Poor, angry and overcrowded, the Gaza Strip is viewed by some as Israeli occupation at its worst - and others as a dangerous hotbed of Palestinian militancy.
Green Hamas flags are a common sight in Gaza
With an estimated 1.3 million Palestinians crammed into this narrow strip of land about 40km long and 5km wide, it is one of the most densely populated places on earth.
And 25% of that area is marked out for the 8,000 or so Jews who have settled in Gaza since Israel seized it from Egyptian control in the 1967 war.
Antagonism between the settlers and the Palestinians has been a major feature of life in Gaza since then - that and the crushing poverty and deprivation suffered by the local population.
The current intifada, which began in September 2000, has plunged an already fragile region into what the main UN agency working there describes as "deep socio-economic crisis".
In response to suicide bombings and other Palestinian attacks, Israel has imposed waves of closures and curfews and conducted military incursions into towns and villages.
Gaza's borders with Israel have been completely closed for significant periods during the last three years.
At the height of the intifada in 2002, the World Bank estimated that about three quarters of Palestinians in Gaza lived on less than $2 a day.
It quoted surveys suggesting that malnutrition levels matched those in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The economies of both the West Bank and Gaza are highly dependent on Israel for both trade and employment.
Before the intifada, at least 30,000 Palestinians from Gaza worked in Israel, Israeli industrial estates and settlements.
According to the World Bank, by December 2003 this had dropped to 4,000, which, together with the general decline of the economy, pushed unemployment up to close to 37%.
Now, on average, each employed person in Gaza supports seven dependents.
About 600,000 Palestinians in Gaza - close to half the population - receive emergency food aid from UNRWA, the UN body set up to cater for Palestinian refugees.
But the body has complained that Israeli restrictions have blocked distribution.
And, with one of the world's highest birth rates, Gaza faces continually increasing population pressure to add to its woes.
Cauldron of protest
The Strip has historically been a stronghold for Islamic and radical Palestinian movements.
It was the birthplace of the 1987-1993 Intifada, the grass-roots protest against Israeli occupation which persuaded leaders like Yitzhak Rabin that Israel had to make peace with the Palestinians by giving up some of the land it captured in 1967.
Palestinian pop: 1.3m
Area: 360 sq km
In poverty: 75%
Under 15: 49%
Pop growth: >4% per year
Israeli population: 7,300
Sources: World Bank 2003 & 2004; Israel CBS, CIA World Factbook
Gaza's refugee camps are particularly fertile recruitment grounds and operation sites for militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
These dilapidated enclaves, many with poor sanitation and housing, are home to half a million Palestinians whose families fled the wars in 1948 and 1967.
The refugee camps have been the scenes of numerous incursions, gun battles and house demolitions as the Israeli army has launched operations it says seek to dismantle militant groups.
Israeli operations in refugee camps have wounded many civilians
According to the United Nations the Israeli military has demolished over 2,500 Palestinian houses in the Gaza Strip over the last four years.
Other tactics have included the uprooting of orchards and destruction of farmland, ostensibly because they are used for cover by the militants.
Hamas has gained influence significantly in Gaza during the intifada, due partly to its widespread, effective welfare programmes which have eclipsed the Palestinian Authority's efforts to tackle poverty in the Strip.
From the earliest days of Israel's military occupation, would-be settlers have regarded Gaza as a hostile and inhospitable place.
Those who have come are mainly hardy religious-nationalist settlers, who often moved for political reasons.
Netzarim settlement has seen deadly Palestinian attacks
Gaza has 21 Israeli settlements, the majority concentrated in two main blocs: three along the northern border and 10 along the southern Mediterranean coast.
These heavily-fortified enclaves are often the targets of Palestinian attacks - particularly Netzarim, which is close to the main north-south road in the strip.
Palestinian groups have also carried out two bombings at the Erez crossing point at the north of the Gaza Strip in the last year, and launched missile attacks into Israeli territory from Gazan towns.
For Israel, occupying Gaza and defending the settlements has become increasingly costly and demanding.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has announced a plan to pull out of the territory unilaterally.
Although voted down by his own party, the proposal has gained 70% support in polls among ordinary Israelis.
But with the policy has come a fresh wave of Israeli military activity, including the assassinations of two high-profile Gaza-based Hamas leaders.
Israel has also destroyed the homes of hundreds of Palestinians close to the border with Egypt in what it says is an operation to destroy tunnels used by militants for weapons smuggling.
Recent incursions into the densely populated refugee camps have taken a heavy toll among Palestinians.