Gaza: a history

Daniel Whittall speaks with former diplomant and historian Jean-Pierre Filiu about his new book on Gaza, and the history and future of the region

September 23, 2014 · 14 min read

JPFiliu 2013The French historian Jean-Pierre Filiu has spent a scholarly and diplomatic career preoccupied by the Middle East and by the Gaza Strip in particular. In 2011 he wrote Arab Revolutions, a book that attempted to draw lessons from the unfolding events across the region in the midst of their happenings. With the publication of an English translation of his latest book Gaza: A History (Hurst, 2014), Filiu has written a most timely book that should be essential reading for anybody seeking to understand the role played by Gaza in both the Palestinian nationalist movement and in the wider struggles for democracy across the region. Here he talks with Daniel Whittall about his book, the history of Gaza and the future of the region.

DW: Your newly translated book, Gaza: A History, is amongst a few attempts to grapple specifically with the history of the Gaza Strip and is arguably the first book to attempt to provide a detailed reconstruction of the history of Gaza. Given the political importance of this area, can I begin by asking you why you think it is that such a politically volatile and important region has had to wait until now to find a chronicler of its history?

JPF: I pay my sincere tribute to all the distinguished scholars from whom I learnt so much in Palestinian history. But it is a fact that this history has been focused either on Jerusalem and more generally the West Bank or the diaspora experiences, mainly in Jordan and Lebanon. Gaza was more than often treated as a sideshow to a major Palestinian theatre situated elsewhere. My main hypothesis is that Gaza is a central component of the history of Palestinian contemporary nationalism.

DW: In the book you explain the importance of British control of the region as a League of Nations Mandate after the First World War. Could you explain how the British treated Gaza and what they did to alter or develop the area?

JPF: It took three murderous battles in 1917 for the British Empire to conquer Gaza from the Turkish-German alliance. Once it was done the whole of Palestine fell in a matter of weeks to the British forces. The League of Nations Mandate over Palestine lasted from 1922 to 1948. The Gaza Ottoman province became a British district, with the local elite now co-opted by the colonial power. The main change occurred in the latter part of the British mandate, when the population of Gaza city doubled during WWII, since the Palestinian territory had become a hub for the Allied war effort.

DW: The history of mandatory Palestine has come back to the forefront of contemporary politics recently, with some in the USA picking up on Avigdor Liebermann’s suggestion that Gaza be placed under a UN Mandate and advocating it as a serious policy for the future of Gaza. Given the history of the region, what is your response to such suggestions?

JPF: Historians know it is very difficult to turn back the clock in a conflict situation. A UN mandate over Gaza was conceivable at a very critical moment of the conflict, in 1957: Israel had occupied the territory during four months, killing some one thousand people (out of 300,000 inhabitants), but US President Eisenhower had forced the Israeli army out of Gaza. The UN were supposed to move in and take control but the Egyptians swiftly restored what had been their authority from 1948 to 1956. As I report in the book, some Palestinian leaders consider today it was a missed opportunity.

DW: By the 1930s Palestinians themselves were in open rebellion against British imperial control. What role did such anti-imperialism play in Gaza at this time?

JPF: What is called the ‘Great Arab Revolt’ went on from 1936 to 1939. It was a mix of anti-British and anti-Zionist protests and guerrillas that started with a six-month long general strike. Gaza was fully part of this nationalist movement but the anti-imperialist dimension was stronger there since Zionist settlement was very limited in this part of the Palestinian mandate. The British repression was as unbridled in Gaza as elsewhere, with executions by hanging, collective punishments and deportations.

DW: In 1947, the UN originally planned for Gaza to be part of a new Arab state but after 1948 Egypt administered the area. Why did the Egyptians refuse to take direct control of Gaza and how did this period of Egyptian administration shape the region?

JPF: The UN had voted the partition of British-mandate Palestine between a Jewish state and an Arab state. Egypt, like the other Arab powers, had refused this partition that left more than half of Palestine to the Jewish third of its population. But King Abdullah of what would become Jordan secretly agreed with the Zionist leadership in taking over the Arab state while tacitly endorsing the new state of Israel. At the end of the 1948-49 Israeli-Arab war the ‘Gaza Strip’, as it came to be called, was the only part of Palestine neither absorbed by Israel nor annexed by Jordan. Egypt, coherent with its previous policy, administered Gaza without annexing it.

