Trapped Between Spaces: Gaza’s Existential Struggle

In December 2003, Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister, announced in a televised speech Israel’s plans to “disengage” from its control of Gaza through the complete withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and the removal of Israeli settlements from Gaza after thirty-eight years of occupation. He claimed that the withdrawal decision was coming from strength rather than weakness as Gaza “cannot be held on to forever.” According to his assertions, he was considering the lives of Palestinians, as this decision would bring back hope to them and would allow Gazans to “rebuild” their lives and communities.

The actual disengagement took place in September 2005. However, in 2006, Palestinian legislative elections took place for the first time, and Hamas won 44% of the votes, leaving 41% to its opponent, Fatah. To Israel, the outcome of the elections, with Hamas winning, led to the imposition of collective punishment on the entire Gaza population for their political choice. While intentions of disengagement from Gaza were put into action in 2005, this disengagement did not mean an end to the occupation and control of Gaza; rather it provided Israel with a new way of controlling Gaza remotely and with the excuse of Hamas being a terrorist organization.

Prior to the withdrawal, Israel’s control predominantly took place through its presence in Gaza; now its axis of control shifted to the borders. Israel controlled the northern border of Gaza, Erez, whereas the southern border, Rafah, was still controlled by Israel but through the sovereignty of Egypt. Hence, Gaza found itself effectively blockaded, with Israel and Egypt controlling the passage of goods and medical aid as well as Gazans’ mobility. The excessive blockade and siege of the Gaza Strip has now entered its second decade.

Usually when Gaza is called an “open-air prison,” it is the excessive control of borders that is being referenced. Living under ongoing surveillance through the presence of borders and checkpoints that maintain the occupation facilitates the creation of death worlds where Gazans are reduced to a state of bare life; they are alive but in a state of spiritual death. The manner in which Israel controls the borders involves permitting only the bare essentials, keeping Gazans hovering perilously close to the threshold of drowning, each moment on the brink of being swallowed up.

In August 2022, upon receiving a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in the UK, I was contacted by the British Consulate in Jerusalem regarding the process of obtaining a permit to leave Gaza through Erez. Despite successfully obtaining a permit for crossing Erez, I encountered numerous restrictions imposed by Israel, particularly concerning the items I could carry. These restrictions included limitations on luggage types, electronics, medicine, and food. Specifically, I was told that wheel luggage was prohibited and only a backpack was permitted. Additionally, I could carry one phone and charger, with laptops, some personal belongings, food, medicine, and items containing metals being strictly prohibited. Although there were several other restrictions, these specific limitations deeply impacted me and led me to pursue an alternative permit through the Rafah border.

I found it incredulous to contemplate embarking on a journey away from my homeland with only what could be accommodated in a backpack. The mere thought of leaving behind items of profound significance, such as Za’atar, Palestinian olive oil, my belongings in my room, and my laptop weighed heavily on me, knowing they were all deemed forbidden to carry solely because I am Gazan. Despite the challenges associated with crossing the Rafah border–where waiting for a name clearance often extends for months unless additional money is paid, and the actual border crossing entails enduring over twelve hours in the desert—I reasoned that, at the very least, I would not be confined by the constraints of a backpack and limited belongings.

The chance to see Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem, and the Dome of the Rock stirred within me a moment of reconsideration regarding my decision to depart Gaza via Erez. Having never set foot in these revered locations before and recognizing the near-impossibility for Gazans to obtain permits for Erez unless facilitated by an international organization, I contemplated seizing the opportunity to witness my homeland. Nonetheless, my hopes were dashed when I learned that I would only be permitted a fleeting glimpse from the confines of a speeding car, elevated above the ground. I refused to settle for such a fleeting encounter with my own homeland. Fully cognizant of the arduous journey that lay ahead, culminating in a day spent traversing the desert en route to Cairo airport, I made a conscious decision to embrace the more challenging path rather than yield to the oppressive limitations imposed on the Palestinian existence.

These forms of existence, such as occupation, surveillance, borders, and checkpoints, facilitate the creation of death worlds where we, Gazans, are limited to experiencing mere survival. By the creation and reorganization of spaces within the colony, Israel practices its sovereign power on us, reminding us that we are controlled. We are not allowed to live but only to survive.

In the context of Palestine, Israel has allocated a massive sum of its money to border fencing. These so-called infrastructure projects mark the most expensive schemes it has undertaken since 2000. The justifications behind building a border vary, yet they all center around notions of civilization, modernity, and security.

