Oct 21, 2023 - World
Axios Explains: Israel-Hamas war

What to know about the Gaza Strip and who controls it

Data: OpenStreetMap, WorldPop; Map: Will Chase/Axios

Gaza and its more than 2.1 million people have been under constant Israeli bombardment since the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel.

The big picture: Israel has also imposed a "complete siege" of Gaza — worsening what were already dire conditions due to Israel's 16-year blockade. The Israeli military is now beginning ground operations in the small coastal enclave that could descend into prolonged urban warfare.

Where is Gaza, how big is it and who lives there?

Gaza is a small Palestinian territory located on the Mediterranean coast. It shares its southern border with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and its northern and eastern borders with Israel.

  • At 140 square miles, Gaza is about the size of Detroit.
  • Most Palestinians who live in Gaza are refugees. Many of them or their families were forcibly displaced during what Palestinians call the "Nakba," or "catastrophe," in the events that led to the establishment of Israel in 1948.
  • Roughly half of Gaza's population is under the age of 18.

Hamas governs Gaza

The Gaza Strip is currently run by Hamas — a political party whose militant wing carried out the Oct. 7 attack. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and several other governments.

  • Hamas has controlled Gaza since 2007 when it ousted the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in a violent takeover after winning the Palestinian elections the previous year.

Background: Gaza was controlled by Egypt from 1948 to 1967, when Israel captured the Strip in the Six-Day War.

  • The Palestinian Authority was given some governing power in 1994, though Israel kept a military presence in the Strip for security reasons and to administer Jewish settlements that had been built in the Strip.
  • Israel in 2005 withdrew its forces and evacuated Israeli settlers in a process called disengagement.

Israel's 16-year blockade of Gaza

Israel, with the support of Egypt, imposed a land, sea and air blockade of Gaza in 2007 after Hamas took control of the enclave. Because of the blockade, Gaza is still considered occupied by Israel, according to the UN.

  • Israel says the blockade is necessary for security reasons, keeping Hamas and other militant groups like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad from importing weapons that can be used against Israel. Israeli officials point to Hamas' original charter that calls for the destruction of Israel.
  • Despite the blockade, the groups have built extensive tunnels to smuggle materials in to build weapons and rockets.
 A child carries a cat among destroyed buildings and roads after Israeli airstrikes in Al-Zahra region as Israeli airstrikes continue on the fourteenth day of clashes in Gaza City
A child carries a cat among destroyed buildings and roads after Israeli airstrikes in Al-Zahra region. Photo: Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu via Getty Images

Palestinians call the blockade "collective punishment" and say it's turned Gaza into an "open-air prison."

  • Palestinians must get permission from Israel or Egypt to leave the enclave, which is often difficult to get.
  • The movement of water, fuel and other supplies is also restricted.

The blockade has had devastating consequences for Gaza's economy and has created difficult conditions for Palestinians living there.

  • More than 80% of Palestinians in Gaza live in poverty, according to the UN.
  • The unemployment rate prior to the latest fighting stood at 46%, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics said earlier this year.
  • The unemployment rate for young people — those between the ages of 15 and 29 — was more than 62% at the end of last year, according to the UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA).
  • About 95% of Palestinians in Gaza did not have access to clean drinking water prior to the latest fighting.
A Palestinian recites Salah Azan (Adhan) in the rubble of the Al-Amin Muhammad Mosque, hit by Israeli airstrike, in Khan Yunis, Gaza on October 20, 2023.
A Palestinian praying amid the rubble of the Al-Amin Muhammad Mosque, hit by Israeli airstrike, in Khan Yunis, Gaza. Photo: Abed Zagout/Anadolu via Getty Images

Israel's "complete siege" of Gaza

In the early days of the Israel-Hamas war, the Israeli government imposed a "complete siege" of the Strip, cutting off electricity and water and blocking the entry of food, fuel, medicines and other supplies.

  • Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said there would "be no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel. Everything will be closed." He added Israel is fighting against "human animals" — a label Palestinians have called dehumanizing.

The siege and Israel's bombardment have had "catastrophic" effects on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Just days after it began, Gaza's sole power plant ran out of fuel and was forced to shut down, plunging much of the enclave into darkness.

  • Overwhelmed hospitals have been forced to run on backup generators, but aid groups have warned the fuel that powers them is running out. Health workers have also warned they are running out of medicines, including painkillers, and supplies, with some hospitals running out of body bags.
  • Israel agreed to allow humanitarian assistance into Gaza through the Egyptian border crossing after facing international pressure, including by the U.S. The first 20 trucks carrying aid were allowed in on Saturday, but the UN warned it will "barely begin to address the escalating health needs as hostilities continue to grow."
  • "The people of Gaza need a commitment for much, much more – a continuous delivery of aid to Gaza at a scale that is needed," UN Secretary-General António Guterres said.
A bakery shop is destroyed at Nuseirat Refugee Camp after Israeli airstrikes in Deir al Balah, Gaza on October 18, 2023. (Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images)
A bakery shop is destroyed at Nuseirat Refugee Camp after Israeli airstrikes in Deir al Balah, Gaza. Photo: Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images

Evacuation order for 1.1 million Palestinians

Less than a week after the war began, Israel ordered more than 1.1 million Palestinians living in northern Gaza to evacuate to the southern part of the Strip.

  • Many have, but others haven't, saying there is no place to go.
  • Despite the order, Israel has continued its bombardment of Gaza, including in the southern part of the Strip.
  • It claims it is striking Hamas targets, but a church, health facilities and schools sheltering civilians have been hit.

Palestinians in Gaza: "Survival feels uncertain"

Palestinians in Gaza have told Axios about the dire conditions they're facing there now.

Shouq Al Najjar said she and her husband had "no choice but to evacuate" their home in Gaza City "because of the Israeli airstrikes that devastated our neighborhood," including reducing their home to rubble.

  • "My husband and I started our married life less than a year ago in that house, which now lies in ruins," Al Najjar, 27, said.
  • "We could only take essential documents leaving behind the memories and meaningful gifts that made our house a home," she added. "It was heartbreaking to leave everything behind just like that."
  • Al Najjar said, "Survival feels uncertain."
Relatives of the Al Kurd family, who died in the Israeli airstrikes mourn ahead of the funeral ceremony at Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza
A woman mourns a family member killed in an Israeli airstrike ahead of the funeral. Photo: Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images

Haider Eid, a professor at Gaza City's al-Aqsa University, also told Axios he and his family were forced to flee their home.

  • Just days into the war, his neighborhood was "flattened to the ground" after a night of Israeli bombardment, he said.
  • After Israel ordered the evacuation, Haider fled to the southern part of Gaza. He told Axios the intensity of Israel's strikes is "unprecedented."

What to watch

Israel says the goal of its air and ground campaign in Gaza is to dismantle Hamas.

  • Israeli officials say after "destroying Hamas" they want to create a "new security regime" in Gaza.

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