That narrow coastal strip of land called Gaza has been inhabited for thousands of years and fought over by many, including Egyptian Pharaohs, Babylonians, Alexander the Great, and others. It was a thriving trade center for centuries because of its proximity to Asia and Africa. Romans, Mongols, Crusaders and later Napoleon, conquered it. Christianity spread there — today a tiny, Christian community numbering about 1,000. Their ancient church was recently bombed by Israel. Islamic armies invaded Gaza in the mid 600s AD.
In more recent times Gaza was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire for most of the period from the sixteenth century until 1917, when it was taken by British troops during World War I. Over the last century Gaza passed from British to Egyptian to Israeli military rule. For the last 16 years, Gaza has been a fenced in enclave, with a population of 2.3 million Palestinians, most of them refugees.
Refugees from where? When British colonial rule came to an end in Palestine in 1948, violence intensified between Jews and Palestinians. This culminated in a war and eventually resulted in the United Nations dividing Palestine and giving over half of it to what became the new Jewish state. 750,000 Palestinians were then expelled from their homes or fled the violence. Thousands took refuge in Gaza.
In the Six Day War of 1967, Israel captured the Gaza Strip, as well the West Bank and East Jerusalem. More Palestinians became refugees and about 300,000 of them fled to Gaza. Throughout the “occupied territories” resentment began to build toward the Israeli occupiers until it boiled over in 1987, when the Palestinians launched their first intifada, or uprising. The trigger for the intifada happened in Gaza when an Israeli truck crashed into a vehicle carrying Palestinian workers in Jabalya refugee camp, killing four workers. Stone-throwing protests, strikes and shutdowns followed.
It may surprise many to know that it was the Israelis who initially encouraged and helped finance the creation of Hamas in order to diminish the influence and control of the secular Fatah Party in the West Bank under the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood, taking advantage of the angry mood of the Gazans, also helped to create an armed branch of the party, which initially was dedicated to the restoration of a free Palestine under Islamic rule instead of an Israeli occupation.
In 1993 the Oslo Accords created what turned out to be a false hope for semi- autonomy for Palestinians. In reality, the newly formed Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank was basically assigned the dirty work of controlling the population, as well as fixing holes in the roads, picking up garbage, etc. Most importantly the PA collects taxes from the Palestinian population, which is required to be given to Israel with the hope that most of it would be returned to the PA to conduct its business.
The Oslo accords also offered hope for a Palestinian state after five years. But that never happened. Israel accused Palestinians of not carrying out security agreements, and Palestinians were angered by the resumption of settlement building in the illegally occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Hamas then carried out bombings in Israel to derail the so-called “peace process,” which led Israel to impose more restrictions on Gazans’ movements out of Gaza, which in turn led to another intifada. Israel then bombed Gaza’s airport, destroying its radar equipment and runways. The airport was a symbol of hope for independence for Gazans, as it was their only connection to the outside world not controlled by Israel or Egypt. Like Israel, Egypt was receiving enormous amounts of military aid from the US all this time.
Unlike the unpopular political party Fatah in the West Bank, which has often been accused of complicity with the Israeli government, Hamas in Gaza has a history of resistance against its oppressors In 2006 Hamas won the general election in Palestine, monitored by President Jimmy Carter. Israel and the US did not accept the results of the election and labeled Hamas a “terrorist” organization. Tighter restrictions on the movement of people and goods in Gaza were then put in place by Israel and Egypt. The aid to Gaza was cut, its economy destroyed, and the siege was put in place. For the next 16 years Gazans lived in what has been termed “an open air prison.” And so it has been until October 7, when Hamas broke through the siege with the explosion of events between the two sides we have witnessed since that day.
Needless to say, the devastation in Gaza of the past weeks has been horrifyingly disproportionate. The race to clear northern Gaza of all civilians is making several analysts wonder whether the discovery of vast oil fields off the shore of Gaza plays a part. Others speculate about Israel’s intention to build a canal through Gaza to compete with the Suez Canal, thus the near total destruction of northern Gaza. We will have to wait and see how this monumental conflict will unfold and resolve.
Therese Mughannam was born in Jerusalem before the partition of Palestine by the United Nations.
She is a co-founder of North Coast Coalition for Palestine