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Gaza: Epicenter of the Israel-Hamas War

Explore the complex history of the Gaza Strip, the rise of Hamas, and the implications for the current conflict.
Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on Wednesday. Play Podcast

About the Episode

Deep Dish delves into the heart of the Gaza Strip. Expert Michael Merryman-Lotze and host Brian Hanson discuss its complex history, its people, the role of the region in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its place in the Israel-Hamas war that has shaken the world.

[Brian Hanson: INTRO: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs -- going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm your host, Brian Hanson with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


In recent days, the world has witnessed unprecedented attacks by Hamas and Israel's military response to those attacks. War is raging and it will continue. In many ways, the epicenter of these events is the Gaza Strip, a tiny piece of land with an incredibly complex history. Gaza is a very small coastal territory measuring just 25 miles long and seven miles wide, which is about twice the size of Washington, DC. It's nestled between Israel and Egypt and along the Mediterranean Sea. Despite its small size, it's been an important site of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades.

Today we want to explore the history of this troubled region and in having this conversation, I want to acknowledge right off the bat that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is incredibly complex and heavily contested, as are many of the issues that we're going to be talking about today with respect to the Gaza Strip. And no interview with any single person is going to represent all of the important views and perspectives. Our goal with this episode is to provide our listeners with one view that can provide some context about the history and lived experiences of the Gaza Strip. This will certainly not be the last conversation or the last perspective this show will explore with respect to these important issues.

I am joined today by Michael Merryman-Lotze. Mike is the American Friends Service Committee's Just Peace Global Policy Director. He previously worked for 13 years coordinating the organization's Israel, Palestine, and Middle East policy work. Mike has also been a researcher with the Palestinian human rights organization, Al-Haq in the West Bank, and he has worked in Save the Children, UK's Jerusalem office.

Mike starts us off by saying that the Gaza Strip is home to 2.3 million people who for the last 16 years have…]

Michael Merryman-Lotze: lived under an Israeli imposed blockade. And so, what that means for the population is that their movement during that time has been restricted. The import export of goods has been restricted access to electricity, to water, to financial resources, medical care, and other things have all been restricted. And so, you have a population that, for now, nearly two decades has been cut off from the world. But it's also a population that is in many ways extremely industrious. It's one of the most educated populations in the Middle East, a high levels of literacy. And population that's made up of refugees. So, a majority of the population are Palestinians from other parts of historic Palestine, what is now Israel, who were displaced in 1948, and who in many instances, can still see the remains of the villages from which they were displaced at that time, and who are now living in one of the most crowded, and cut off locations in the world.

Brian Hanson: So, I would love to just talk through some of this history and key points of the history of how this became the community that it did. And you, kind of rooted your answer, back in 1948, and if there's anything we should talk about before then, what was the key event there and how did it start contributing to what is Gaza today?

Michael Merryman-Lotze: When the UN announced the partition plan in 1947, conflict began even before the official start of the war. And even before start of the war 250,000 Palestinians were displaced and ultimately during the 1948 war, 750,000 Palestinians were displaced from what became the state of Israel. Many of those people who were displaced went to Gaza, and the American Friends Service Committee, where I work actually, set up the refugee camps in Gaza at that time before the establishment of the United Nations. We left Gaza in 1950, one of the things that the American Friends Service Committee said in the reports, was that without a political solution to the status of the refugees, and there was a push for them to be able to return to their homes, that you would have a long term political morass in Gaza. That it would lead to unresolved conflict. And unfortunately, that's kind of what you see today. you have people who have been displaced for decades, and since 1967 have lived under a military occupation and that's led to political conflict and unfortunately violence.

Brian Hanson: And was there a reason that the Gaza Strip became a place where Palestinian refugees settled?

Michael Merryman-Lotze: It was the place where Palestinians from what was the larger Gaza district and from areas of historic Palestine that were close to Gaza moved. It was an area that remained under Egyptian control in those first years. And so, Palestinians could concentrate there. There were Palestinian refugees who also went to what became the West Bank, to Jordan, to Lebanon, Egypt, and other locations. But it was, um, for people in that area where they ended up.

Brian Hanson: And then you mentioned 1967 and the war that took place there. How did that impact on the Gaza Strip?

Michael Merryman-Lotze: I mean it's interesting in 1967, Israel took over both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and took military control for those areas. And so, that meant that the Palestinian population then, for the next decades lived under Israeli military occupation and control. Israel very quickly began to set up settlements, in the Gaza Strip, moving some of its population into communities there. And that restricted people's access to key parts of Gaza. The settlements took over agricultural land, water supplies, and other key resources and also Israel limited economic opportunity within Gaza but encouraged labor in Israel. So many of the workers in Gaza during those first decades of occupation began to work inside Israel and there was an integrated, connection between the economies of the two locations.

