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Gaza is called an open-air prison. How did it get to this?


Gaza has been referred to as an open-air prison - caught between Egypt, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea, controlled by Hamas and blockaded by Israel. How did Gaza come to be? We turn now to Tahani Mustafa. She is the Palestine analyst for the International Crisis Group and joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: How did Gaza come to be?

MUSTAFA: Gaza wasn't always the Gaza that we have today. Gaza was actually, pre-1948, quite a large territory within Mandatory Palestine. So it was something like 38 times the size that it is today. And at that time, Gaza was very, very wealthy in terms of being a coastal enclave, in terms of trade, in terms of the fertility of the land. And then after 1948, you had the occupation of many of its towns and villages. And so it got confined to a very small strip that we know today. And at that time, it had been occupied by Egypt during the Arab-Israeli War, and then after 1967, came under Israeli military rule when Israel occupied both Gaza and the West Bank. And then in 1993, we see the Oslo Accords, where both Gaza and the West Bank was to be part of what was then considered the start of a Palestinian state in the making. Unfortunately, at that time, you still had these territories under Israeli military occupation.

SIMON: Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza in 2005, dismantled the Israeli settlements. We saw pictures here in the west of settlers actually attacking Israeli soldiers when they came to do that. What happened in Gaza then?

MUSTAFA: Israel withdrew its forces in 2005 unilaterally. So we no longer had settler settlements and soldiers on the ground, but it still retained control of Gaza's borders. And until today, the U.N. and the ICRC still consider Gaza to be part of occupied territory under international humanitarian law. And in 2006, we saw the election of the now de facto government of Hamas. And at that time, when Hamas had won the elections, they want to offer protest vote, essentially. And since then, Gaza has been subjected to an Israeli blockade through land, sea and air.

SIMON: What kind of government has Hamas provided?

MUSTAFA: Hamas is no different to the Palestinian Authority in terms of the kind of government it's provided. I mean, it's riddled with the same issues. It's riddled with corruption. It's riddled with inefficient service delivery. Through constant polling, you're seeing many Gazans consistently dissatisfied with Hamas' rule in Gaza. But, you know, part of that also has to do with the fact that Israel has, like I said, imposed a blockade, which means that Israel has calibrated the amount of goods that go in and out of Gaza. So as frustrated as people are in Gaza over Hamas' ineptitude when it comes to governance, they're also aware that that's not entirely on Hamas, given the restrictions.

SIMON: I have to point out that Israel says - and I wonder if you think the evidence is good - that Hamas uses a lot of the material that comes in for their own use, including fuel, and they don't share it.

MUSTAFA: There's no denying that. I'm sure there is corruption within Hamas. This isn't something that's, you know, hidden. I mean, Hamas' corruption is well known to Palestinians. There are frustrations. But to entirely lay the deterioration of living standards purely on Hamas is a real mischaracterization of Israel has done over the last 16 years. In terms of what they have allowed in and out has been so arbitrary over the years. At one point, things like chocolate, lentils, crayons, these sorts of things were forbidden from going in and out. There is a lot that you can maybe blame Hamas for, but a substantial part of people's misery is not Hamas.

SIMON: There's an opinion that Gaza could have been - the phrase that's often used is the Singapore of the Middle East - beautiful seacoast. Could have been self-governing, urban. I remember being there at the time of the Oslo Accords, and I interviewed the head of the Gaza Chamber of Commerce, and he was quite optimistic. What happened over the years?

MUSTAFA: Israel has done quite a lot to ensure the de-development of Gaza, not only Gaza, but also the West Bank, you know, in terms of restricting the ability of investments, control over Gaza's own resources. We've just discovered that Gaza actually has reserves of oil and gas, which, again, Israel is now preventing them full access over, including their own water resources, which Israel fully controls. And that's no different to what is being experienced in the West Bank as well, where you can say that, you know, Palestinians supposedly have the Palestinian Authority. They're not under a de facto government that's considered a terrorist entity. But yet you're having similar issues within the West Bank, where, again, Palestinians don't control their own resources. They're not in control of their own movement of goods and people. What kinds of investments can go in and out is entirely determined by what Israel will allow in and out. And so ultimately, you know, Israel has done a lot to ensure that the occupied territories do remain de-developed.

SIMON: Tahani Mustafa is the Palestinian analyst for the International Crisis Group. Thank you so much for being with us.

MUSTAFA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.