UN’s Warning that Gaza Will Not Be a “Liveable Place” by 2020 Has Been Realised

Yves here. While we typically discuss the Middle East in terms of geopolitics, the US press averts its eyes from the ongoing human rights disaster in Gaza and how the US is complicit. The bare facts are only getting worse.

By Stephen McCloskey, Director of the Centre for Global Education, a development non-governmental organisation based in Belfast which provides training, resources and publications on international development issues. He is editor of Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review, a bi-annual, peer reviewed, open access journal funded by Irish Aid since 2005. He is editor of Development Education in Policy and Practice (Palgrave, 2015) and co-editor of From the Local to the Global: Key Issues in Development Studies (Pluto Press, 2015). He manages education projects in the Gaza Strip, Palestine and has written extensively about the Middle-East. Originally published at openDemocracy

Children playing in Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza, home to 43,330 registered refugees. Photo: May 2014. Stephen McCloskey all rights reserved.

In 2012, the United Nations published an alarming report on the future of the Gaza Strip warning that by 2020, without urgently needed remedial action, the territory would no longer be a ‘liveable place’. The report added: ‘There will be virtually no reliable access to sources of safe drinking water, standards of healthcare and education will have continued to decline, and the vision of affordable and reliable electricity for all will have become a distant memory for most’.

These dire forecasts of a creaking infrastructure unable to meet the needs of two million Gazans have been sadly realised. According to Save the Children, 90% of Gaza’s drinking water is unfit for human consumption, electricity is available for just 2-4 hours per day, water-borne diseases are spiking, health and emergency services are breaking down and fresh food is unavailable because of a lack of refrigeration.

With over 108 million litres of untreated sewage discharged daily into the Mediterranean Sea, over 60% of the sea is contaminated and the ground water increasingly compromised with pollutants. Gaza has truly become an unliveable place and, yet, two million Gazans are forced to live in what is famously described as the world’s largest open air prison.

Blockade of Gaza

The primary cause of this ‘unliveable’ environment is a highly restrictive Israeli blockade, now in its 13th year, which has reduced Gaza to the point of ‘systemic collapse’. Ostensibly imposed on the basis of a security protocol following the election of a Hamas government in Palestinian elections in 2006, Amnesty International believes that Palestinians in Gaza are being ‘collectively punished’.

What distinguishes the humanitarian crisis in Gaza from the disasters and emergencies that normally push civilian populations to the edge of catastrophe, is that it is not the result of a hurricane, flood, tsunami, drought or famine but a human-made policy that is entirely avoidable. Although it withdrew its settlers and troops from Gaza in 2005, Israel remains the occupying power in the territory as it controls the airspace, territorial waters and all but one of the border crossings. According to Amnesty, this means Israel ‘is responsible for the welfare of the inhabitants in the strip under international humanitarian law’.

The blockade has choked off Gaza’s economy, described by the UN as ‘fundamentally unviable’, given tight restrictions on the trade of goods and services. The unemployment rate is the world’s highest at 52% but that rises to nearly 70% for young people and 75% for women. Nearly 75% of Gaza’s population are registered refugees, of whom 900,000 receive emergency food assistance from the UN and 500,000 live ‘below the abject poverty line’.

However, the effects of the blockade have been exacerbated and compounded by other factors not foreseeable in the 2012 report. In October 2014, the Egyptian-controlled Rafah Crossing to the south of Gaza was effectively closed by the new military ruler, President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, who also severed the economic lifeline of smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt.

Operation ‘Protective Edge’

Also in 2014, Israel launched Operation ‘Protective Edge’ in Gaza, its third military operation in the territory since 2007, which resulted in 2,251 Palestinian fatalities, of whom 1,462 were civilians and 551 children; six Israeli civilians and 63 troops were killed in the conflict. Gaza’s civilian infrastructure was also greatly diminished with 18,000 housing units damaged or destroyed, together with several hospitals, clinics and schools. This operation has contributed to severe mental health problems in Gaza with the UN reporting in 2019 that trauma was reaching ‘epidemic proportions’.

In the immediate aftermath of ‘Protective Edge’, UNICEF’s field officer, Pernilla Ironside, said 370,000 Palestinian children require ‘immediate psychosocial first aid’. She added that ‘There isn’t a single family in Gaza who hasn’t experienced personally death, injury, the loss of their home, extensive damage, displacement’. Mental health problems have added to the pressure on an already overwhelmed education system in Gaza where 90% of schools double shift, meaning that they house two separate school populations in the same building every day. The slow pace of construction work in Gaza as a result of the blockade combined with a rapidly rising pupil population means that Gaza needs at least twice its current number of school buildings.