Brian Hanson: And was the relationship between the two places relatively peaceful during this period? Or were there already episodes of violence.

Michael Merryman-Lotze: You know, it's been conflicted throughout that military occupation is enforced by a military. And so that it means that, from 1967 onwards, there was a constant presence of the Israeli military in communities that it meant patrols moving through communities day and night, regular arrests and conflict between the population of Palestinians there in Gaza and the military at that time.

Brian Hanson: And as you point out, then this condition, is sustained for an extensive period of time. And my understanding is the next big development is really in light of the Oslo Accords. And, could you briefly talk about what the Oslo Accords were, or are, and how impacted the Gaza Strip?

Michael Merryman-Lotze: Yeah. So, in 1993, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israel, reached what many had hoped would be a long term, peace agreement. And the first parts of that were what were called the Gaza and Jericho Accords, where Israel allowed the Palestinian leadership to return from exile and to establish, some limited autonomy with first Gaza and then Jericho in the West Bank, and then that gradually expanded to include some Palestinian control over other parts of the West Bank. And so now you have the Palestinian authority that was set up through those accords, maintaining, responsibility for the education system and social services in the West Bank. And Hamas now is in control of Gaza, but its control of Gaza came as a result of elections in 2006, where it was elected into the Palestinian Authority and then conflict with the rival party Fatah, resulted in a split between the West Bank and Gaza.

Brian Hanson: So, with the Oslo Accords, my understanding is that Israel's military occupation came to an end. Can you talk about what that transition was like?

Michael Merryman-Lotze: This is one of the challenges for Palestinians, Israel's control in many ways tightened over most aspects of life. And so, one of the consequences of giving the Palestinian Authority control over particular cities and locations while Israel maintained control over other parts of both the West Bank and Gaza was that, the West Bank and Gaza became and separated from each other. And in Gaza itself, with settlements still in place, the military was still present. And Gaza Strip was divided, although it's tiny, into different sectors where Palestinians had to pass through checkpoints to move from one part of Gaza to another. Palestinians from Gaza were no longer allowed to move freely into Israel for work, and so unemployment increased during that period. Despite the agreements and, movement also was banned between the West Bank and Gaza during that period. And so, Palestinians found themselves in this interesting situation where they had gained some limited autonomy over particular aspects of life, the education system, social services, the ability to build, in locations that Israel allowed, but no freedom of movement and, limited overall control over, their lives with still the military present in communities, including in Gaza.

Brian Hanson: And at what point did the Israeli military withdraw from the Gaza Strip and how did Israel then respond to security concerns about territory outside the Gaza Strip?

Michael Merryman-Lotze: Yeah, so in 2005, the Israeli, government made a unilateral decision to redeploy its forces, from Gaza and to withdraw settlers from the Gaza Strip. It did that without coordination with the Palestinian Authority and the end result was actually a tightening of the closure and more restrictions for Palestinians from Gaza, with Israel controlling all of the borders. And so, there's a narrative that says that Israel withdrew and that the occupation of Gaza ended in 2005. And I'd say that that's actually quite inaccurate. Both the UN and the Red Cross would have agreed that Israel still maintain complete control over Gaza after 2005. It controls the population registry. So, if you're born in Gaza, you have to register your documents with the Israeli government, it controls movement in and out of Gaza, it controlled the currency, and in accordance with the Oslo Accords, it controlled electricity, it controlled water supplies, it controlled the electromagnetic spectrum, the airspace, the water space, all of those things. So yes, the withdrawal of settlers meant that you didn't have internal checkpoints within Gaza, but military incursions are still a weekly occurrence, even at this time, and control over Gaza at that time was near total. And so, the withdrawal of troops from the heart of Gaza was in most respects not an end to control or occupation.

Brian Hanson: And then as we kind of walk through this history and the development, one that's very much at the center of the violence and conflict we're seeing today, is Hamas comes to the fore as the governing representative of Gaza. Can you talk about when that happened, how that happened, and the implications of that?

Michael Merryman-Lotze: You know, when the Oslo Accords were signed, Hamas acted as a spoiler. They decided not to be involved with the process and engaged in violence and other acts, in many ways to disrupt the process of, moving towards peace. In 2006, Hamas made a decision. After the second intifada to engage in that process. And so, when there were new elections for the Palestinian Authority, Hamas ran to try and take office, and in the end, they won the majority of the legislative council and meant that they also, were able to select who would be the Palestinian prime minister. Well, Fatah, the party of Yasser Arafat, and now Mahmoud Abbas, maintained control of the presidency, and were the major opposition party at that time. The response of the international community and Israel to that win was to immediately place sanctions on the Palestinian authority to cut off all funding, and to refuse to engage with, the Palestinian authority. That placed a lot of pressure on, Hamas and Fatah, who had different approaches. And then there was in 2006 pressure from outside for Fatah to overthrow Hamas. and that pressure from the outside resulted in, conflict in 2007 between Fatah and Hamas with, ultimately Hamas taking control of Gaza and Fatah taking control of the West Bank. Fatah is now recognized as the legitimate Palestinian authority and Hamas has remained isolated in Gaza.

