Battle Ground

Gaza: A History BY Jean-Pierre Filiu. Oxford University Press. Hardcover, 440 pages. $29.

The cover of Gaza: A History

As this review was going to press, the latest bout of hostilities between Hamas and other Gaza-based militants and Israel had become even more bloody and destructive than 2009’s brutally named Israeli incursion into Gaza, Operation Cast Lead. An estimated 1,700 people have been killed. Between 70 and 80 percent of them were Palestinian civilians, and at least 200 were children. Israel has so far attacked seven UN schools serving as refugee shelters, provoking harsh condemnation even from the United States. Meanwhile, Hamas has drawn criticism from the global community for using abandoned schools to store ordnance. Sixty-four Israeli troops have been killed, along with three civilians—a stark contrast to Operation Cast Lead, which claimed the lives of just nine Israeli soldiers, four of them killed by friendly fire. The cost reckoned in damage to infrastructure and property in Gaza remains all but impossible to calculate. The war has reportedly displaced some 460,000 people—nearly a quarter of Gaza’s entire population. The present conflict appears unlikely to come to a complete stop—and if it does, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t flare up again at any moment.

With so much international attention focused on Gaza, it’s finally occurring to many Americans and other Westerners that the region has its own history, and that this history is key to sorting out the present conflict. So in this sense, Jean-Pierre Filiu’s Gaza: A History arrives at a propitious moment; if anything, Filiu’s book—“the first comprehensive history of Gaza in any language,” the publisher claims, probably correctly—is long overdue. Gaza isn’t exactly exhaustive; it dashes through the area’s lengthy and complex ancient, classical, and Islamic imperial histories in a mere thirty pages or so.

Filiu’s account of Gaza’s modern political history is certainly comprehensive. However, the book lacks narrative flair and at times gets bogged down in laundry-list details; it also follows a rigid chronological sequence that can be downright turgid. On the other hand, anyone who makes it through Filiu’s relentless chronology will be thoroughly briefed in a way one could not be from any other source.

Filiu explains how the narrow-yet-pivotal terrain known as the Gaza Strip has shaped the course of the Arab-Israeli conflict. First, he notes, almost all of its inhabitants are refugees from southern Israel displaced by the hostilities of 1947–48. Other Palestinian refugee populations, including those in the occupied West Bank, are much farther from the Israeli border. But here is a huge group of refugees who can virtually see their former lands, and who contend with the Israeli occupation on a daily basis. Second, Filiu lays out Gaza’s strategic location between Egypt (and hence the rest of Africa) and Palestine (and hence the rest of Asia)—a convergence of influence that has shaped the region’s history since ancient times. Even the British campaigns that targeted Palestine during the First World War had to pass through Gaza.

For those and other crucial reasons, Gaza has always played an outsize political role in Palestinian collective life. The first aborted attempt at creating a Palestinian national government arose and failed in Gaza after the 1948 war. Gaza was also home to several of the core parties of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and many of its leaders. As Filiu notes, “It was in Gaza that the fedayin [the early Palestinian guerrilla fighters] were moulded and the Jewish State would soon make Gaza pay for it dearly.”

Children atop a bullet-riddled building in Gaza, 2011.
Children atop a bullet-riddled building in Gaza, 2011.

But also, crucially, the Muslim Brotherhood laid down deep roots in the territory—both under Egyptian rule, following 1948, and after Israel’s conquest of Gaza in 1967. For most of its history, the Brotherhood in Palestine was quietist, refusing to engage in or endorse the PLO’s armed struggle. But under the leadership of Ahmed Yassin, the Brotherhood in Palestine acquired a political arm, Mujamma, that increasingly developed militant tendencies. As Filiu notes, at the end of 1987, the Muslim Brotherhood “finally called for a struggle against the occupation” and founded Hamas.

It was no accident this decision came a mere five days after the outbreak of the first intifada, which began in Gaza. Hamas was a militant enterprise from the outset, with an allied faction attempting to capture Israeli soldiers. But it was only in December 1991 that Hamas fully established its paramilitary wing, the Ezzedin al-Qassam brigades.

