The arc of history bends toward justice, said one famous American, but maybe he wasn’t aware of Gaza. The 1.6 million inhabitants of this thin strip of land on the eastern Mediterranean find themselves caught yet again between the fusillades of two uncompromising, hard-bitten adversaries—and, once more, they are the ones paying the steepest price in blood. As thousands of Hamas rockets rained down on Israel, parallel Israeli strikes have led to the deaths of more than 130 Gazans over the span of less than a week (five Israelis have been slain by Hamas rocket fire). This is par for the course. In 2008, a similar Israeli campaign, Operation Cast Lead, killed more than 1,400 Gazans. The body count won’t be as high this time as a host of diplomatic mediators—from the Arab League’s envoys to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—struggle to settle the last binding terms of an Israeli-Hamas ceasefire. But even after the smoke clears and the rubble gets carted away, what will remain is something no forced handshake can cure.
Gaza “is a manmade ecosystem of outrage and despair,” writes Karl Vick, TIME’s Jerusalem bureau chief, in this week’s issue of the magazine. Rights activists refer to it as a prison camp, a vast human cage whose people are now hemmed in by an Israeli blockade and Egyptian neglect. Vick writes:
Gaza is a stepchild of history. It has been ruled by both Egypt and Israel and is beloved by neither, which is a problem for all. Gazans are emphatically Palestinian, a national identity forged from the trauma of losing their land to Jewish armies in 1948, the year Israel was established. Many defeated Arab landowners fled to Gaza, where 3 out of 4 residents are classified as refugees.
Their ingrained sense of dispossession was anticipated by the famed Israeli general Moshe Dayan in 1956, who Vick quotes:
“For eight years now,” said Dayan, “they have sat in the refugee camps of Gaza and have watched how, before their very eyes, we have turned their lands and villages, where they and their forefathers previously dwelled, into our home.”
Combine historical grievance with contemporary hardship—unemployment, food shortages and myriad other daily deprivations—and you get a climate of anger that leads to the success of radical militant groups like Hamas. Heap onto that the psychological toll of Israeli bombardments, and you arrive at a situation that is, for many, existentially intolerable.
Writing in the New Yorker, Wasseem El Sarraj, a Palestinian writer based abroad many years, recounts the experience of living with his family in a Gaza under siege, staying awake at night amid the scream and whir of rockets, missiles and drones:
The reality is that there is no escape, neither inside the house nor from the confines of Gaza. It’s my first harb (war), and it has stirred in me feelings that I had tried hard to suppress. I never wanted to see Israel as an evil force. I said to myself that that sort of thinking, that sort of emotion, would not be helpful, would not be constructive, would not be “me.” I had wanted to work with Israelis; to reconcile, I suppose. After four years of living in Gaza, this has become an untenable position for me.
On the other side of the fence, countless Israelis are facing up to their own sense of the enemy, to the wail of sirens and the invisible, merciless threat of a rocket spiraling in and devastating life as they knew it. The hate, the sense of zero-sum despair that war creates takes generations, let alone years, to dispel. Even while the Arab world quivers from seismic political change, what’s taking place in the skies over Gaza is part of an increasingly lengthy, calcified narrative of unfinished battle and uneasy peace. “This time the biggest surprise is how much it’s like all the other times,” writes Vick. And that may be the biggest tragedy of all.