The economic crisis in Gaza deepened in 2018 with the decision of the Trump administration to withdraw its $300m(£228m) contribution to the operating budget of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA); the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. US funding represented one third of UNRWA’s annual budget of $1.2 billion. This cut has already forced UNRWA to axe 250 jobs in the West Bank and Gaza and, represents an ‘existential threat’ to the future of the agency. For the majority of Palestinian refugees in Gaza, UNRWA’s humanitarian relief is all that separates them from complete destitution so any cuts to frontline humanitarian and relief services will have a severe impact on poverty levels in the territory. UNRWA’s Commissioner-General said that in 2019 it ‘faced the most serious financial shortfall in the history of the agency’.

The “Great March of Return”

On 30 March 2018, Palestinian civil society launched the Great March of Return, a protest movement demanding an end to the blockade and asserting the right of return to the land of their ancestors. By the end of October 2019, the UN estimatedPalestinian fatalities during the weekly protests along the perimeter fence with Israel at 326 with 35,962 injuries including multiple amputees. In noting her ‘grave concern’ at the use of live ammunition on civilian protestors, the International Criminal Court Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, announced on 20 December that ‘there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation into the situation in Palestine’.

Zeitoun Preparatory Schools for Girls, an UNRWA school located in a southern district of Gaza City, opposite a government building destroyed in Operation ‘Pillar of Defense’, an eight-day bombardment of Gaza carried out in November 2012. | Photo: March 2013. Stephen McCloskey. all rights reserved.

The Harvard researcher, Sara Roy, argues that Gaza has been subjected to ‘de-development’ meaning that it has been ‘dispossessed of its capacity for rational and sustainable economic growth and development, coupled with a growing inability to effect social change’. So, what we are witnessing in Gaza today, she suggests, is the ‘logical endpoint’ of this policy; ‘a Gaza that is functionally unviable’.


The Trump administration has abandoned all pretence of the US acting as an independent arbiter in the longstanding conflict between Israel and Palestine. In December 2017, Trump announced that the US recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the US embassy would be moved there from Tel Aviv. This seemingly dashed Palestinian hopes of East Jerusalem becoming the capital of their future state. Then in March 2019, Trump reversed another longstanding US position by recognising Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.

Previously, the US regarded the Golan Heights as occupied Syrian territory, in line with United Nations Security Council resolutions. Then, in November 2019, the forty year US policy of regarding Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank as illegal under international law was also reversed thereby recognising the 600,000 colonists living in more than 150 settlements as legal.

In the absence of meaningful peace negotiations and external state pressure on Israel, Palestinian civil society reluctantly launched the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) Movement in 2005. Modelled on South Africa’s anti-apartheid boycott movement, it is supported by trade unions, churches, academics and grassroots movements across the world and aims to pressure Israel to comply with international law. One of the most vocal supporters of BDS is the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said: “I have supported this movement because it exerts pressure without violence on the State of Israel to create lasting peace for the citizens of Israel and Palestine, peace which most citizens crave”. This form of external pressure on Israel appears to be the only route to ensuring a life of dignity and peace for the people of Gaza.

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    1. Carolinian

      Exactly. Although be aware that any such comparisons have been declared antisemitism according to the definition that the British Labour party and some US states and universities have now adopted. Apparently it’s not the end result that matters but the claimed motives of the people involved. By this way of thinking–and the USG fully embraces it with its own sanctions and meddling around the world–some populations just deserve collective punishment.

  1. Philip

    “No occupation in the modern world has been conducted with the international community so alert to its many grave breaches of international law, so knowledgeable about the [Israeli] occupiers’ obvious and well-signalled intent to annex and establish permanent sovereignty, so well-informed about the scale of suffering and dispossession endured by the protected [Palestinian] population under occupation, and yet so unwilling to act upon the overwhelming evidence before it…”

    Michael Lynk, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza.
    Source: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/israel-settlements-palestinian-hamas-un-trump-michael-lynk-a9201781.html
    Primary Source: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/CountriesMandates/PS/Pages/SRPalestine.aspx

  2. xkeyscored

    I notice that McCloskey doesn’t address the question of whether Gaza’s unlivability is an unintended side-effect of US/Israeli policy, or its central goal and intention.
    Of course, if this question were asked and answered overtly, McCloskey would be labelled a terrorist sympathiser and so on, and this article more easily dismissed as propaganda. But maybe we should be asking ourselves.

  3. Alex

    There is no question that there is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza

    What makes it a hard problem is that it would be very hard for a democratically elected government to lift the blockade as long as the official charter of Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel.

  4. Felix_47

    Tutu “I have supported this movement because it exerts pressure without violence on the State of Israel to create lasting peace for the citizens of Israel and Palestine, peace which most citizens crave”. This form of external pressure on Israel appears to be the only route to ensuring a life of dignity and peace for the people of Gaza.

    How can Israel or anyone create a livable place in Gaza with the population doubling every 25 years, shrinking water sources, limited space and global warming? From a biological standpoint, in terms of number of people, the Gazans are far more successful than the Northern Europeans, Americans, Russians, Chinese and Israelis. They are stuffing the Petri dish with their progeny. And I am agnostic on the BDS movement and neither the Israelis nor the Arabs have handled this well since the Jews were kicked out of the Arab countries in the early 1950s after their homes and properties were appropriated and encouraged to move to Israel. But politics aside how can there be a discussion about the Israeli Palestinian conflict without a discussion about the demographic war? It is like discussing peace between Russia and the US without addressing nuclear weapons. Perhaps both sides should be limited to two children per family by treaty.

