For many Americans, the Gaza Strip is a talking point or a catchphrase. For 1.7 million Palestinians, it is a prison.
Mahmoud Daher, interim head of the World Health Organization office in occupied Palestinian territory, spoke to more than 40 UT students Friday night about the political and health issues the small stretch of land is confronting.
"The fact that Gaza is facing, probably, one of the worst public health crises in the world, it sounded like an interesting subject," Yusef Al-Wadei, a graduate student in public health, said.
The Gaza Strip is a Palestinian territory that borders Egypt to the southwest and Israel to the north and to the west. Just months after the Palestinian Islamist movement, Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, hundreds of rockets and mortars were fired at Israel.
The Gaza Strip's land borders are blockaded by Israel and Egypt, which prevents the import of supplies and the travel of Gazans.
Less than 200 of the region's 1.7 million residents are permitted to leave the territory daily, Daher said. A special pass must be applied for and approved by the Israeli government to leave for any reason. The blockade also serves to restrict imports to the area.
Daher said these restrictions are causes of the growing crisis in the Gaza Strip. The blockades prevent construction materials from coming in to an area with little natural resources, which results in the loss of jobs and preventing the construction of housing and the manufacturing of important technology, such as water purification machines. Gazans are forced to drink potable water brought through the checkpoints by organizations like the WHO.
Residents of the Gaza Strip are also confined to this territory to seek work. Approximately 139 square miles, this area is comparable to the size of Atlanta, whose population is approximately 425,000.
"In the early 90s, 120,000 people were going on a daily basis to work in Israel, providing economic income for the Palestinian lands and their families," Daher said.
Due to the lack of available work, Daher estimates that more than 70 percent of Gazans rely on food rations provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to survive.
The WHO claims the leading causes of death in the Gaza Strip are heart attacks and injuries. Daher, on the other hand, suggests a lack of medical supplies.
The de-facto government in Gaza Strip is tasked with supplying health care, a duty which Daher believes Hamas cannot do effectively. As a result, the WHO must "fill the gaps," as Daher said, coordinating the delivery of medical supplies and donations, providing adequate medical equipment and advocating for the needs of citizens.
In light of a downtrodden economy and a growing population, the United Nations question whether the Gaza Strip will remain a habitable place in the next decade. According to a UNRWA report, the area's water supply may become unusable by 2016 and irreversibly tainted by 2020.
For more information about WHO's work in the Gaza Strip, visit here.