Source: Chapter in the book "Gaza as Mataphor", ed Helga Tawil and Dina Matar, Hurst and Company, 2016
Gaza is Palestine. The Gaza Strip is a symbol of Palestine's geography and history. It has the distinction that it has never willingly raised a flag other than Palestine’s.
The most recent July 2014 Israeli war on Gaza was one of the bloodiest and most deadly in a long series of Israeli attacks. During the attacks, my calls to family and friends to give condolences and support were invariably met by a reply which became their motto: “under blockade we were dying slowly. Now we are dying instantly. Let us die standing. This is the only piece of Palestine left”.
There is no region within the geography of historic Palestine that is called the “Gaza Strip”. This term, and its ramifications, was created by Israel in 1948. To contextualize the Strip’s turbulent history, we go back to 1947 when the southern district of Palestine under the British Mandate was divided into two sub-districts: the Gaza sub-district (an area of 1,111.5 square kilometers, with a population of 137,180 of which 98% were Arabs) and Beer Sheba sub-district (an area of 12,577 km2 with a population 87,000 of which 99.5% was Arab).These two sub-districts were almost purely Arab; there were a few Jews scattered in about 14Zionist colonies (kibbutzim)with apopulation of 3,200. In anticipation of partitioning Palestine, the Zionists planted 11 Kibbutzim overnight in October 1946. Atypical Zionist colony consisted of 30 soldiers assumed to be farmers, housed in prefab units and fortified by machine gun nests and barbed wire with trenches. The intention was to occupy and conquer large areas of Palestine when the time would be ripe.
The planting of such Zionist colonies in the Arab south turned to be crucial for the Zionists’ future plans. On 29 November 1947, the United Nations passed a resolution partitioning Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. There are anomalies in this process and its terms that need to be clarified. The first is the phrase ‘partition plan’. The UN had no jurisdiction to divide countries and made this clear in its proceedings. In fact, the partition plan was a mere suggestion, passed by a narrow vote, under pressure from the US, to establish a separate government in areas of presumed majority of population in each part of Palestine. The Partition Plan has no binding legal value; it is only valid if both parties agree to it. The Partition Plan allocated 55.5% of Palestine to the Jewish state and 43.8% to the Arab state with 0.7% for Jerusalem and surrounding villages as Corpus Separatum. The second anomaly was that the number of Jews in the Arab state was negligible, while the number of Jews was almost equal to the number of Arabs in the proposed Jewish state. Neither state was intended to be based on ethnic, racial or religious basis, as such a basis would be something the UN would never propose. A third anomaly is in the naming of these states. The use of words ‘Arab’ and ‘Jewish’ were at that time the terms used in official papers during the British Mandate, which referred to ‘Arabs’ as the natural inhabitants of the country and ‘Jews’ as the Jewish immigrants who came from Europe under the protection of the British Mandate. This background is necessary to understand that southern Palestine, of which Gaza Strip was the surviving remnant, was largely Arab and that the partition plan had no legal right to bestow it on Jewish immigrants. The Zionists knew that; they decided to take it by force.
The conflict between the majority inhabitants of the country and the new European colonists openly flared in early April 1948 when the Zionist-created Plan Dalet to conquer Palestine was put into effect. TheHaganah forces, which made the backbone of the Jewish army, was well armed; it numbered 60,000 at the beginning of 1948 and increased to 120,000 by the end of the year. The Palestinian population, in comparison, was defenseless, particularly due to the decimation of Palestinian resistance by the British Army in 1939, which quelled the Great Arab Revolt (1936-1939). Under this unequal situation and in view of the massacres committed by the Zionists, such as the infamous Dair Yassin, volunteer fighters from Egypt, Sudan, Libya and Saudi Arabia came to southern Palestine to join Palestinian defenders. They were highly motivated by their sense of duty, but they were small in number and had little military experience or organization.
At the end of the British Mandate on 15 May 1948, Arab regular forces entered Palestine to save what was left of it. The Haganah had already depopulated 220 villages, mainly along the coast, and expelled their population, which made up half of all Palestinian refugees – all this before the British Mandate ended, before the State of Israel was declared, and before Arab soldiers arrived. Similarly, forty eight hours before David Ben Gurion declared the state of Israel on 14 May 1948, the Palmach - the strike force of the Haganah -committed a massacre in Burayr village, 15km north east of Gaza, during which they killed 120 people and burnt the village down.
