Small World: A short history of Gaza

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

It might be useful to review the history of Gaza before it is erased under Israeli assault.

The first thing we need to know is that Samson, the ancient Israeli judge, lived there and performed heroic deeds. A haircut did him in, reducing him to servitude. In due course, his long locks returned and with them his strength. He used his rejuvenated power to bring down the temple of the Philistines (ancient name for Palestinians) killing all their elite — and himself.

Skipping right along over the millennia and Persians, Turks and British, we find that the narrow Gaza Strip was where the Egyptian army ended up after have been defeated in the Arab war on newly born Israel in 1948. Crowding in behind them were maybe 80,000 Palestinians, who were forced from their farms and villages when Israel took over the territory (plus some) awarded by the United Nations in an abortive two-state deal. Today, those survivors and their descendants registered with the United Nations make up over half of the 1.7 million inhabitants of the Strip.

Gaza, like other Palestinian territories, has one of the world’s highest rates of population growth: almost 3% annually.

In the early days after 1948, Palestinians used to sneak across the border to see to their crops or to attack Israelis, who had moved in. The latter usually responded with great force. One such attack on the Egyptian army humiliated Nasser and led him after some twists and turns into the arms of the Soviet Union. Gaza was lost by Egypt in the 1967 war with Israel; Egypt didn’t ask for the troublesome land’s return in the Camp David peace treaty that Sadat negotiated with Israel.

When I worked in Cairo in the early 1980s, my wife and I drove through Gaza and the West Bank and Israel with never a problem at crossing points or in the crowded cities and towns. Those beguiling conditions were not to last, however. Restless youth, rebelling against occupation, became difficult for Israel to control; the protection of several colonies of settlers was burdensome.

In 2005, Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon had enough. The poverty-ridden enclave wasn’t worth the maintenance costs. He closed down the settlements and withdrew the troops, while keeping control of the borders (except with Egypt). A year later in elections encouraged by Israel and the United States, Gazans voted overwhelmingly and freely for Hamas, the Islamic, self-declared enemy of Israel. The following year, the moderate Fatah Palestinian faction moved on Hamas and lost the fight. Both Washington and Jerusalem rejected the selection of a named terrorist bunch as de facto rulers of Gaza. Israel imposed a land, sea and air blockade.

This tense situation persisted, punctuated by sporadic Israeli air raids and random Hamas guidance-less rocket attacks. A major conflict erupted in late 2008, taking the lives of 1,462 Palestinians (5,300 wounded) and 13 Israelis — figures certain to be exceeded in the present violence.

After staging a coup against the Moslem Brotherhood in Cairo, the Egyptian military ended that country’s tolerant attitude (Hamas being a step child of the MB). The Egyptian border became effectively an extension of Israel’s line of control.

Finally, last April, conditions were rapidly going down hill for Hamas and hard-pressed Gazans were under great pressure. Hamas and Fatah got together and formed a unity government for managing the West Bank and Gaza and for dealing with Israel in negotiations that had just failed. The new set-up brought in technocrats, but no representatives of Hamas. Additionally, and importantly, Hamas accepted the stipulated conditions for recognition of Israel and the United States — a willingness to live side by side with Israel in a two-state solution. Nevertheless, Israel rejected a negotiating partner with which the “terrorist” Hamas was involved. (The United States did not follow suit.)

Then came the Israeli accusation — without details — of Hamas culpability for the kidnapping and murder of three teenagers. After the killing of several Palestinians, Hamas resumed rocket fire, demanding that Israel end its blockade. Israel blasts furiously away, searching for tunnels and rocket launchers.

Now back to Samson. You can read that tale as a metaphor for the modern Israel-Palestine conflict or you can say that the modern story reverses the roles, i.e., Samson stands for the Palestinians and Israelis are the Philistines. Like every history, you learn from it what you bring to it.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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