Imagine living in a place where you can never drive more than 25 miles in one direction. Where you can't get on a plane to visit relatives because the only airport has been closed for years. Where you can't go far from shore without risk of being seized or fired upon.
Now imagine possibly spending your entire life there, your freedom of movement completely controlled by another country.
This is the Gaza Strip.
No matter what you think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fact remains that this little swath of land has long been a virtual prison with Israelis and, to a much lesser extent, Egyptians as jail guards. And that means there is no place to run for thousands of innocent civilians as Israeli tanks and warplanes continue their assault on Hamas.
With Gaza's borders to Israel and Egypt closed, Gazans "are fish in a barrel," Fred Abrahams, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times. And this was the first conflict he could recall in which civilians couldn't flee a war zone.
Think about it. During the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, millions of Afghans went to Pakistan. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, thousands of Kurds took refuge in the mountains of southeastern Turkey. During the 1999 Kosovo war, nearly a million ethnic Albanians flooded into Macedonia. And during the most violent years of the Iraq war, a good part of the Iraqi population left for Syria and Jordan.
To be sure, many of those refugees endured terrible hardships. But at least they were safe from the worst horrors of war.
Not so the 1.5-million Gazans. Except for a few hundred people who have been evacuated for medical treatment or because they held foreign passports, no Gazans have been able to flee the violence since Israel attacked Dec. 27.
Israel argues that thousands of its own citizens have lived in terror for years as Hamas and Islamic Jihad fire rockets from Gaza into nearby Israeli cities.
Palestinians counter that Israel has long fired missiles into Gaza, killing not just militants but also civilians. Moreover, Israel controls most of Gaza's border crossings, plus its coastal waters, plus the air space.
In 2005, when Jewish troops and settlers withdrew from Gaza, there was a brief spurt of hope that peace had finally come. But a promised "safe passage" allowing Palestinians to travel between the West Bank and Gaza never materialized. And as militants continued shooting rockets, Israel frequently closed the borders for weeks at a time, choking off trade and stifling Gaza's economy.
The situation grew even worse in 2006 when a strong majority of Palestinians — fed up with their corrupt, incompetent Fatah government — voted the rival Hamas party into power in one of the Arab world's few free and fair elections. Hamas, which has long provided food, clothing and social services to Palestinians, was already running some West Bank towns with notable efficiency.
But given Hamas' refusal to accept Israel's right to exist, the Jewish state and its U.S. and European allies refused to deal with the new Hamas government. And after Hamas seized control of Gaza from Fatah in 2007, Israel imposed a blockade that left the strip perilously short of fuel, food and medical supplies.
Nonetheless, Hamas has smuggled in tons of weapons from Egypt through tunnels now being bombed by Israel. And many Israelis and their supporters have little sympathy for Gazans caught in the mayhem.
"They voted for Hamas," goes this line of argument.
Others find that to be a hard-hearted view.
"That's a fairly cold assessment of the position Gaza civilians are in," says Robert Lowe, manager of the Middle East and North Africa Program at London's Chatham House.
"It's very hard to blame them for the choice the whole Palestinian nation made in the 2006 election because they were so tired of Fatah and its failures and its corruption. And the idea that they can be treated similarly to Hamas military fighters, that if they suffer in the fallout it is merely unfortunate — it's appalling. There is nothing these people can do, there is no place they can go."
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at [email protected]