Three days later, the Egyptian forces entered Palestine and took control of the Arab area in the south, stretching from Isdud on the Mediterranean Sea in the west to Bethlehem and southern Jerusalem in the east. The Egyptian forces were led by General Mawawi. Apart from a few successful operations against Zionist colonies, General Mawawi was inept and he caused the collapse of the Egyptian forces, losing about 14,000 km2 of southern Palestine (almost half of Palestine). He was removed and a new General, Ahmad Fouad Sadeq, was appointed instead.
The Haganah army, which became the IDF, was bold enough to advance into Egypt itself till the coastal town of Al Arish. It withdrew under pressure from Britain, which had a base in Egypt. The Egyptian government ordered General Sadeq to evacuate the area left of Palestine and return to Egypt. He refused and in a memorable telegram, wrote to Cairo saying, "My military honor doesn't allow me to leave my Arab brothers and sisters, defenseless women and children, to be slaughtered by Jews like chicken."
He gathered his remaining forces with all the Palestinian and Arab volunteers and they made a determined stand against a massive Israeli attack, intended to destroy what was left of Palestine. On Christmas day 1948,a battle took place at Hill 86 or Sheikh Hammouda: the massive Israeli force led by a Red Army Russian General was soundly defeated and the general was killed. Gaza Strip was saved. But the relentless Israeli attacks on Palestinian refugees never stopped.
The population of the Gaza Strip at the time was 80,000, living in four small towns: Gaza, Dayr Al Balah, Khan Younis, and Rafah. Added to them were200,000 refugees who were depopulated from 247 villages in southern Palestine, making the strip, a mere 1.3% of Palestine, even at the time, one of the most crowded areas in Palestine. This ‘ethnic cleansing’ of southern Palestine is unique in that it was completely depopulated, unlike any other area occupied by Israel, for example, in the north where many villages remained. In the south not a single village remained. This was an act of total ethnic cleansing, propelled by several massacres which took place in Al Dawayma, Bayt Daras, Isdud, Burayr, among others.
Refugees now corralled into Gaza were not immune from Israeli attacks even after their expulsion. A new element hitherto unknown to them in the Israeli warfare methods was bombing by air. The Majdal hospital was bombed in November 1948, as was alJoura village which stands on the site of ancient Ashkelon and from which many future Hamas leaders would emerge. A family of 11 members was killed while having supper. Even when the land war subsided in January 1949, Israelis bombed food distribution centers in Dayr Al Balah and Khan Younis at peak hours, leaving over 200 bodies decimated by air raids. One of them was my uncle. These raids led the usually restrained Red Cross to describe it as a "scene of horror".
Enduring al Nakba
The failure of the Egyptian army to save the Southern District from Zionist expansion left under its control a sliver of land called the Gaza Strip. Unlike Jordan’s control of the West Bank, Egypt had no desire to annex the Gaza Strip. Pending a new Palestinian state, Egypt was obliged to administer the strip. The Egyptian administration issued travel documents for the refugees and Gaza citizens, but the flag of Palestine continued to fly high across the skies of Gaza. Naturally, refugees started to return home to their villages to fetch their remaining family members, to water their gardens, to feed their cattle and to bring back some of their belongings, in anticipation of final return. The Israelis were not yet in total control of this vast territory in southern Palestine, so they laid mines at water sources and cross roads. According to the Israeli historian Benny Morris, in the period between 1949 and 1956,Israel killed between 2,700 and 5,000 people trying to cross the imaginary line back to their homes.
The area of Gaza Strip, according to the Armistice agreement signed between Egypt and Israel on 24 February 1949,was 555km2. In the joint Egyptian-Israeli Armistice committee, the Israelis complained that many people were crossing the imaginary line to their homes. They called them “infiltrators” and suggested the creation of a buffer zone in order to deter refugees from crossing the line. One year after the Armistice Agreement was signed in February 1949 a secret agreement under the name of modus vivendi was agreed in February 1950 between Egyptian and Israeli officersunder which a new “temporary” line advancing into the Gaza strip by two to three kilometers was agreed. This reduced Gaza Strip area to 365 km2. This new line, which is reproduced in practically all the published maps, is not the real Armistice line according to the agreement. In the modus vivendi agreement, it is clearly stated that the original Armistice Agreement of February 1949 is the only official binding agreement. It is curious to note that neither Egyptians nor Palestinians have ever demanded the return to the original Armistice line which would add an area of 200 km2 to the strip. Instead, Israel introduced a new buffer zone in stages which reduced the strip area by a further 20%.