Brian Hanson: And one of the things that one frequently hears about Hamas and the distinction between the two is that Hamas has not accepted the existence of Israel and advocates for the destruction of Israel. And with that, as well as external linkages with Iran and other places, a deep concern inside Israel about its own security. How did Israel respond to that in terms of trying to shore up its security with this development in the Gaza Strip? And I guess, all of this history is contested, and has different views. So, you know, maybe there's pushback against how I just characterized it.

Michael Merryman-Lotze: I mean, I would two things. One, I think that decision to isolate Hamas in 2006, to refuse to engage with it when it took part in Palestinian elections was a big mistake on the part of Israel and the US there was a split within Hamas at that time, with pragmatic faction deciding to engage within the process to try and pull Hamas into the political arena, and to have it be a part of the conversation about what a future would look like. There were hardliners who were opposed to any kind of engagement and who pushed against that, and when those who were more pragmatic, engaged and were elected, the boycott of them Strengthen the hardliners and marginalize those who could have been a part of the process in the conversation. And I also think there's a need to see Hamas as a rational political player, despite the violence of the last weeks, which was horrific, that Hamas modified its charter a few years ago and has proposed on a number of occasions, what they call a long term hudna, which would be an agreement with Israel, although they within that call for the return of refugees and other factors that Israel doesn't find acceptable. There has been an openness to political engagement, but it's one that's been rejected, at all times. And I think that as we decade after decade and year after year continue to see violence from, all sides and killing need to take seriously, the need to engage with Hamas. And I know that in this current moment, with violence of last weekend, with the killing, with the horror that people witnessed, that's a hard thing for people hear. But we've also already had 1200 people killed in Gaza in the last few days, including at least 260 children. And if conflict continues for weeks, it seems to, we can expect thousands more deaths and that can't be just the acceptable norm.

Brian Hanson: Yeah. And I want to kind of go back to this period, between when Hamas takes control of Gaza and the current moment, because that period, there are many violent episodes, as well. And what was driving that violence and what were the dynamics during that time?

Michael Merryman-Lotze: Yeah. In, 2007, I moved, to Ramola to take up a position with Save the Children as their child Rights program director, for Palestine. And so, I was working in Gaza during that time, and that was the first year of what's called the blockade of Gaza. And when we would go into Gaza at that time, everything was restricted. chocolate was banned at times. Macaroni was banned. Toilet paper was banned from going into Gaza. Cumin was banned. You know, it was this weird situation where almost nothing was allowed in, a movement of people was blocked. And that led to a situation of, unemployment over 50%. And so, people's lives were completely disrupted. And there was just high levels of anger and frustration at that time, and that boiled over, into the first of what have been a number of major conflicts in 2008 when there was violence from both Gaza and Israel, and ultimately over 1300 Palestinians Gaza were killed at that time. But overall the last decade and a half in Gaza has been a decade defined by blockade, by restricted movement, by, limitations on what people can do, where they can go, and also repeated violence.

Brian Hanson: And, you know, from the Israeli side, certainly rocket attacks and other incursions into Israel have been something that have been of deep concern, for the security of the Israeli people. And, I guess, 2014 when militants kidnapped and murdered three teens in the West Bank, was another case where Israel concerned about its own security, acted to deter, create consequences for those kinds of actions. And I understand one of the other things that happened during this time was that fortification essentially of the border with Gaza. Can you talk a little bit about what kinds of measures were put into place?

Michael Merryman-Lotze: Gaza is surrounded by a fence and it's, not just a fence. It's a fence that goes underground with walls a number of meters deep. It has a area that's called the no go zone that extends 100 to 200 meters into Gaza. There are remote controlled sniper nests that are monitored 24 hours a day where anybody entering those areas can be shot. There are army patrols, there are, jeeps. and there are weekly military incursions into Gaza to clear land and in the areas along the Gaza fence. The waterways are patrolled and Palestinian movement in those areas is limited. So, yes, this attack was quite a surprise, for everybody, both in its scale and its ability to break through those defenses. Violence has been a constant reality in Gaza over the last, two decades, there are rockets that are coming out of Gaza, and there have been a couple of attacks across the border. There are also, daily shooting into Gaza, regular military incursions. It's a location where, violence is constant. And at the same time, I think need to be careful. And I think the question is, how do we get out of this cycle of violence? How do we stop to use a rocket to justify a shooting incident? How do you stop to see one attack as justifying another and move into a different situation? And I think that requires addressing some of the deeper injustices like the blockade.