  5. Dr Pangloss

    Where is the billions of arab oil money? Why are they not providing financial support to make the Gaza Strip into a modern city? Why are the Arab states not supporting West Bank Jerusalem with dollars and jobs? Aren’t all Arabs brothers?
    Why, when Israel was established in 1948, did the Palestinians flee to other Arab countries only to be put into camps there and left that way for decades?
    I don’t know the answers which is the point of my questions.

      1. sharonsj

        There are plenty of relief organizations I found listed via google that provide aid and they do wire funds directly to Hamas.

    1. JBird4049

      There is also the almost complete Israeli blockade of Gaza including their fishing fleet from almost all of their normal fishing areas. The Gazans are also denied any access to their internationally recognized Mediterranean gas fields because reasons. Actually the gas fields are next to the Israeli ones and thus easy to pinch and all the gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean are being fought for by all the countries in that area. Gaza is just the weakest player.

      Nothing is allowed in or out except by an Israeli owned shipping company (owned by close supporters of Netanyahu) that overcharges for anything allowed into Gaza.

  6. Bob Hertz

    If the energy that was devoted to the ludicrous and pointless Great March of Return was devoted to getting rid of Hamas, then Gaza would have the same improvements that have been seen in parts of the West Bank.

    Yes, the Israelis are guilty of collective punishment. But the Gazans are guilty of monstrous collective stubbornness and stupidity.

    1. Carolinian

      So the Israeli policy has always been to get along with the Arabs and not to displace them? Is that really the truth?

      1. sharonsj

        It’s not the truth because 20% of Israel is Arab while there are no Jews left in Gaza. P.S. The Hamas charter calls for the destruction of Israel and the expulsion of nearly all if not all the Jews. If Hamas wasn’t spending money on thousands of rockets, underground tunnels, giving bonuses to people committing terrorist acts, and fighting with the Palestinian Authority, they might have money for electricity and water filtration.

    1. skk

      yes, busted !

      I’ve known of boycotting Israeli goods back from the days when one avoided Jaffa oranges.. that must be in the early ’70s. Here’s the wiki on it:

      Production of Jaffa oranges are much lower today than in the past; historically they were considered the most famous export in the early state of Israel. The history of the Jaffa orange is politicized; Eyal Sivan explained that the Jaffa orange became “the symbol of the Zionist enterprise and the state of Israel, for Palestinians it symbolizes the loss of their homeland and its destruction

      That’s even when going to the kibbutzes for the summer break was in fashion in the UK.
      Its harder now – with the amount of software made there, but I try.

  7. Matthew G. Saroff

    Should note that the water issues are less things like sewage than they are things like saltwater infiltration of the ground water.

      1. Matthew G. Saroff

        The ground water usage exceeds the replenishment rates, so water from the Mediterranean is increasingly infiltrating the existing ground water.

        Not sure of the severity of the sewage issues, because even without proper treatment, it can simply be piped offshore.

  8. Ignacio

    And how on earth Israel populists like Netanyahu believe this is going to unravel some day? Remember the WWII and how the total destruction of German cities did not help militarly?

  9. Craig Dempsey

    We should all sit down in sackcloth and ashes. Israel has sped up the timetable for Gaza, but anthropogenic global warming is coming for us all. Gazans are canaries in our coal mine. Who with equanimity can witness the descent of Gaza from the world’s largest open-air prison to open-air concentration camp? Why are Gazans running towards the fences when they know the guards will shoot them? The answer is in the concentration camp. Why are Gazans behaving like despondent prisoners instead of like rational actors? Look at Bibi and Trump. Are there any rational actors left? The handwriting is on the wall. Can no one read it? The future is dire, yet humanity fights for the last inch of insanity. Do we think it will be all better if Trump manages to turn Iran into the world’s largest open-air Indian reservation? No hands are clean. May God have mercy on our souls.

  10. stan

    Look. It’s simple. The head Hamas dude meets with the head Israeli dude. Asks, “How do my people get what your people got?” Israeli dude: ” Promise (maybe swear) the Palestinian people will accept Israel as a nation and people and forego all claims on whatever they voluntarily gave up 65 years ago. Hamas dude: “Cool! You got it.” They do the homey handshake and move on.

    Reality. It will never happen.

    1. ambrit

      You forgot to mention that, since Israel is a Jewish Theocracy, the infidel Palestinians will never be treated as equals. Hell, the non-orthodox jewish population of Israel is treated as second class citizens in their own country.
      Religion is a real b—h when it takes control of the country. That’s one big reason we here in America should keep a tight rein on the Evangelicals.

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