Succession of disasters
The occupation of Palestinian land and the expulsion of its population gave rise to a resistance movement known then as the fedayeen. These resistance fighters crossed the Armistice line to attack the occupiers of their land. They were a small group, courageous and dedicated, but they were not much of a threat to the Israeli army. In order to stop the attacks and attempt to eliminate even the idea of resistance, Israel continuously attacked the Gaza Strip. In August1953, Unit 101, led by Ariel Sharon, attacked Bureij refugee camp and killed 43 people in their beds. In August 1955, Israel, again led by Ariel Sharon, blew up the Khan Younis police station and killed 74 policemen. In the same year the Israelis killed 37 Egyptian soldiers in a Gaza railway station and 28 others who were on their way to defend the others. This prompted Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who assumed power in Egypt in July 1952, to seek new sources for arms denied to him by the British.
The Israeli attacks against Gaza and its people were not the only problem Palestinians had to deal with. The United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNRWA) started a plan to resettle the refugees on Sinai coast between Port Said and Al Arish, ostensibly to ease the crowded Gaza Strip. The refugees would not accept any place to live other than Palestine; they revolted against this plan and an uprising began in March 1954 and continued till March 1955 when UNRWA abandoned the plan. Many arrests were made by the Egyptian authorities. One of those arrested was the famous Palestinian poet Mouin Bseiso who spent eight years in an Egyptian jail in the western desert and wrote poems which later were popularized into songs.
Disaster struck Gaza Strip again. On 29 October 1956 Israel invaded Sinai in collusion with Britain and France. The invasion, called the Suez Campaign or the Tripartite Aggression, was aimed at toppling Nasser. Then Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion had the added objective to convert the Armistice line into recognized borders for the occupied part of Palestine, now called Israel. The Israeli military occupied all of Sinai and turned backward to occupy Gaza Strip for the first time. The advancing Israeli soldiers entered Khan Younis on 3 November 1956,and collected all males between the ages of 15 and 50 from their homes and shot them in cold blood at their doorstep or against a wall in the town’s main square. The killing spree lasted till the 7th of November in Khan Younis town and the adjacent villages. The bodies of the dead were left in the streets for days before people were allowed to bury them. A local university teacher and Khan Younis resident, Ihsan Khalil Al Agha, listed the names of the 520 people killed in his book Khan Younis Martyrs. Two of the victims were my sister-in-law’s brothers. In the same week another massacre took place in Rafah. Joe Sacco, the well-known artist, graphically documented these massacres in his 2009 book, Footnotes in Gaza.
With their expulsion from their homes only a few months behind them and with continued Israeli attacks inflicted on them, the refugees struggled to form political parties to represent themselves and to recover their rights in their homeland. In 1950, the Executive Committee of the Refugees’ Conference was elected to represent the Palestinian refugees, the first of its kind. It continued to assume that role until the PLO was formed in May 1964. Secret political parties were also formed in the Gaza Strip, including those of Muslim Brotherhood, Communists, and to a lesser degree, Arab Nationalists.
Nasser’s stature as a third world leader grew all over the world, especially after the Bandung Conference which formed the Non-Aligned Nations conference. As a result of this positive political development, Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India, and Che Guevara, the Latin American revolutionary, both came to visit Gaza Strip at Nasser's invitation. Nasser told several Gaza Palestinian delegations to Cairo that he had no practical plan to liberate Palestine. He nonetheless encouraged Palestinian expression and democratic representation. In 1961 he arranged for the first Palestinian delegation to go to the United Nations to present their case of the right to return to their homes. That was the first time that Palestinians themselves spoke in their own voice before the world. At all previous international conferences one Arab delegation or another spoke on their behalf. Moreover, in 1961, a Legislative Council was elected in Gaza; it was the first ever democratically elected council in Palestine. It is not surprising therefore that the Gaza Palestinians were prominent in the formation and the composition of the first executive of the PLO, under the leadership of the veteran Palestinian diplomat Ahmad Shukairi.
Disaster struck Gaza again in June 1967 when Israel re-occupied Sinai and crossed the Suez Canal. Israeli forces moved back from Al Arish to blockade the Gaza Strip and occupied it again, 11 years after the first occupation. The occupation persists until today. Immediately after 1967 Israel created travel plans for refugees to be sent to Europe and Latin America with financial and work incentives. Although some people took advantage of the offer, they were a minority. In 1971,as the IDF Operational Commander of Southern Command, Ariel Sharon destroyed rows of refugee camps in order to disperse them. Israel deported prominent Gaza leaders in order to quell any attempt at resistance.
