JERUSALEM (AP) — Gaza has long been a powder keg, and it exploded after Hamas fighters stormed southern Israel on Oct. 7 and began killing and abducting people.
More than 1,400 people in Israel — mostly civilians — were killed in the Hamas attack, and the Israeli army says about 200 hostages were taken into Gaza. Meanwhile, Israeli airstrikes have killed more than 4,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry. Nearly half Gaza’s population — the vast majority of whom are already refugees — have been displaced.
Israel has imposed a complete siege on Gaza, preventing the entrance of food, water and fuel — a move that has created a catastrophic humanitarian situation. As the Israeli military gears up for a ground invasion and pledges to topple Hamas, the futures of Gaza and its 2.3 million Palestinians look uncertain.
Here’s a look at the history of the Gaza Strip:
Before the war surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948, present-day Gaza was part of the large swath of the Middle East under British colonial rule. After Israel defeated the coalition of Arab states, the Egyptian army was left in control of a small strip of land wedged between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.
During the war, some 700,000 Palestinians either fled or were forced from their homes in what is now Israel — a mass uprooting that they call the Nakba, or “catastrophe.” Tens of thousands of Palestinians flocked to the strip.
Under Egyptian military control, Palestinian refugees in Gaza were stuck, homeless and stateless. Egypt didn’t consider them to be citizens and Israel wouldn’t let them return to their homes. Many were supported by UNWRA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, which has a heavy presence in Gaza to this day. Meanwhile, some young Palestinians became “fedayeen” — insurgency fighters who conducted raids into Israel.
Israel seized control of Gaza from Egypt during the 1967 Mideast war, when it also captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas that remain under Israeli control. The internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, which administers semi-autonomous areas of the occupied West Bank, seeks all three areas for a hoped-for future state.
Israel built more than 20 Jewish settlements in Gaza during this period. It also signed a peace treaty with Egypt at Camp David — a pact negotiated by U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi referenced this 40-year old treaty Wednesday when he declined to permit Palestinian refugees from Gaza into Egypt, saying the potential entrance of militants into Egypt would threaten longstanding peace between Israel and Egypt.
The first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation erupted in Gaza in December 1987, kicking off more than five years of sustained protests and bloody violence. It was also during this time that the Islamic militant group Hamas was established in Gaza.
For a time, promising peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders made the future of Gaza look somewhat hopeful.
Following the Oslo accords — a set of agreements between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat that laid the groundwork for a two-state solution — control of Gaza was handed to the fledgling Palestinian Authority.
But the optimism was short lived. A series of Palestinian suicide attacks by Hamas militants, the 1995 assassination of Rabin by a Jewish ultranationalist opposed to his peacemaking and the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister the following year all hindered U.S.-led peace efforts. Another peace push collapsed in late 2000 with the eruption of the second Palestinian uprising.
As the uprising fizzled in 2005, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon led a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, uprooting all of Israel’s troops and roughly 9,000 settlers in a move that bitterly divided Israel.
Just months after Israel’s withdrawal, Hamas won parliamentary elections over Fatah, the long-dominant Palestinian political party. The following year, after months of infighting, Hamas violently seized control of Gaza from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority.
Israel and Egypt imposed a crippling blockade on the territory, monitoring the flow of goods and people in and out. For nearly two decades, the closure has crippled the local economy, sent unemployment skyrocketing, and emboldened militancy in the region, which is one of the most densely populated places on the planet.
Through four wars and countless smaller battles with Israel that devastated Gaza, Hamas has only grown more powerful. In each subsequent conflict, Hamas has had more rockets that have traveled farther. The group has displayed a growing array of weapons. Its top leaders have survived, and cease-fires have been secured. In the meantime, it has built a government, including a police force, ministries and border terminals equipped with metal detectors and passport control.
Since the Oct. 7 attack, Israel has stated its goal is to crush Hamas. This will be no easy task given the group’s deep base of support. But even if Israel does realize its goal, it has said little about what it hopes will come next.
On Friday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel hopes to relinquish control of Gaza and establish a “new security regime.” He did not elaborate.
Experts have cautioned that defeating militancy is not possible — even if Israel manages to topple Hamas, militants could well fill the power vacuum.