Prison Break: Gaza’s Desperate Measure for Survival


According to the World Food Program (WFP), three-quarters of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents rely on U.N. assistance to cover 61-65 percent of their basic needs. International aid agencies’ figures show that 35 percent of Gazans live on less than two dollars a day; unemployment stands at around 50 percent; and 80 percent of Gazans receive some form of humanitarian assistance. Israel’s border closure and isolation of Gaza, in place since June 2007, have severely disrupted the delivery of international humanitarian aid and has caused an alarming shortage in food and fuel supplies. On 22 January 2008, a day before Palestinians broke through a section of the 7.4 mile Gaza-Egypt border, WFP recommended that Israel allow for the "unhindered" border crossings of food supplies for "a minimum of five days a week" to avert an "acute humanitarian crisis." John Ging at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian Refugees headquarters in Gaza told the Reuters news agency on 22 January that "Gaza cannot survive for very long without supplies and we are teetering here for the last seven months on the brink of a catastrophe." International humanitarian organizations have constantly voiced concern over the potential outbreak of disease as a result of Israel’s disruption of electricity and fuel supplies needed for the continued operation of Gaza’s water and sanitation systems.

Unheeded Warnings

In addition to warnings by UNRWA and WFP, a 21 January statement by Oxfam International explained that only 37 of Gaza’s 122 water supply pumps have fuel and most will run out of fuel within hours. "Oxfam fears the risk of an outbreak of water borne disease if the water and sanitation system shuts down," the statement read. Gaza’s sanitation system has been under threat of a breakdown since June 2007 due to the shortage of spare parts and other materials necessary for repairs and maintenance.

Israel’s fuel and electricity supplies to Gaza had been reduced over the last couple of months. Even before the complete shutdown last weekend, clinics and hospitals in Gaza already largely relied on emergency generators due to frequent interruptions of electricity supply.

Oxfam observed that:

Unstable electricity supply and lack of fuel for emergency generators disrupt the functioning of equipment for acute care services like incubators for newborns, heart monitors in intensive care, dialysis machines for kidney patients as well as for lights and crucial equipment and machinery used in surgery. Other critical services, like machinery in prenatal care and the simple necessity of heating in wards have also been put at risk. Last weekend, when Israel completely halted its fuel supply, most hospitals were forced to close down their operating rooms and clinics and primary health care centers reduce their service delivery to an absolute minimum.

According to a World Health Organization (WHO) statement on 12 January 2008, 105 of a list of 460 essential medications are no longer in stock in Gaza pharmacies. Since June 2007, 72 patients in need of urgent referral treatment outside Gaza have died, as a result of the closure of Rafah and Israel’s denial or delay of their permit requests to cross Erez (Gaza’s border with Israel).

Israel has ignored the warnings and has maintained its policy of isolating the Gaza Strip to weaken Hamas. Not only has that policy failed, but, in addition to the humanitarian quagmire, Israel and the international community are now faced with a political and potential security standoff on an international border in which Hamas will be a key player.

A Temporary Fix

The 23 January 2008 border breach serves to temporarily relieve the need for some basic commodities, such as food, fuel and other supplies. The massive influx of Gazans to Egypt for medicines, food and clothing makes it imperative for the international community to assume its legal and moral obligation to ensure that Israel immediately lift its siege. Under international humanitarian law, Israel remains the occupying power and therefore holds the responsibility to secure and provide the basic needs of the occupied population.

Gaza’s humanitarian and economic woes can only be addressed through a credible political process with deliverables on the ground, mainly the end of the siege and the restoration of joint Palestinian-Egyptian control of the Gaza-Egypt border. The "prison break" in Gaza is a direct result of the lack of political deliverables, a day-after strategy and an on the ground structure for progress, which the November 2007 Annapolis Conference failed to generate.

Facts on Gaza*



Land Area:

365 km sq. total
45 km long, 5-12 km wide

Land Boundaries:

102 km Coastline (controlled by Israel)
51 km border with Israel
11 km border with Egypt

Area and Density:

North Gaza: 61 km sq. with 4,381 people per km sq

Gaza City: 74 km sq. with 6,689 people per km sq

Deir al-Balah: 85 km sq. with 3,512 people per km sq

Khan Younis: 108 km sq. with 2,528 people per km sq

Rafah: 64 km sq. with 2,617 people per km sq.

(1 km = .62 mile)

There are eight Palestinian refugee camps in the Gaza Strip that are home to 1,030,638 registered refugees.

* Source: Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) 2007 diary.