The second intifada did not begin in Gaza, but its first iconic—and still highly controversial—moment happened there: the 2000 death of twelve-year-old Mohammed al-Durra. Hamas quickly seized the initiative through violent attacks on Israel, including suicide bombings, which were fueled by the group’s confrontational religious rhetoric. Their secular-nationalist rivals in Fatah mimicked both of these stratagems, in order not to be outbid, but repeatedly called for the demilitarization of the intifada, which Hamas flatly rejected. Palestinian president Yasser Arafat ordered the arrest of Yassin and outlawed his brigades. As the fighting continued, Israel assassinated Yassin and a slew of other Hamas leaders, while also carrying out more generalized onslaughts against Gaza.

As Filiu notes, by the mid-aughts, with both Arafat and Yassin dead, the two rival Palestinian movements “had not yet finished their work of dividing the Gaza Strip, now the orphan child of both its iconic leaders.” This division was subsequently finalized by a twofold process. First, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon strategically pulled Israeli troops and settlers from the center of Gaza, transforming the occupation to one based on controlling the periphery rather than the heart of the Strip. Hamas claimed that the shift in Israeli tactics vindicated the group’s policy of armed “resistance.” Second, while Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah won the 2005 presidential election with 62 percent of the vote, a year later Hamas-backed candidates got 44 percent in legislative elections and secured the largest bloc in parliament.

The experiment in cohabitation was tense from the outset and soon proved unworkable. Then as now, the square peg of Hamas’s commitment to armed struggle could not fit into the round hole of the PLO’s commitment to a negotiated peace agreement with Israel. Adding to the tensions have been completely incompatible visions of Palestinian society: the roles of religion, women, minority groups, and so forth. The only thing the two groups really agree on is that their members are
all Palestinians.

These tensions boiled over in 2007, when Hamas violently seized control of Gaza, and Fatah moved to consolidate control of Palestinian-ruled areas of the West Bank. The division was complete.

As Filiu puts it, the public was now faced with “one Palestine against another.” The new governing structure was, and is, a veritable Noah’s Ark, with two of everything. As Hamas rule commenced, “the trap was closing on the Gaza Strip,” Filiu adds. Israel and a number of other nations subjected the territory to a significant blockade, and Gaza faced at least two major conflicts with the Israelis, in 2009 and 2012. Hamas and the Gaza economy found some relief through smuggling tunnels to Egypt and support from sponsors.

But in recent years, the crisis for Hamas and Gaza has metastasized. Because of the dispute within the Arab world over the Syrian civil war, Gazan leaders lost their major sponsors in Damascus and Tehran. An even more bitter blow was the overthrow of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, followed by a major Egyptian-government crackdown on both the Brotherhood and Hamas and its smuggling tunnels. Both Hamas and the Gazan economy went into complete financial meltdown, with virtually no goods leaving the Strip—and therefore no income or foreign exchange coming in.

This is the immediate backdrop to the “national unity” agreement with the Palestinian Authority and the current conflict with Israel. Hamas is desperately looking for a way to open Gaza and to get beyond it, into the West Bank. As Filiu puts it, “Only inter-Palestinian reconciliation would permit the reversal of the long-term downward spiral” in Gaza. However, this reconciliation is, and will remain, largely meaningless until elections are held—and, far more important, security forces are merged. If Hamas were to keep its independent brigades in the context of a unified political Palestinian entity, the result would be much like what Hezbollah has experienced in Lebanon, with Hamas serving nominally as part of the political system but also retaining an independent military and foreign policy. The ensuing merger would produce unity in name only.

Challenging as this scenario may be, Filiu is right to conclude that a viable political destiny for Gazans will be elusive “unless the nationalist and Islamist components of the Palestinian resistance, both of which had come into existence in the territory, were able to reach an agreement on peace between themselves.” The problem, which he does not acknowledge, is that to achieve such a Hegelian (or, perhaps more properly speaking, Maoist) synthesis of opposites, one group must prevail over the other. A militant group committed to armed struggle cannot have a coordinated strategy with a diplomatic organization focused on negotiations and being part of the international community. Until one party or the other is ascendant, the division will almost certainly continue to bedevil Palestinians and play directly into the hands of Israeli hard-liners.

Nonetheless, Filiu is undoubtedly correct that Gaza has no future without the rest of Palestine, and that Palestine needs Gaza: “It is vain to imagine that a territory so replete with foundational experiences can be ignored or marginalised.” The present round of violence is yet another demonstration of this obvious and undeniable truth.

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and a weekly columnist for The National (UAE) and NOW Media.