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What is the Gaza Strip? Here's what to know

Smoke billows during Israeli strikes on Gaza City on Tuesday.
Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Smoke billows during Israeli strikes on Gaza City on Tuesday.

LONDON — Human rights groups call it "the world's largest open-air prison." The Gaza Strip, home to 2.3 million people, has come under heavy bombardmentfrom Israel in recent days, after Hamas militants launched an unprecedented ground invasion and thousands of rockets into Israel from Gaza.

Israel has ordered a "complete" blockade of the already besieged area, saying that "no electricity, food or fuel" would be allowed into the enclave and raising alarm among some in the international community over what this might mean for the people of Gaza, who, with borders mostly closed, cannot leave.

What is the Gaza Strip?

The Gaza Strip is a 25-mile-long by 6-mile-wide enclave, bounded by the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Israel to the north and east and Egypt to the south.

Gaza is one of two Palestinian territories. The other is the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Bordered by walls and fenceserected by Israel, the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated territories in the world.

The strip has been under a blockade by Israel and Egypt, restricting the movement of people and goods since Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007. Israel controls its airspace and shoreline, as well as what goods can cross Gaza's borders.

Gaza is home to more than 2 million Palestinians — 1.7 million of whom are Palestinian refugees, according to UNRWA, the U.N. Palestinian relief agency.

The charity Save the Children says children make up almost half of Gaza's population.

Conditions in Gaza have long been difficult

Conditions in Gaza have badly deteriorated in the 16 years since the blockade was imposed.

The United Nations says more than 80% of Gazans live in poverty, with access to clean water and electricity at crisis levels even before the latest violence. UNRWA says clean water is unavailable for 95% of Gaza's population. The territory's unemployment rate stood at 46% in the second quarter of this year, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

Over 80% of those living in Gaza depend on aid because of restrictions on movement in and out of the enclave and ongoing hostilities with Israel. Israel and Egypt maintain that the blockade is necessary to protect against militants, but Palestinians and humanitarian groups say it amounts to collective punishment.

During an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in 2021, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres described conditions for children in the Gaza Strip as "hell on Earth."

Gaza's hospitals are regularly beset with shortages of equipment and medicine because of the blockade. Gaza's Health Ministry director general, Dr. Medhat Abbas, told NPR's Mary Louise Kellythat the area's hospitals, already struggling, now face being overwhelmed following Israel's latest offensive.

"This is applying too much pressure on our health professionals in the hospitals," Abbas said. "Unless these borders are opened at once — for the fuel to run the generators and for medications, medical supplies to come at once to Gaza — there will be a collapse of the health system."

Gazans walk past Israeli army tanks during the Six-Day War in June 1967.
Reporters Associes / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Gazans walk past Israeli army tanks during the Six-Day War in June 1967.

Gaza's painful history

Gaza was part of what was known as Palestine, prior to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. As part of historical Palestine, it became part of the Ottoman Empire in the 1500s and, after World War I, it came under Great Britain until 1948. More than 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes around Israel's creation in 1948 and fighting with Arab forces, in what Palestinians call al-Nakba, or "Catastrophe."

Egypt captured Gaza during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It remained under Egyptian control until the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when Israel seized the territory and occupied it, along with the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Palestinians claim these territories and see them as part of a future state.

In 2005, Israel withdrew its troops from Gaza and withdrew around 7,000 settlers.

The following year, the Hamas movement came out ahead in Gaza elections. But after wrangling with the rival Fatah party, Hamas seized power by force in 2007. Gaza has not had elections since.

Israel responded by imposing an air, land and sea blockade of the Gaza Strip. Egypt closed its border crossing with Gaza when Hamas took power in 2007.

Hamas has fought several wars with Israel in the last decade and a half. One of the last major wars, in May 2021, left hundreds of people dead in Gaza and 13 dead in Israel — and devastatedthe Gaza Strip.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Fatima Al-Kassab