GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories — The Gaza Strip, under fire from Israel's Operation Pillar of Defence campaign unleashed on Wednesday, is an impoverished and overpopulated enclave ruled by the Islamist group Hamas.

Some 1.6 million Palestinians live in the cramped territory spread over 362 square kilometres (140 square miles) along the Mediterranean, making it one of the most densely populated parts of the world.

The territory was evacuated in 2005 by Israel and in March 2006 became the de facto seat of the Hamas-dominated Palestinian government after its victory in legislative elections.

The Palestinian Authority is itself based in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

The economic and humanitarian situation in the enclave has been precarious since Israel imposed an economic embargo after Hamas seized power in 2007, ending a power-sharing deal with the secular Fatah party of president Mahmud Abbas.

Under its blockade, Israel controls all goods entering the Gaza Strip, except those smuggled through tunnels under the border with Egypt. The blockade also involves a blanket ban on all weapons and munitions.

On May 31, 2010 Israeli naval commandos stormed a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, killing nine Turkish activists in a pre-dawn raid that sparked global outrage and plunged the Jewish state into a diplomatic crisis.

Power outages blamed on fuel shortages regularly plunge Gaza into darkness.

Adding to the hardships, there has been only limited reconstruction since the devastating 22-day offensive Israel launched in December 2008 in response to daily volleys of rocket fire from Hamas and other armed factions.

The only access to the territory which is not controlled by Israel -- the Rafah terminal at the border with Egypt -- reopened in May 2011 after the fall of president Hosni Mubarak, but it is also often closed.