For 16 years, a blockade has throttled the Gaza Strip, worsening a humanitarian crisis in this overcrowded, impoverished enclave that Human Rights Watch calls an “open air prison.”
On Monday, in response to the large-scale deadly attacks by Hamas, Israel announced this blockade would become what they call a full-scale “siege” — allowing no food, water, electricity or fuel to its 2.3 million residents, half of them children. Israel has also started intensively bombing Gaza.
Laila el-Haddad, 45, an author and Palestinian rights activist who has lived in Gaza and is currently based near Baltimore, said the siege is tantamount to “calling for the collective punishment of over 2 million citizens,” describing it as “morally repugnant and just frankly unbelievable.”
The Geneva Convention prohibits collective punishment.
Civilians and aid workers say daily life is already dire — and Israel’s siege coupled with devastating airstrikes will make things even worse.
“As Palestinians, we always ask ourselves this question: How much worse can it get?” el-Haddad said.
“We’re seeing now that it can definitely get worse,” she said.
Israel announced the “complete siege” two days after it came under a surprise attack from Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza and is classified as a terrorist organization by dozens of countries, including the United States. More than 900 people in Israel have been killed, according to the military, while the Palestinian Health Ministry said at least 687 had been killed in Israeli airstrikes in Gaza and the West Bank.
“No electricity, no food, no water, no gas — it’s all closed,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in a video statement, adding that his military was fighting against “human animals.”
Palestinians inspect the rubble of a destroyed house after an Israeli airstrike on Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on Monday.Yousef Mohammad / AP
In a telephone interview with NBC News, Israel Defense Forces spokesman Doron Spielman clarified that “animals” referred to Hamas fighters rather than the civilians being ruled by them in Gaza. However, he acknowledged that the airstrikes, as well as cutting off basic supplies, could harm nonmilitants.
Already, some 75,500 people were sheltering in 64 schools built by UNRWA, the U.N. relief agency for Palestinian refugees, the agency said in a rolling update as of 1:30 p.m. ET Monday. Most of these schools are designated shelters, but 19 are not, and one was hit in an airstrike, it said.
“We are at war with Hamas, with the knowledge that if we don’t destroy them they seek to destroy us,” Spielman said. “Sadly, there may be innocents that may be hurt or killed.”
The Gaza Strip is a tiny, quotation mark-shaped spit of land twice the size of Washington, D.C., and is one of the most densely populated places in the world. Some 80% of its people are refugees; half are children. Meanwhile, less than 4% of its water is drinkable, and its unemployment rate of 46% is the worst in the world, according to UNICEF.
Since 2007, when Hamas took control, it has been under a land, sea and air blockade by Israel, with which it shares a 32-mile border, and Egypt, which shares a 7-mile border to the south.
Power lines from Israel provide most of Gaza’s electricity. Everything it does generate itself comes via its only power plant that’s fed with Israeli diesel. In addition, Israel heavily restricts any import materials it considers “dual use” — covering building materials, agricultural equipment and medicine that Gazans say would be essential to rebuilding their lives.
Israel does this because it says these goods and people could be used to assist Hamas’ violent insurgency. A similar rationale has been given to the full-scale siege announced Monday.
Meanwhile, the number of people allowed in and out has been reduced to a trickle, although last year Israel did grant 20,000 permits for Gazans to cross the border for work.
“I think nobody in sound mind would think that Israel should be supplying electricity and fuel to Gaza at this time, when it would simply be used by their savages to plan attacks on Israel,” Spielman, the IDF spokesman, said, again clarifying “savages” referred to Hamas, rather than Gazans as a whole.
Palestinians living in Gaza say they have no doubt this will deteriorate their already dire situation.
“How many days will the Gazans and international humanitarian organizations be able to bear the collapse of these services?” asked Adnan Abu Hasna, who lives in the Gaza Strip and works as a media adviser with UNRWA.
He and others were dismayed when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Gazans to leave areas that might house Hamas militants, warning his air force would turn them to “rubble.”
“There’s literally nowhere to seek refuge because we are completely shut off from the outside world,” el-Haddad said, “which is why it was such a farcical comment.”
But for many people in Gaza, the material impoverishment is secondary to the emotional turmoil they feel themselves locked in.
“There is no tomorrow in Gaza,” Hasna said. “You cannot predict what’s going to happen. You cannot dream.”
Alexander Smith is a senior reporter for NBC News Digital based in London.