Gaza in 2017 is one of the least desired places in the Middle East: Remarkable when you consider that 16 Egyptian Pharaohs chose to make the little corner of the south-east Mediterranean their home.
Historically, Gaza has been fought over and conquered by the likes of the ancient Egyptians, Alexander the Great, Salah Ad-Din and Napoleon Bonaparte. It was prime real estate. Today, nobody wants Gaza and pretty soon nobody will be able to live there.
Twenty-five years ago, Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli leader, infamously and callously said he “would like Gaza to sink into the sea.” Today, that sea is taking over.
Take a shower in Gaza and you are covered in salt flakes, so saline is the water. The UN had predicted the aquifer would fail by the end of 2016, and the only piece of positive news in its latest assessment in July was that it would last until the end of 2017. Already, 96 percent of groundwater is unfit for human consumption.
The UN also reported in 2012 that Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020, but that date may have to be brought forward. Outside the humanitarian community, it is hard to find anyone in the world who cares.
The two million Palestinians of Gaza have been abandoned. Israel disengaged in 2005, which essentially meant the removal of military forces from the center of the strip to the periphery: Israel still occupies this tortured 365 sq km territory by controlling the air, the sea and most of the border. Gaza is effectively an open-air prison, surrounded by walls and barriers and an air and sea blockade.
The policy of the Egyptian government is to participate in the blockade and, so far at least, to deflect any Israeli attempt to offload the Gazan hot potato on to Cairo.
The Palestinian Authority, in its feud with Hamas, has also washed its hands of Gaza. The electricity and fuel crisis there — in the heat of the summer, Palestinians have to survive on about four hours of electricity a day — was triggered by Ramallah’s decision in April to stop payments for fuel and to ask Israel to cut power supplies.
Imagine, an 11-year-old child in Gaza has not experienced more than 12 hours of electricity in a single day in their lifetime.
Through a combination of Israel’s blockade and international indifference, the beleaguered Palestinian coastal strip may soon be uninhabitable, and no one seems to care. It is time they did.
Hamas, as was all too obvious from the beginning of their rule in 2007, have put their survival above the interests of Gaza’s people. Their human rights record is illustrated by the number of executions: At least 28 since they took over. Lobbing missiles at civilians in Israel was both a war crime and totally counterproductive.
So what might happen?
The grim reality is that Gaza is due another war. So far in this century they have occurred every three to four years. One always prays that hope will triumph over experience, that just somehow one of these regular Israeli destruction sprees will lead to an alternative approach. Sadly, the approach to the Palestinians of Gaza is best summed up by Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan: “To me, they are like animals, they aren’t human.”
Such military operations are like shooting fish in a barrel for an advanced army such as Israel’s: Or, as one Israeli put it, like “mowing the lawn.”
A few senior Israelis, such as Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have advocated retaking full control and moving military bases back inside the strip. This would be like moving the prison guards from the perimeter to the center of the jail. It is not an approach that excites too many Israelis: Hence Lieberman’s change of position last month, when he declared that in the event of another war — which would be Hamas’ last, he claimed — Israel would go in and come out.
Some have invested in the return of Mohammed Dahlan, the former head of Fatah in Gaza and “strong man” of the territory, who would rule in conjunction with Hamas. This would be a “three-state solution,” in which Gaza is foisted on Egypt with perhaps additional land added from Sinai. Reconciliation with the West Bank would be abandoned. The Israeli right would love this but the biggest opponents of any such move would be Palestinians, if anyone cared to listen to their views.
As so often in the Middle East, the international community veers between incompetence, and indifference. The EU is obsessed with other issues. Most Middle East states have their own crises. And in the US, I cannot recall President Donald Trump ever mentioning the word Gaza.
As for Hamas, it was only two years ago that Trump admitted he did not know the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah, but promised that he would when it was “appropriate.”
Ignoring a problem such as Gaza is not an option. It is time for a radical change that puts the interests of Palestinians there first, and does not use them as pawns or bargaining chips. They need solutions that give them hope, dignity and a horizon. It is time for international leaders to start caring about Gaza.
• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech