Editor’s Note: One of the world’s unfolding tragedies is the desperation that fills the lives of the packed refugee camps of Gaza, a strip of land walled off by Israel and Egypt, more a prison than a place to live.

In this guest essay, Morgan Strong – a former professor of Middle Eastern history and a past adviser to CBS News’ “60 Minutes” on the Middle East – recalls the dire changes that have befallen this trapped population:

Gaza was and is an anomaly, a piece of land left over from the calamity of history, created it seems in a moment of distraction.

It was once Egyptian, then Ottoman, then British, then Israeli, now Palestinian. In truth no one quite knows what to do with – or what to do about – Gaza.

The Palestine Liberation Organization governed Gaza most recently, but did nothing to ease the burden of the wretched existence of Gaza’s 1.4 million people.

Arafat built a splendid headquarter in Gaza and an airport. He had a little house on the beach as well. The house was a modest unpretentious one-story bungalow. He wanted to show the people of Gaza that he was quite as ordinary as they.

However, Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, felt no need for such modesty. He built a gigantic multi-story holiday house on the beach, with a grand view of the sea. If you looked behind you, from his wrap-around balcony, you could gaze on the squalor of the refugee camps beneath you that make up much of Gaza. 

The people of Gaza live in deplorable conditions for the most part, rudimentary shacks of plywood covered with a tin roof. There are no amenities in their homes, not so much as indoor plumbing. They rely almost entirely on the United Nations for their most basic needs.

There is no industry in Gaza, no economy, few jobs and little hope. Altogether there is precious little to sustain the people who are unfortunate enough to find themselves imprisoned there.

Many arrived as refugees, coming by the thousands, driven by wars to the uncertain safety of this little strip of land by the sea. They did not escape the wars for long, but they could run no farther because the sea and an unfriendly Egypt were at their backs.

The people of Gaza are surrounded by the Israeli Army on three sides, with that army denying them – at its whim – the most elemental necessities for their primitive existence.

Israel, through an agreement with the Palestine Authority, controls everything beyond Gaza’s fenced-in world, making the people of Gaza completely hostage to Israel.

And Israel is now making their precarious existence unbearable.  They are deliberately starving them, among other injustice and outrages. What Israel is doing might be called genocide, but there is great reluctance to name Israel as the perpetrator of genocide.

Israel does not want Gaza to exist as it is. Israel cannot afford to allow Gaza to exist. It must remove the population from Gaza, by whatever means it can and occupy that territory.

And the Palestinian Authority will do nothing to stop this. The Palestinian Authority after years of corrupt management of Gaza lost its right to govern the place to the radical Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement.

The Palestinian Authority, the Israelis or the United States will not permit Hamas to exercise power in Gaza, since Gaza is a serious threat to each if it remains under the control of Hamas. And Hamas is not going away.

When the Palestine Authority governed Gaza in the heady days immediately following the Oslo accords, traffic to and from the strip was largely un-impeded by the Israelis. Arafat used to fly in one of his helicopters in and out of his brand new airport. And Palestine Airlines made scheduled flights to Egypt and Jordan daily.

But other things happened that created great alarm to the Israelis. For one, Gaza became the hub of a stolen-car industry. High-priced automobiles were stolen in Israel and sold, or chopped up for parts, in Gaza.

And there was more. Drugs were being smuggled in from Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East through tunnel’s dug from Gaza to the Sinai.

Israel had, and has, a drug problem among its population though we do not hear much about that in the United States. The Palestine Authority thugs frequently exchanged drugs in return for weapons with the Israeli soldiers who guarded them.

Gaza was a smugglers paradise, and there was no law, or agency of the law, to intrude. In truth, the police and other law-enforcement agencies often were complicit.

I had visited Arafat on more than one occasion in Gaza during the brief honeymoon the Palestinians enjoyed with the Israelis. Entry into and out of Gaza was at first almost alarmingly easy.

I together with a member of Arafat’s staff would simply drive through the Israeli checkpoint at the border with no obstruction by the Israeli border guards. A wave of the hand from a soldier, and we went from Israel to Palestine in a flash.

A few years later, I had dinner with Arafat at his headquarters on the beach a short distance from his modest cottage, largely un-used little house. The headquarters building was several stories high, and encompassed at least two city blocks. So much for modesty.

We sat at a grand table in a room in the massive building, which provided a great view of the sea. He was grim and troubled at dinner. He told me in exasperation that there was an Israeli gunboat just over the horizon which would on occasion lob a shell onto the beach immediately in front of the building.

The Israelis were simply harassing Arafat, showing him who was boss. And he did not like that a bit. But in reality it was his fault. He did not govern Gaza, he simply let the thugs take command, and that was the beginning of the end for Gaza and its people.

Gaza went from bad to worse. Hamas promising reform, and a return to a normal society free from the intimidation of Palestinian Authority thugs, became the de facto governing entity.

Hamas rule turned out to be a mixed blessing. They did not stop the drug smuggling or the car theft. They just took the profits. Smuggling drugs into Israel to create more addicts was a form of warfare for them, and besides they made a nice buck doing it. The same was true of the car theft. And there were sundry other illegal activities they had their hands into.

And it was no longer easy to enter or leave Gaza. My later visits to see Arafat entailed far more difficulty. I could no longer just be driven in. I had to pass through a series of border checks, and once cleared, I was required to walk a few hundred yards from the Israeli border across an open no-mans land to Palestinian Gaza.

The Israelis have succeeded, to a degree, in stopping the drug smuggling, but not entirely. The stolen-car business was stopped entirely however.

When Hamas began to fire rockets into Israel that ended any pretense on the Israelis’ part that they would allow the entity of Gaza to remain as it was. Gaza was just too much trouble no matter how it was dealt with.

So Israel has closed it tight, very tight, without any regard to the consequences to the population, most of whom are innocent of any crimes against Israel.

The poor, wretched people of Gaza are as much victims as they are marginally responsible for their own difficulties. Perhaps it is apathy, perhaps it is because self-governance is so alien a concept, but they suffer manifold indignity and terrible hardship by just being in the middle.

How they are able to extricate themselves now is a rather pressing question, but their lives truly depend on it.

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