Gaza: A History
Jean-Pierre Filiu Hurst 384pp £25
In the 1967 Six Day War Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the two districts so often mentioned in one breath as the ‘Palestinian occupied territories’. However, the differences between the two districts are striking. While the Gaza Strip is small and isolated, the West Bank is 15 times larger and enjoys direct and relatively open access to Jordan and beyond. While the West Bank has a larger population than the Gaza Strip, the Strip’s smaller size, higher birth rate and lower rates of emigration makes its population density one of the highest in the world. Historically, politically and religiously the Gaza Strip is regarded as less important than the West Bank, which explains, in part, why the Strip is often referred to as ‘the stepchild of the West Bank’.
Over the years there have been some daring schemes and political experiments in the Gaza Strip. Arguably the most notable was in September 1948, with the establishment of the All Palestine Government, the first attempt to set up an independent Palestinian state with Gaza City as its temporary capital. In 1987 the ‘stepchild of the West Bank’ again demonstrated its importance, when the first serious uprising against the Israeli occupation – the Intifada – erupted in Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp. Later, in the 1990s, the Gaza Strip was the first – along with the tiny Jericho area of the West Bank - to be given self-rule in the context of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians. In August 2005, again in the Gaza Strip, Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon conducted his experiment of unilateral withdrawal, thus ending the physical presence of the Israeli army and settlements in occupied Palestinian lands. Finally, shortly after, Gazans – disappointed with the secular PLO – elected to power for the first time, the religious movement Hamas. Yet while the Gaza Strip has always been a crucible for change, there have been few books on the subject; Jean-Pierre Filiu’s Gaza: A History fills a gap in the literature.
Filiu opens by looking at the long history of the area before it became known (as of 1948) as the ‘Gaza Strip’ and one is taken aback by how much has happened there since ancient times: Gaza was fought over by the Pharaohs, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Fatimids, the Mamluks, the Crusaders and the Ottomans; Napoleon seized it in 1799 as a launch pad for his (failed) Palestine campaign. In the First World War the British army fought hard to conquer Gaza, before proceeding from there to Palestine.
Much of Filiu’s book focuses on the modern Gaza Strip and, originally, divides his narrative into ‘generations’. Thus, the first generation which lived in the Strip from 1948 to the year Israel seized the area in 1967 is dubbed ‘the generation of mourning’, who paved the way for ‘the generation of dispossession’, who lived in the Strip under Israeli occupation from 1967 to 1987. The latter generation then paved the way for the ‘generation of the intifadas’, mainly made up of young Palestinian refugees who went on to challenge the Israeli occupation.
In the concluding chapter, ‘the Generation of Impasses?’, Filiu diverts from his role as a historian to propose a ‘virtuous trio’, made up of three foundations which could help end the tragedy of Gaza. The first to open up the area by enabling it free access to the world; the second to develop the economy of the Gaza Strip; and the third to demilitarise Palestinian society. Gaza, Filiu asserts, and I strongly agree, cannot be simply ignored as ‘it is in Gaza that the foundations of a durable peace should be laid’ and the Strip ‘lies at the heart of the nation building of contemporary Palestine’.
I have spent the last 30 years researching the Arab-Israeli conflict and I thought that I knew almost everything worth knowing about the region and the conflict, but it was a pleasant surprise to learn some new things from Filiu’s book. Gaza: A History is not an easy read, as it is packed with information and details, but it is an important study which I strongly recommend.
Ahron Bregman is author of Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories (Allen Lane, 2014).