Gaza, a History of Hardship and Struggle

By Hasan Afif El-Hasan
The most wrenching event that Palestinians encountered was the 1948 disaster (nekba), but for the Gazans it was not the only or the last one. Gaza was a battle ground in World War I (WWI), occupied twice by Israel, started the first uprising (intifada), created Hamas movement and opted for armed resistance rather than engage in endless negotiations, declared enemy entity by Israel and the US and today the Gazans are being massacred by Israel and abandoned by the so called Arab states. 

Gaza was a peaceful and prosperous town, but since WWI, it has become a frontline in the struggle for control of the region. The British and the Turks fought three bloody battles in WWI before the British conquered Gaza and the neighboring villages; and in the process, Gaza, the biggest town in the area was decimated and the lives of the Gazans were shattered. Thousands of Gazan civilians died or injured and thousands were forced to leave. On a personal note, my grandfather, Hasan, a soldier in the Turkish cavalry brigade, was killed in these battles. Herbert Samuel, the first British High Commissioner wrote that Gaza town, which used to be the third largest town in Palestine and home for forty thousand before the war, became “comparable to the devastated areas in France and Belgium..And its population dwindled to something like one third of its original population”. Palestine which had been unanimously referred to as Southern Syria came into being officially in 1919 and the League of Nations that was dominated by the victorious powers mandated Palestine to be governed by Britain.

By the end of the mandate and the 1948 war, the Arab military contingents that came to defend the Palestinians were defeated and the Jewish fighters carved the state of Israel that was legitimized by the UN vote and immediately recognized by powerful nations. Israel had taken 2000 square miles beyond the UN partition borders and even crossed into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. While the State of Israel controlled 8,300 square miles, Egypt was able to save only the southern coastal Gaza Strip (140 square miles) or about 1 percent of historical Palestine located on the Mediterranean to the north of Egypt’s Sinai. Main towns in the Strip are Gaza, Khan Yunis and Rafah. The war of 1948 marked the end to the Palestinians’ hope of establishing an independent state, but the long lasting effect of the war on Gaza area was the destruction of its society. The eighty thousand prewar Gaza Strip populations were joined by more than one hundred-seventy thousands refugees after the war; and the Egyptians became the custodians of this Palestinian territory. In the first year after 1948, many desperate refugees crossed the armistice lines and traveled on foot to their homes in Israel. They tried to retrieve some of their belongings, but hundreds never returned; they were killed by the Israelis. The population of Gaza Strip today is close to 1.5 million including almost one million registered refugees.

The frightened refugees running for their lives brought nothing with them other than the clothes they had on their backs. With no sources of income or any support, their fellow Gazan natives were overwhelmed by the new comers’ needs. The Egyptian people organized what they called mercy trains (kitarat al-rahmah) that ran from Cairo to Gaza to deliver food and other needed goods. The mercy trains were helpful but were not adequate and they lacked regularity of service and bureaucratic distribution organization. For more than five months the refugees suffered from starvation, lack of shelter and medical care until a foreign relief agency from the Quakers and later the UN Relief and Work Organization (UNRWA) stepped in and began organizing effort to provide relief. The agency established distribution centers, provided rationing of flour, milk, beans, cooking oil, dry date, tents and blankets. One of the sad effects of the nekba tragedy was the humiliation of a proud people who used to care for themselves, their families and others and became dependent on charity to survive.

In 1956, the Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, France Prime Minister Guy Mollet and the British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd planned a tripartite military attack against Egypt. From Israel’s point of view, Egypt had been violating the armistice agreement and threatening its security. Ben-Gurion complained about raids by armed regulars and irregulars across the armistice lines with Gaza killing hundreds of Jews and mining Israeli lines of communications. He described life in Israel on the borders with Gaza, unbearable. Gaza Strip was overrun by Israel and many Egyptian military and Palestinians lost their lives; but the victory excitement by Israel was short-lived when President Eisenhower sent a letter to Ben-Gurion demanding Israeli withdrawal from conquered Gaza and Sinai. Israel had to withdraw in return for a peace treaty that gave Israel some economic gains including freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Aqaba and the Suez Canal.

