270,000 were children.  The constant exposure to conflict combined with the stress of living in highly-impoverished households has impacted children’s mental health and school performance.  With 286,645 students attending 278 UNRWA schools in Gaza, nearly 70% of schools either double- or triple-shift which means that one school building is shared by two or even three different school populations.  This lack of school buildings is another consequence of import restrictions imposed by the blockade and consigns most of Gaza’s children to a part-time education. 


The vulnerabilities of Gaza’s mostly refugee population have been preyed upon by the COVID-19 pandemic both in terms of its impact on an already overwhelmed health service and downward pressure on the economy and incomes.    Medical Aid for Palestinians has reported 227,539 COVID-19 cases and 1,799 deaths in Gaza with pandemic mobility restrictions impacting access to healthcare and emergency nutrition services.  53% of households experienced a drop in their monthly income as a result of COVID-19 with 51% of workers in Gaza employed in the informal economy which made them more vulnerable to temporary or permanent redundancy during the pandemic.  And,  more than half of Gaza’s school-aged children lacked access to computer equipment, a reliable power supply and an internet connection which frustrated home schooling and caused learning deficits during coronavirus-related school closures

As COVID-19 has deepened the dependency of Palestinian refugees in Gaza on UNRWA services, the agency is experiencing an existential funding crisis with Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s Commissioner-General, announcing in November 2021 that it was unable to pay all 28,000 of its staff, the majority of whom are Palestinian refugees.  Although most of the cuts to UNRWA’s budget by the Trump administration were restored by President Biden, the agency has been hit by a reduction in funding by other donors.  UNRWA spokesperson, Tamara Alrifai suggests that the agency ‘is under intense politically motivated attacks that seek to question its legitimacy and undermine its added value, in an attempt to weaken the rights of Palestinian refugees’.  ‘The chronic underfunding of UNRWA’, she argues, ‘has created immense distress to the agency, to the staff and to the refugee community’.

The crime of apartheid

Over the 15 years of the blockade of Gaza, Israel has not been held to account for what Amnesty International calls ‘its systematic and widespread violations and crimes under international law against the Palestinian population’.  Amnesty goes further by arguing that the international community has either stood by or been complicit in Israel’s human rights abuses in Palestine.  What has changed, however, is that international human rights organisations (B’tselem, in January 2021, Human Rights Watch in April 2021, and Amnesty International in February 2022) have forensically applied the tenets of international human rights and humanitarian law to Israel’s occupation and colonisation of Palestine and concluded that it has established a system of apartheid.  This is something that Palestinian NGOs have been documenting for over 25 years.

Moreover, in March 2021, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court opened a formal investigation into alleged war crimes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 2014, a move welcomed for opening the possibility of accountability for grave human rights abuses.  In light of its report, Amnesty International has called on the ICC ‘to consider the applicability of the crime against humanity of apartheid within its current formal investigation’.  As Raji Sourani, Director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza, has said ‘a new stage of struggle has started at the international level to take down apartheid and end all its crimes against the Palestinian civilians’.  The deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza demands that all states, particularly close allies of Israel, join this struggle.

Stephen McCloskey is Director of the Centre for Global Education and Editor of Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review.