The situation in the Gaza Strip is one of belligerent occupation compounded by siege, an age old tactic aimed at isolating an enemy and physically detaining its combatant and civilian population to force its surrender.
Sieges are inherently prohibited under international humanitarian law,because in general they directly target civilian populations and objects essential to civilians, in contravention of the principle of distinction 1, precaution 2 and the prohibition of collective punishment 3.
The inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, about 1.8 million people, have lived under belligerent occupation since 1967 and under siege since 2007. The closure of the Gaza Strip began in the 1990s and gradually tightened to become a siege in 2007, when Hamas took power in the Strip, after having won the elections. Israel, the occupying and besieging power, has closed off the land, sea and airspace and placed the Strip under constant military pressure. The Egyptian military regime, in order to preserve its strategic interests and punish the Hamas government for its affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood, has sealed its border with Gaza. 4 The international community remains largely passive on the issue of the siege of Gaza.
The siege aims to curtail the free movement of persons and goods in order to ensure tight control of the area, prevent the exercise of self-determination by Palestinians, and ultimately weaken the Palestinian government in order to dictate the terms of any agreement.
The siege is characterized by the control of sovereign attributes:
- Land encirclement and closure of civilian and commercial entry points preventing the free movement of people and goods;
- Naval blockades severely restricting fishing to within only six out of a possible 20 nautical miles of coast and also access to ports and gas reserves;
- A ‘buffer zone’ (“Access Restricted Areas”) within the Gaza Strip on 17 percent of the territory with limited overall access to agricultural land; 5
- Airspace closure preventing Palestinian and international flights.
The siege violates the Palestinians’ right to freedom of movement because civilians cannot leave and enter their territory freely or evacuate the Strip to seek refuge during military operations. As a result, Palestinian families are separated and Palestinian territory is fragmented.
The siege prevents the evacuation of civilians without any imperative military or security justification. Article 49 of Geneva Convention IV prohibits detention by the Occupying Power of protected persons “in an area particularly exposed to the dangers of war unless the security of the population or imperative military reasons so demand.” 6
As the former Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied since 1967, Richard Falk, highlighted following the bombardments in 2009:
Refugee denial under these circumstances of confined occupation is an instance of “inhumane acts”, during which the entire civilian population of Gaza was subjected to the extreme physical and psychological hazards of modern warfare within a very small overall territory. It should be kept in mind that this restriction on free movement, to escape from the war zone, was imposed on a population already severely weakened by the effects of the blockade. 7
The Report by the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 military operation (“Operation Protective Edge”) similarly found that “closed into the Strip, with no possibility to exit at times, 44 per cent of Gaza was either a no-go area or the object of evacuation warnings. These terrifying circumstances created a sense of entrapment, of having ‘no safe place’ to go.” The Commission went on to say that “the blockade and the military operation have led to a protection crisis and chronic, widespread and systematic violations of human rights, first and foremost the rights to life and to security, but also to health, housing, education and many others.” 8
Despite the 2014 ceasefire, life has not improved for Palestinians. The truce brokered to end the conflict in August 2014 was supposed to allow humanitarian aid and construction material to flow in. It also included an indefinite end to hostilities, immediate opening of Gaza’s crossings with Egypt in Rafah, and an extension of the fishing zone. The extension of the fishing zone occurred in 2016, resulting in a higher quantity of catch, but military operations continue, humanitarian aid and construction material only trickle in, and the Rafah crossing remains closed to most of the civilian population. The crossing was only partially opened for 32 days in 2015 and out of 1,670 patients referred by the Palestinian Ministry of Health only 178 were able to cross to Egypt. 9
The siege in Gaza is the intentional imposition of a humanitarian crisis as a means to punish its population for its political choices and accomplish Israeli military ends. The policy has led to:
- Unprecedented levels of death and destruction: over 2,100 persons, including 1,492 Palestinian civilians 10 , were killed during “Operation Protective Edge” and 18,000 homes were severely damaged or completely destroyed; 11
- A crippled economy: GDP has fallen by half, imports and exports are severely restricted, and the level of unemployment is among the highest in the world; 12
- Destruction of essential infrastructure such as ports, water sanitation facilities, power stations, hospitals and schools;
- Lack of access to clean water: availability of water is below World Health Organization standards due to infiltration of sea water and contamination of the aquifer; 13
- Increased levels of ‘abject poverty’ 14 and a high level of food insecurity: 15 over half of Gaza’s population suffer from food insecurity and 80 per cent are dependent on aid 16.
- Destroyed homes and housing shortages: less than 1% of the construction materials required to rebuild houses destroyed and damaged during hostilities, and to address natural population growth, have so far entered Gaza (Shelter Cluster, June 2015); 17
- Restricted electricity resulting in regular power cuts;
- Limited humanitarian relief attributable to restrictions and military operations.
The siege is making the Gaza Strip unfit for human life in defiance of the rule of law and its inherent principle of human dignity. Because of water shortages, overcrowding, poor sanitation, and pollution of the aquifer, among other factors, the United Nations believes that under present circumstances the Gaza Strip will be uninhabitable by 2020.