Egypt limited its role in Gaza only to a caretaker preserving (but not preparing) the Strip to take its place in a future Palestinian state. The Egyptian governor general wrote to his government Defense Minister in 1960 that the Egyptian administration in Gaza was, “to build a democratic social society and create cooperation among Palestinians to liberate the rest of their country”. The Egyptian government treated Gaza differently from Egypt proper except for the curtailing of the political activities. Political parties were outlawed in both Egypt and Gaza. The Egyptian government under Jamal Abdel-Nasser carried out major public works projects and massive industrial development in Egypt but there were no such initiatives in Gaza. The only industry in the Strip was the UNRWA services. Because refugees were the large majority of Gaza Strip, Egypt shared administrative responsibility of the Strip with the UNRWA which provided the refugees with food rations, health care, education and some employment.

On May 18, 1967, Nasser ordered the withdrawal of the UN observers from the demilitarized buffer zone and moved his troops near the borders with Israel for the first time since 1957. Nasser decision played well into the hands of the Israelis. Israel, eager not to miss the unique opportunity, considered his actions a declaration of war and responded with a surprise attack on June 5, destroying most of the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian forces and occupying Gaza, the West Bank, Sinai and the Golan Heights.

After the 1967 war and before Oslo and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) self-rule, resistance against the Israeli occupation in Gaza took the form of civil disobedience as people boycotted Israeli products, students demonstrated in school yards and the streets, and lawyers refused to practice in the military courts. And there were armed attacks against the Israeli military and the settlers especially between 1969 and 1971. Israel took measures to control the refugee camps by building hundreds of wide security roads in the camps and destroying thousands of homes in the process. Israel moved thousands of refugees from Gaza City to new locations near al-Arish town close to the Egyptian border. Resistance did not end the occupation and Israel increased its brutality.

A 1987 fatal traffic accident in Gaza triggered a Palestinian uprising that has been called the first intifada. An Israeli truck hit a car carrying laborers from the Gaza Strip near the Jebalya refugee camp killing four Palestinian passengers. The funeral of the victims turned into a riot and an assault with stones and bricks on the Israeli army outposts and border police in the refugee camp. Riots continued to flare up again in the refugee camp and Gaza City and spread to the southern end of the Gaza strip, the West Bank and even East Jerusalem. Hamas, an Islamist organization affiliated with the Muslim Brothers was created in 1987 by Ahmad Yassin in Gaza. Hamas was transformed from a social service provider to a political party and a resistance movement against the occupation. Party members won majority seats in the 2006 legislative council elections and in 2007, Hamas took control of Gaza.

The creation of the Palestinian PA is part of Israel’s strategy to separate people from the land. It claimed sovereignty over Palestine without the need to administer the Palestinians. The PA gave the Palestinians false feeling of having a legitimate government of their own running the small part of Palestinian territory it controlled. The Palestinians found out even while administered by the PA bureaucrats, Israel controls every aspect of their daily lives including identification documents, approval of permits, roadblocks, border crossing, water appropriation, exports and imports and travel between Gaza and the West Bank. And when Hamas won the Legislative Council elections, Israel refused to deal with the democratically elected government, arrested and jailed the elected members of the Council. Israel has removed its military and the settlers from Gaza, but it has laid a tight siege on the Strip and has been slowly strangulating its people through the blockade since Hamas controlled the Strip. Israel has caused widespread suffering to the 1.5 million people of Gaza due to lack of food, electricity, water treatment supplies and medicine. And now, the Gazans are being massacred indiscriminately by the Israeli war machine. 

I have nothing to say to the so-called Arabs who have proved irrelevant in the Palestinian struggle today. But I will only ask the Israeli individuals and groups whose conscience and sense of fairness is activated by the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank on the hands of their government. I ask them if the Israeli government policy of laying complete siege on Gaza, starving and depriving the 1.5 million people of a normal life does not actually create extremism. Do these people of conscience expect the Palestinians in Gaza to accept the blockade, the starvation and the humiliation and thank and recognize their oppressors? 

-Born in Nablus, Palestine, Hasan Afif El-Hasan, Ph.D, is a political analyst. He contributed this article to Palestine

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