Bill Steigerwald

If anyone can explain the worst flare up of Israeli-Palestinian violence in the Gaza Strip in four decades, it's Aaron David Miller. For 20 years, until he became a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington in 2006, Miller was a top Middle East advisor to six secretaries of state (Shultz to Powell). His specialty was formulating U.S. policy on the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli peace process. A regular guest on network and cable TV, a writer of commentary pieces for top U.S. papers, his four books include "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace." I talked to Miller on Tuesday, Dec. 30, as the death toll from Israeli air strikes inside Hamas-controlled Gaza approached 400 and Hamas was continuing to use long-range rockets to hit population centers in Israel.

Q: For those who've never been there, can you briefly describe what the society and economy of the Gaza Strip are like?

A: It's one of the most densely populated areas in the world. It's primarily urban. A vast majority of Gazan residents live in Khan Yunis, Rafah and Gaza City. There are areas along the Mediterranean and areas to the north which are agricultural. They export citrus or at least in better times, hothouse flowers. It's a low-level industrial base. Per capita income is extremely low, unemployment is extremely high. There's no starvation, but over the last two years, particularly since Hamas rose to power, as a consequence of the international boycott -- which the Israelis have tried to orchestrate because it is trying to pressure Hamas into changing its policies - economic activity, trade and aid to Gaza have suffered. People get by using barter, family savings; a lot of non-lethal contraband - cigarettes, food, CDs - comes in through tunnels from Egypt. Other commodities are smuggled in by sea. There is a black market -- which the Israeli private sector participates in - in gasoline, oil, cigarettes, which actually characterized the situation long before Hamas got there - even when Arafat was in control. It's a dysfunctional environment made even more dysfunctional by -- at least when Fatah ran it -- a corrupt and divided leadership; and the Israeli occupation, even though Israel no longer occupies Gaza. They withdrew unilaterally in 2005. It's a society under tremendous stress.

Q: Gaza is neither a free, sovereign state nor an occupied one - so what is it?

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..