Brian Hanson: So, you point out, the challenges that are faced, particularly by individual Palestinians, right? There are militants who are committing violent acts. And there are also people who are not militant, who are trying to live their lives in the area. And certainly nothing justifies the kind of violence that we just saw and the Hamas attacks, against, Israel really horrific attacks, and we have seen a response to those attacks, and it looks like it's going to include Israeli forces being brought into the Gaza Strip. Can you talk about, given the situation, given the geography, how does this affect people's lives who are not militants who may abhor the violence that just had happened?

Michael Merryman-Lotze: Yeah, I mean, I have colleagues now in Gaza, and in Israel and was hearing from them before this. And from the Israeli colleagues, over last weekend was hearing the horror and the fear caused by the attacks into Israel. The devastation in communities, the loss of life, and understandably the anger and fear that that engendered. But this morning, my colleague Serena, sent us a message from Gaza that all of her relatives in the neighborhood next to hers had been evacuated from their houses and that their community was being destroyed and then later this morning she was evacuated and I'm not sure where she is at this point. My colleague Firas, wrote that his young daughter said that she wanted to wear her nice dress to bed last night because if they were bombed, and killed, she would look nice for her funeral. You know, they're out of water in their homes. They have electricity for about two hours a day our contact is sporadic. Over 1000 Palestinians in Gaza have already been killed – a quarter of them Children. And the bombing is constant and more severe than has been the case in any of the past major attacks on Gaza. If there's a ground in invasion. And it moves house to house and there's fighting back and forth. I think you can expect just thousands of deaths over the next period. And so, we're in this place right now because what's been on offer has been primarily blockade and bombing and destruction, and so, there's a question of does more blockade, does more bombing, does more destruction get us out of this place, or is what's needed a push towards an end to this round of conflict and some other solution, recognizing the pain that people are living with, but saying that that can't justify the killing of thousands more.

Brian Hanson: I mean, one hears about legitimate concerns about security and, uh the death that has happened and, the horrific acts that you just cataloged to that have happened there and this is incredibly complex and difficult situation This is going to continue to unfold. And I guess, as we close here, what I would ask you is, what should listeners keep in mind, as events unfold and in this place of the Gaza Strip?

Michael Merryman-Lotze: The situation this last weekend didn't start this last weekend. That as we look at that violence, the horrific violence that we saw this weekend and we look at the horrific violence that we're seeing right now in Gaza, that it has a history in a context that doesn't simply come out of irrational hatred that it is linked into a system of inequality and injustice that needs to be broken and undone. And that if we're serious about moving forward, and not seeing something like this happen again, for the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians, there needs to be some move away from singly focused narratives of security. And so, that narrative of security, that need for security that Israelis have, it has to encompass security for Palestinians and the security of Palestinians has to encompass the security of Israelis. And that won't happen through a system of occupation and oppression.

Brian Hanson: Michael Merryman-Lotze of the American Friends Service Committee. I want to thank you so much for being on Deep Dish. I'm sure there are listeners who really appreciate what you've shared, and others are going to disagree, sometimes strongly, with some of your interpretations and positions.  But I think one of the most important things, particularly at this moment, is to be able to talk about what's going on and air differences in views in a respectful way and in a way that recognizes the huge human loss that's happening in Israel and that's happening in Gaza all in hopes of constructing a more peaceful future.

Michael Merryman-Lotze: I really appreciate it. And also recognize that people may disagree or probably will disagree with many of the things that I have said and also hope that what people will take from this is that we need to find a way of moving out of this cycle so that both Israelis and Palestinian don't find themselves back in this situation again in a year or two years and so the lives of those who are suffering at this moment can be protected.

Brian Hanson: Thank you so much for being here.

Michael Merryman-Lotze: Thank you.

[Brian Hanson: OUTRO: And thank you for tuning in to this episode of Deep Dish!

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As a reminder, the opinions you heard belong to the people who expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.  This episode is produced and edited by Kyra Dahring and mixed by Frank McKearn from Aphorism Productions.

Thank you for listening. I’m Brian Hanson and we’ll be back next week with another slice of Deep Dish.]

About the Experts
Just Peace Global Policy Director, American Friends Service Committee
Mike Headshot
Michael Merryman-Lotze is the American Friends Service Committee’s Just Peace Global Policy director. Prior to this role, he coordinated AFSC’s Israel-Palestine and Middle East policy work. Mike has also been a researcher with the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq in the West Bank and worked in Save the Children UK’s Jerusalem office.
Mike Headshot
Brian Hanson
Former Vice President, Studies
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Brian Hanson served as the vice president of studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He managed the Council's research operations and hosted the Council's weekly podcast, Deep Dish on Global Affairs.
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