DW: You argue that the Israeli state became worried about the role of Gaza at a very early stage. Why was this and what does it tell us about the mind-set of senior figures in the Israeli state towards Gaza?

JPF: The Gaza Strip was not envisioned in any Zionist plan. Here, on one per cent of the territory of historical Palestine, 200,000 refugees from all over Palestine had joined 80,000 local residents. Ben Gourion understood very early such an enclave would become a magnet and a hotbed for Palestinian nationalism. This is why he proposed the annexation of the Gaza Strip and the relocation of its refugees inside of Israel. But this offer was limited to 100,000 refugees since the Israeli leadership grossly underestimated the Palestinian refugee population in Gaza. Anyway, the UN and the US adamantly refused any extension of the Israeli territory.

DW: You suggest that Israeli incursions and assaults on Gaza in fact have had the effect of creating exactly what the Israeli government may have wished to avoid, namely, a sense of unity in struggle between the different towns and settlements in Gaza. Indeed, you suggest that as early as 1956-7 a Gazan identity was beginning to emerge grounded in ‘a commonality of suffering and resentment’. What role has this identity based on solidarity in suffering played historically in Gaza and how do you see it having changed over time?

JPF: One of the main challenges facing the Palestinian nationalist movement has been the tension between the traditional elites and the radicalized refugees. In the Gaza Strip, the brutality of the Israeli raids from 1949 to 1956 had the unexpected effect of merging through this terrible violence the various sectors of the Palestinian population. This was even more dramatic during the first Israeli occupation of 1956-57, with mass killings taking place in the Khan Younis city as well as in the Rafah refugee camp. In the recent war, ‘cities’ and ‘camps’ have been bombed to ruins with the same absence of mercy.

DW: Gaza was central to the first intifada, or uprising, in 1987. You describe Gaza as ‘the womb of the fedayin and the cradle of the intifada’. Can you explain why Gaza occupies such a significant place in the wider history of Palestinian resistance? To what extent do you think that memories of the intifada continue to matter for people in Gaza today?

JPF: The 1987 intifada came basically as a shock to Israel, but also to the then Tunis-based Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The fact that Gaza played such a vanguard role in this seminal uprising is still a matter of great pride for the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip even today. But one should also keep in mind that in 1987 Gaza residents could move freely to Egypt and Jordan, settle in the West Bank and move back, work in Israel and even stay there for a while. In the West Bank university of Bir Zeit one third of the students were then coming from Gaza against virtually none today.

DW: At the start of your book you present a series of maps, two of which illustrate the extent to which Israeli settlement building and occupations have deprived the Palestinians of land that was once designated as theirs. How has the history of settlement-building, occupation and territorial usurpation shaped Gaza’s infrastructure and borders?

JPF: Settlements developed slowly in the Gaza Strip after the 1967 Israeli occupation since there was no religious incentive for a territory that many Jewish religious authorities do not include in the ‘Land of Israel’ (Erez Israel). Things changed after the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and the 1982 relocation in Gaza of settlers previously established in the Sinai. Eventually, one quarter of an already crowded territory was allocated for a few thousands settlers, who had the best water access and their own reserved roads. This was a matter of constant tension until the 2005 Israeli withdrawal.

DW: Average population density across the Gaza Strip stands at around 4,000 per square kilometre, whilst in Gaza City itself this figure rises to over 7,000. Clearly the ability to develop the requisite urban and social welfare infrastructure for such a densely populated area has been significantly hindered by the violence and economic obstructions afflicting the region. What role has the development of infrastructure and populated areas played in the history of the Gaza Strip and what forces have shaped their environment in order to cope with their rapidly expanding population?

JPF: Ariel Sharon was paradoxically the main urban planner of the Gaza Strip: as its military commander in 1971 he forcefully relocated one resident out of ten to carve large thoroughfares through the refugee camps. Palestinians ironically call him ‘our baron Haussmann’, in reference to the rebuilder of post-revolutionary Paris during the Second Empire. Today the major urban planning challenge is probably the ‘no-go’ zones (or ‘buffer zones’) Israel has imposed inside the Gaza Strip.