In March 1979,Gaza had to cope with a blow from another direction. Anwar Sadat of Egypt entered into a peace agreement with Israel, effectively forfeiting both the battle for Palestine and full sovereignty for Sinai, in return for a non-aggression pact with Israel. This peace treaty has had profound effects on the Arab Israeli conflict over Palestine. For the first time in history, the 1906 administrative line between Egypt and Palestine was converted into an international border,after which Egypt recognized the land east of the line to be Israeli, rather than Palestinian. Sinai was divided into sectors A,B, C and a narrow sector D in Israel. The crucial sector C with an east-west width from Rafah to Al Arish, extending south to Sharm Al Shaikh on the Gulf of Aqaba, was allowed to have a tiny Egyptian police force and was monitored by a US-dominated international force. This in effect created a new barrier between Egypt and Palestine, the gate of which into Palestine was the Rafah crossing. And thus, the Gaza strip became once again a concentration camp, stripped of its sovereignty, blocked by Israel from three sides by Israel, and by Egypt on the fourth side.Yet, or because of this, Gaza remained the centre of resistance. In 1987 the first intifada erupted in Gaza and spread to the West Bank.
In 1993 the Oslo Accord between Israel and PLO was signed amid much euphoria in the hope that the 1967 Israeli occupation would be removed. However, by 2000 with the rise of the second intifada, it became clear that Oslo was a hoax, intended to entrench the occupation, not to remove it. The second Intifada erupted in the year 2000 followed by the Israeli destruction of all physical symbols of the Palestinian National Authority created according to the Oslo Accords, including Gaza airport and port, thus dashing the hopes that the West bank and Gaza would become an independent state, free from Israeli occupation.
In 2004, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died and Mahmoud Abbas, the architect of the ill-fated Oslo accords, took over. Since then the situation of Palestinians in the 1967 Occupied Territories has deteriorated even more. Palestinians had remained without democratic representation after the last recognized Palestine National Council(PNC) meeting in Algiers in 1988. Although all political parties agreed in Cairo in March 2005 to hold elections for a new PNC, Abbas and his cohort refused to implement that agreement on various dubious grounds. When the 2006 local elections were held in the West Bank and Gaza under the scrutiny of international observers and recognized as fair and accurate, Hamas was the winner of these elections. As Vanity Fair reported in April 2008,plots to remove Hamas from office were hatched by US/Israel through their agent Muhammad Dahlan. But the plot failed.
In its sustained campaign to destroy Gaza Strip, Israel waged three wars in the space of 6 years (2008 – 2014) causing tremendous loss of life: over 5,000 killed, mostly civilians, and 30,000 wounded, in addition to the destruction of tens of thousands of houses, hospitals, places of worship and infrastructure. The amount of explosives in the 2014 war alone dropped on Gaza was estimated to be equal to that dropped on Hiroshima. The 2014 war is just one chapter of Israel’s decades-long campaign to eliminate Palestinians by any means possible. The reason is clear: as long as there are refugees demanding their right to return to their homes occupied by Israel, Israel's legitimacy remains dubious. The refugees remain the evidence of Israel’s crime of ethnic cleansing which it is determined to remove.
Lessons of History
What we learn from this short history of the Gaza strip, particularly during the last wars on Gaza, is the following:
Gaza is the remaining symbol of Palestine, its dispossessed people, and its occupied land. If Gaza falls it will be difficult to raise the case of Palestine again anywhere, especially where Palestinians are ruled by a non-Palestinian government.
Israel lives by the sword alone. It is supported in this policy in every way by the same colonial powers of the 20th century who created it. Its institutions practice racism and Apartheid and its army commits war crimes. Western support protects it from punishment according to international law. As history shows, this situation cannot be sustained for long. When the crash comes it will be sudden.
The people’s armed resistance, even though it is modest and with limited military means, showed that Israel is fragile and its victories over Arab armies were caused by Arab incompetence rather than by Israel's superior fighting skills.
Arab governments are weak, meek and undemocratic, they do not tolerate the burning desire of their people to stand by and defend Palestine.
Israel’s horrendous massacres have become known the world over thanks to new communications technologies which brought the Israeli war crimes to the homes of millions of people around the world, dealing a crushing blow to the Israeli cultivated image of being a peaceful democratic nation caring for human rights. This also creates a new field of peaceful resistance against Israeli crimes, such as the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS).
Finally, the continued resistance of the people in Gaza, a population of 1.8 million, equivalent to all population of Palestine in 1948, together with another 10 million Palestinians in the world, shows that Palestinians will not vanish, will not be destroyed and will not be subjugated. The stalemate between the military power of occupation and the Palestinian quest for freedom from occupation will one day be broken. And the people will be set free in their homeland. Let us hope that this will come sooner rather than later.