What is the situation in Gaza?
It’s a humanitarian, an economic, and a political disaster. Only 26 miles long and seven miles wide and wedged between Israel, Egypt, and the Mediterranean Sea, the Gaza Strip is only about twice the size of Washington, D.C. With a population of 1.5 million, it’s one of the most densely populated places on earth. Most residents are Palestinian refugees from families that fled there when Israel was established, in 1948. Nearly half of Gaza’s population is under 15, and it has one of the highest birth rates in the world. (The average Gazan woman has five children.) While Gaza has a high literacy rate, unemployment runs as high as 40 percent, and 70 percent of Gazans live in poverty. That’s why organizers of an aid-bearing flotilla say they left Turkey for Gaza last month, to relieve—and dramatize—Gazans’ plight. But Israel viewed them as provocateurs, and on May 31 Israeli commandos confronted them at sea, killing nine activists in the ensuing confrontation on board.

Does Israel control Gaza ?
Just its borders. Egypt administered Gaza until Israel captured it in the 1967 war. The 1993 Oslo accords recognized Gaza and the West Bank, 25 miles away, as a “single territorial unit” under the Palestinian Authority. But today they are nothing of the sort. While the Palestinian Authority, dominated by the political organization Fatah, administers the West Bank, its rival, the militant Hamas, runs Gaza. Palestinians in Gaza cannot travel to the West Bank or anywhere else, their confinement enforced by a blockade maintained by Israel and Egypt, which has its own nine-mile border with Gaza. Israel, which withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, controls Gaza’s Mediterranean coastline and airspace; Israeli drones patrol the skies and its ships enforce a maritime blockade three miles from shore. “The fact that this coastal population now imports fish,” says a U.N. report, “speaks to the absurdity of the situation.”

How did the blockade begin?
In 2006, Hamas won parliamentary elections in Gaza and, the next year, drove out Fatah in a bloody four-day civil war. Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist, fired thousands of rockets into Israel, killing and wounding dozens of civilians and unnerving the population. Hamas also infuriated Israelis by refusing to return a kidnapped soldier, Gilad Shalit (see below), whom militants had abducted from an Israeli border post in 2006. In 2007, Israel imposed a full blockade.
What goods are barred?
Israel restricts anything crossing into Gaza that could aid in the making of armaments or fortifications, including concrete, steel, and automobiles. But it also blocks such products as computers, fruit juice, chocolate, coriander, cumin, jam, and fishing rods. Israel contends that Hamas will seize such goods to reward its soldiers and supporters, and hopes that Palestinians weary of deprivation will oust Hamas. Critics contend that Israel is engaging in “collective punishment” of the Palestinian population, which is illegal under international law. A U.S. delegation touring Gaza last year was shocked to find basic foodstuffs on the list of contraband. “When have lentil bombs been going off lately?” asked U.S. Rep. Brian Laird.

Why can’t Gaza feed itself?
It’s an economic wreck. In December 2008, Israel launched a three-week military campaign that destroyed much of Gaza’s infrastructure, leveling factories, government buildings, hospitals, schools, and entire neighborhoods. Some 1,300 Gazans died and tens of thousands were left homeless. Israel’s stated goal was to weaken Hamas and reduce its capacity for terrorism. But in the process, says the International Red Cross, 96 percent of Gazan industry collapsed. “The term ‘economy’ is no longer valid in the Gaza Strip,” says Palestinian economist Omar Shaban.

Why doesn’t Egypt help Gaza?
It fears Hamas and does not want responsibility for the Palestinians. Under international pressure, Egypt opened its border crossing with Gaza this month to more goods and people. But Egypt’s goal is to keep Hamas’ militancy from spilling into Egypt and to ensure that Gaza remains Israel’s problem. At the same time, it has routinely turned a blind eye to a vast network of tunnels beneath the Gaza-Egypt border, through which food, arms, and even cars are smuggled, the latter dismantled in Egypt and transported underground in parts. Israel bombed several tunnels during its invasion, but tunneling promptly resumed after Israel’s withdrawal. Gaza’s border with Egypt is once again “like Swiss cheese,” says a Palestinian smuggler.

Can the blockade endure?
Probably not. After three years, Hamas’ control of Gaza has not been shaken, while the misery there has subjected Israel to furious international condemnation and growing criticism within Israel. “The strategies that Israel adopted to deal with Gaza since 2007, when Hamas took over, have failed,” says Yossi Alpher, an aide to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. President Obama has joined the calls for Israel to loosen the blockade, calling the status quo “unsustainable.” In recent days, Israel began allowing more food to enter Gaza, though it’s not clear if that policy will last. “In Gaza, no one is dying,” says Amr Hamad of the Palestinian Federation of Industries. “But no one is living.”

Hamas’ pawn
Gilad Shalit was last seen being dragged, wounded, from an Israeli border post into Gaza. Since the cross-border raid in 2006, the 23-year-old soldier has been held hostage by Hamas, which has released videotapes and letters from him. Hamas has said it would exchange Shalit for 1,000 Palestinians, some convicted of mass murder, who are currently in Israeli prisons. Shalit’s fate has become a cause célèbre in Israel, the subject of countless Cabinet meetings and relentless news coverage—which has only increased Shalit’s value to Hamas. “Israel is obsessed with Gilad Shalit,” says columnist Ari Shavit of Ha’aretz, “in a way that no other nation in history has been obsessed with a prisoner of war.”