GazaWATCH: History

The area today known as the Gaza Strip is the 25-mile long, 7-mile wide section of land that runs along the Mediterranean and shares a border with Israel and Egypt. It has been inhabited for over 5,000 years, making Gaza one of the world’s oldest living cities. The first historic mention of Gaza is in Genesis 10:19 of the Hebrew Bible. As it says: “The different tribes of the Canaanites spread out until the Canaanite borders reached from Sidon southwards to Gerar near Gaza.” Gaza is again mentioned around the 15th century BCE in Judges 16:25-30, as Samson was delivered into bondage there by Delilah, and then in Amos 1:6 when the prophet Amos condemned the people of Gaza for being involved in the slave trade.

A strategically important coastal region, throughout history the Gaza Strip fell under the successive rule of various nations, including but not limited to the Philistines, Babylonians, Greeks, Israelites, Romans, Mamluks, and Ottomans under whose sway Gaza remained for four centuries until the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire following World War I.

In accordance with the Sykes-Picot agreement, which dismembered the Ottoman Empire at the end of the war into areas to be administered by Britain and France, the Gaza Strip was placed under British rule. In 1922, Gaza was incorporated into the Mandate for Palestine under Britain’s tutelage by the authority of the League of Nations. According to the Mandate, Britain recognized “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine” and acknowledged that it would “secure the establishment of the Jewish national home” there.

In fact, throughout history Jewish settlement in Gaza followed a pattern of expulsion during times of war and return during peaceful periods. Jews enjoyed sovereignty over the area during the time of Hasmonean rule when the Jewish King Yochanan, brother of Judah the Maccabee, captured the area in 145 BCE. A large Jewish community reportedly lived in Gaza when Muslims invaded the region in the 7th century, and Spanish and Portuguese Jews were known to have fled to Gaza after the Spanish Inquisition in 1492.

At the end of the 19th century with the First Aliya, or wave of immigration to Israel, a group of 50 or so Jewish families moved to Gaza City and established good relations with the local Arabs. They stayed until 1914 when they were expelled by the Ottomans along with Gaza’s Arabs. The Jews returned in 1920, but tensions were simmering with Arab and Jewish feelings of nationalism on the rise.

In 1947, with the British Mandate coming to a close the United Nations created a partition plan in which present-day Israel was separated into two countries—one for Arabs and one for Jews. The plan designated Gaza as Arab territory upon the creation of such a state. While the Jewish authorities accepted the UN’s partition plan, the Arab representatives and states rejected it, deciding to fight for the entire landmass of Israel instead. The day before the Mandate’s end, on May 14, 1948, Israel declared its independence. Israel’s neighbors responded by attacking the nascent state and a war ensued. Egyptian forces entered the new state of Israel on May 15 and 16 through the Gaza Strip[1] and, as the borderline, the spot was often a point of fighting between Israel and Egypt.[2] During the war, all of Gaza’s Jews were eventually forced from their homes from places such as Kfar Darom—land that was owned by Jews since the 1930s. Kfar Darom had become a kibbutz in the 1940s and during the war its residents defended against the Egyptian army for nearly three months until the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) ordered its evacuation.

Much to the world’s surprise and the Arabs’ dismay, Israel came out of the war victorious. The Gaza Strip’s borderline today is the product of the 1949 Egyptian-Israeli Armistice Agreement, which ended hostilities and created an interim border between the two neighbors. Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip, at which point the area experienced an influx of Palestinian refugees. The Egyptian military ruled Gaza, but Cairo never tried to annex it as Jordan did with the West Bank. In the summer of 1967, the volatile region again erupted in war and with another Israeli victory the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, among other areas of land, came under Israeli control for the first time. While the Sinai was given back to Egypt after Cairo signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979, the Strip remained disputed territory under Israeli control. In Gaza, the Israeli government maintained existing structures built by the Egyptian government and developed new projects such as housing districts and power grids.

In late 1967, the Israeli government began encouraging Jewish return to the Gaza Strip—especially to the areas where Jewish communities existed prior to 1948—to create a buffer zone on Israel’s border against Egyptian aggression, as then Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol envisioned. In June 1970, the government officially passed its decision to establish settlements in the Gaza Strip, paving the way for increased building over the years. One of the first settlements established after the war in the early 1970s was the aforementioned Kfar Darom.

The Gaza Strip remained under full Israeli control until 1994, when the region received limited autonomy under the terms of theOslo Accords, which were signed the previous year. Security services from the newly established Palestinian Authority took over the administration and policing of the Strip in place of withdrawn Israeli forces. In 2005, Israel furthered this by completinga full unilaeral withdrawal of all settlements and installations within the Gaza Strip while maintaining control of its borders, air space, and sea space for security purposes. In all, approximately 8,000 Israelis were relocated. The following year, elections were held across the Gaza Strip and West Bank in which Hamas, an Islamist terrorist organization opposed to the secular Fatah party, won a surprise victory.

Pre-existing Hamas-Fatah tensions thus erupted and the two groups failed to create a stable coalition government. Sporadic violent bloodshed ensued and resulted in a Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, in which most Fatah representatives were forced to flee, were imprisoned, or were murdered. As a result of the fighting between Fatah and Hamas, during June alone 161 Palestinians, including 41 civilians, were killed and at least 700 were wounded. During all of 2007, at least 353 Palestinians were killed and thousands injured in the fighting between the factions.

After taking over the Strip, Hamas turned the densely populated area into a launching pad for rockets and is responsible for the shooting of more than 3,000 rockets into Israel since then. Hamas continues to control the Gaza Strip today, posing as the de-facto government there. True to form, the Islamist terrorist organization has ruled Gaza through violence and enacted several rules based on Sharia, or Islamic law. The group continues to refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist or agree to lay down its arms for good, posing major problems for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state.

[1] Benny Morris, Righteous Victims (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 227.
[2] Ibid., 244-46.