DW: The standard residents of Gaza often disappear under the weight of the wider political forces circulating around the Strip. How have residents responded to the various upheavals, especially since the 1950s, and to what extent have their responses shifted over the years?

JPF: My ambition, even though I am conscious I fell far from it, was to propose some kind of a ‘people’s history’ that would make visible ‘humble’ characters obliterated in a more classical form of history. Very often the people of Gaza made their own history, no matter how their leaders had decided. It was the case in 1957 when they imposed Egypt back into the Gaza Strip. It was also the case with the 1987 intifada that forced the Muslim Brothers to launch the Hamas movement. My hope is that this book will stimulate projects of more grass-root historical research in the very fertile Gaza Strip.

DW: Your book ends with a series of potted biographies of key figures from your narrative. If you were to identify two or three central individuals in the history of Gaza, who would they be and why?

JPF: I would choose among many others Mohammad al-Aswad, nicknamed the ‘Guevara of Gaza’. Raised in a Gaza refugee camp, he led guerrilla operations against the Israeli occupation until his death in an ambush at 27 in 1973. Haydar Abdel Shafi, a progressive doctor born in Gaza in 1919, was one of the PLO founders in 1964. He led the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid peace conference in 1991. He topped the poll at the first Palestinian parliamentary elections in 1996 and kept politically active until his death in 2007. Finally, Ismail Hanya, born in 1962 in a Gaza refugee camp, deported to Lebanon in 1992, has held senior positions in the Hamas movement after his return to the Gaza Strip. He has been the Prime minister of the Hamas government and the effective ruler of Gaza since 2006.

DW: You argue that solving the debate over Gaza is a precondition for any sustained Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative. What role, if any, do you see for historical scholarship and a historical sensibility in helping to resolve this problem?

JPF: I believe academics have a duty to contribute to public debates centred on their fields of scholarship. I have recently published in the New York Times an op-ed about ‘Gaza, a victim of history‘ that elicited unexpectedly positive feedback: readers, no matter what party they favour in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, discovered there were no inevitabilities about a conflict that was basically the result of a complex and troubled history. I believe understanding this history is the first step towards any conflict resolution, since we all have so much to learn from the past and lost opportunities, in order to avoid repeating those mistakes.

DW: In your conclusions, you outline three essential conditions for any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue: the ending of the Gaza blockade and the full opening up of the territory; the development of the economy; and the demilitarisation of Palestinian society. Which of these three do you think presents the biggest challenge, to what extent are they linked, and what does the history of Gaza tell us about the likelihood of these conditions being reached in the near future?

JPF: I am a reasonably optimistic about the fact that the recent conflict proved, through its very unprecedented violence, the mere impracticability of a military solution. Lifting the siege of Gaza is a must, even from the point of view of Israeli security, because the blockade feeds the smuggling and the militias. Only a developing Gaza Strip can progressively turn back to civilian life a major sector of the Palestinian underemployed workforce. But, as strongly as I am convinced of Gaza as a cornerstone of the Israeli-Palestinian peace, I believe no peace will be achieved without the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, under the leadership of the Palestinian Authority as a partner with Israel.

DW: If you don’t mind, I’d like to widen our discussion with my final question. In a previous book, The Arab Revolutions, you suggested that the democratic uprisings across the region might invalidate and undermine jihadi groups. A few years on from the publication of that book, do you still see things in the same way, and what relationship, if any, do you see between the latest outbreak of violence in Gaza and the wider upheavals that have spread across the Arab world?

JPF: In The Arab Revolutions, published just after the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, one of my chapters was indeed titled ‘Jihadis could become obsolete’. The ‘could’ meant that revolution should fulfil its popular promises, while we saw during the last three years a ferocious counter-revolution that fed the jihadi monster, especially in Syria. In Gaza, jihadis are not welcome because the struggle is basically nationalist, no matter how strong are the tensions between Hamas and Fatah. And the resistance in Gaza remains a beacon for all the Arab activists, while the counter-revolutionary regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia have sided de facto with Israel to defeat Hamas in the recent war.

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