Similar to the European colonial missions of the past, where lands were perceived as unclaimed due to the inhabitants being deemed “primitive’ and contrasting notions of “modernity,” Palestine has been consistently portrayed as “a land without a people” because these people, the Palestinians, were being othered. Consequently, the establishment of Israel on this land is framed as an honorable endeavor to bring civilization to the “undeveloped” Palestinians. By this logic, borders are regarded as tools for separating modernity from backwardness based on race; they are the margins of civilization and modernity.

This point underscores Eyal Weizman’s concept “vertical sovereignty,” wherein colonial powers operate by forming a barrier or a frontier to enforce a division among the population based on racial superiority. These ideologies are clearly reflected in the rhetoric of right-wing Israeli leaders like Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s speech when he said “we Jews have nothing in common with what is denoted the East and we thank God for that,” expressing a sense of detachment from the East and a sense of gratitude for it. In alignment with this, following the 9/11 attacks in the US, Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon framed the incident as a part of an “international struggle” against all forces of terrorism, legitimizing Israel’s policies of building a border as an act of state security and self-defense from the terrorists “who thirst for blood”—i.e., the Palestinians. In another speech, he associated the Palestinian leader Yasser Araft with the founder of Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, to suggests that Palestinians are inherently violent and in need of governance—a governance that could only happen by building a border to separate between the ones and the others.

In this context, not only does the border act as a separation fence based on race; it is also used for surveillance and governance of the Palestinians, who are figured as having animalistic attributes. This process, known as governmentality, is employed to maintain a division between racially superior and inferior beings, perpetuating the construction of separation borders as a means of control and domination.

Similarly, because Israel has closed or placed severe restrictions on all other crossings to enter or leave Gaza, including sea, air, and land routes, the Rafah crossing serves as the sole lifeline connecting Gaza to the outside world. Hence, the closure of the Rafah crossing entails putting 2.5 million Gazans to a slow death, sealing them off from the rest of the world. In times of aggression against Gaza, Egypt usually ensures the complete closure of the Rafah crossing, disallowing the movement of goods and humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. Any talks about external/international pressure being placed on Egypt demanding it to close the Rafah border often prove futile.

The Rafah crossing falls on a Palestinian-Egyptian territory, giving both Egypt and Palestine full control over their respective sides of the crossing. Despite the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) signed in November 2005 by the Palestinian authority and Israel, it was agreed that Egypt would be designated to manage the Egyptian side of the crossing whereas the PA is responsible for the Gaza side of the crossing. Even if the agreement mentions the presence of a third party, the European Union, for “monitorial” reasons, Egypt is already adhering to all the “proper procedures” of security and custom by capturing a real-time videos of all activities and and students at the border and sending them to a liaison office, led by the third party and Israel. Despite these measures, questions remain: Why then is the Rafah “supposed to be” crossing closed? And why are Gazans asked to pay money in order to evacuate Gaza?

While it is true that by aligning with Israeli interests, closing the border, and enforcing restrictions, Egypt maintains its financial support from the United States, these actions extend beyond mere geopolitics. It is, on the broader scale, a means of governing life and making death possible by sustaining the lives of a select few, via allowing “selected” humanitarian aids, facilitating the death of some, through starvation and blockade, and killing the additional others. Therefore, closing the border is not only about controlling the movement of goods and the mobility of Gazans into and out of Gaza but also the possibility of controlling our lives and creating a place where annihilation of the self looms, reminding Gazans that they are under incarceration, with all the food they eat, books they read, and any goods they use subject to Egypt and Israel’s approval first.

In light of the lack of respect for the lives of Gazans, and in a world where Gazans are doomed to be disposable, Gazans live in a state of scarcity and a struggle for survival rather living than a dignified life. The wounded must wait before they are able to get a permit and the killed are left on the streets, as food for passing animals. Even those allowed to live are in a state of living dead, hovering around death, where their biological drive to survive often prevails over all other higher-order concerns. Any manner to allow humanitarian aid is seen as a divine attempt to save a “starving” population. Consequently, the choice of air-dropping aids further dehumanizes a population already stripped of its humanity, confirming to the world that they’re unworthy of a meaningful life. This prompts the crucial question: who is rescuing whom? And from what?

Through the spatialization of territory, Israel and Egypt place Gazans in a position between life and death where Gazans are, as long as they are inhabiting these spaces, deemed disposable, thus killed at any time and by any form. Hence, space has always been considered a main component of sovereignty; sovereignty operates it and exercise its power.

I thought that by leaving Gaza to pursue my master’s degree, I would escape the confines of Israel’s sovereignty over the territory. If sovereignty operates primarily through control of physical space, then my departure from Gaza would signify a release from that control. However, there’s often little discussion about the colonial state’s targeting of the psychological realm. While Achille Mbembe’s concept of necropolitics is frequently invoked to characterize the Palestinian population, especially those in Gaza, as living dead within a necropolitical deathscape, this notion typically focuses on the physical landscape while neglecting its psychological dimensions.

In Israel’s attempt to facilitate a continued marginalization and eradication of the indigenous identity, a control over the psyches of Gazans is exerted. The state of the living dead, which is created by sovereignty, is a state that sticks to Gazans whether residing inside or outside Gaza. The realization—that their lives are perpetually deemed expendable in the hierarchy of worthiness—transforms the necropolitical deathscape from a purely physical concept to one that permeates the Palestinian psyche. When you see the corpses lining the streets and a forced starvation of your own people, when your memories and dreams are destroyed right in front of your eyes, and when all this is compounded by feelings of worldwide “shame” to be part of the world alongside a deafening silence by the world: it becomes evident that the Gazan psyche is under deliberate attack.

Gazans are, however, left to endure silent demise within their souls without causing much “noise” about their state to the world, alive in body (albeit unfortunate), yet stripped of vitality and hope; a body hollowed out from within. Hence, whether residing outside or inside Gaza, to Gazans happiness is elusive, home is a distant dream and life itself is suspended in a state of perpetual limbo once we realize that it matters little if we live or die, it matters not if we receive a dignified death, nor if your corpse was collected from under rubble. To be Gazan is to endure cramped living conditions, stripped of rights, confined in close quarters, stacked upon one another, starving to death, deprived of your education, bombed at any given time and any given location. Being Gazan comes with the ominous specter of Israel’s curse, where your pursuit of happiness is entangled with the heavy burden of guilt for the life of your fellow Gazans, compounded by a ceaseless fear of your potential harm from Israel at any moment, making genuine happiness seem like an elusive quest and life like a ticking time bomb, on the brink of explosion at any moment.

It is a psychological condition of constant injury, oppression, vulnerability, and restriction—yet alive, still living with a dead body. This state of suspension, where Gazans are caught somewhere between life and death, is a deliberate attempt to inflict persistent pain on their lives. The ultimate purpose of inflicting ongoing pain is for Israel to exert control over the population, as pushing Gazans to perpetual vulnerability would lead to a sense of resignation among the people. In such circumstances, pain would be normalized, becoming ingrained in the societal fabric and seen as a part of the daily existence of Gazans. Therefore, individuals would be compelled to prioritize survival over resistance. To survive, the population would ultimately rely on the oppressor for their basic needs as the space they are inhabiting is completely under blockade and siege. Relying on the oppressor places them in the position of “divine messengers,” who are enlightening Gazans and rescuing them from their own supposed animalistic attributes. The oppressor is, therefore, glorified, and the cause is treated as a “humanitarian issue” rather than a case of colonialism and oppression. The root cause is neglected and the aggression intensifies with every passing second; that is how colonialism has still been going on for the past seventy-six years up through our present time.

Revisiting the choice I made to use the Rafah Crossing rather than Erez, with all the challenges I had to face, intending to bring remnants of home with me now feels like a tragic farce. The stark reality that there is no home left to return to sinks in. My home, my university, and my Gaza, obliterated and flattened, leaving behind a void where life once thrived. The notions of home and life, familiar and comforting to everyone, seem intangible and ruthless to Gazans.


Cover image by Zainab Alqolaq, courtesy of the artist. 

Walaa Alfarra

Walaa Alfarra has held the position of graduate teaching assistant in English literature at the Islamic University of Gaza, in addition to her role as an English language part-time lecturer at the University College of Applied Sciences in Gaza. She was awarded the HESPAL scholarship to pursue a master's degree in comparative literature and critical theories at the University of Birmingham, UK. Her academic pursuits are focused on twenty-first-century literature, with a particular emphasis on narrative, power dynamics, and postcolonialism.