Tuesday, February 27, 2024


The Gaza Strip was once a prominent trading center, historically advantageous for its location along the coast of the Mediterranean. We know from the Bible, Judges chapter 16, that Israelite warrior and judge Samson died in Gaza “with the Philistines” to get revenge on them. From Jeremiah chapter 47, we also know that Pharoah attacked the Philistines in Gaza. In fact, the Bible has more than a dozen references to Gaza, beginning with Genesis in which the borders of Canaan are identified. Then, in Judges 2:3 we read that God punished Israel for not driving the Canaanites from the Promised Land after He delivered the Israelites out of Egypt. In response, the Bible says God told the Israelites, “they will become traps for you, and their gods will become snares for you.” Some might say they're still paying on that penalty.

But setting that aside, history informs us that in addition to the Philistines and the Egyptians, Gaza has also been occupied by the Babylonians and even Alexander the Great.

Time eventually saw Christianity take root in Gaza, but then it was conquered by Muslim general Amr ibn al-Aas in 637 A.D., soon after Islam was founded. In 796 A.D., however, the city was destroyed by Arab infighting. It was reconstructed a century later.

In the modern era, Gaza was part of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries until it and the rest of the land called "Palestine" was captured by the British during World War I. The Ottomans were allied with Germany, which became a losing cause, resulting in the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and the surrender of Palestinian land. In the aftermath of the war, the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations, placed Palestine, including Gaza, under British administration with the requirement that Great Britain would oversee it until it could stand on its own, which has always been the rub: standing on its own. That mandate also required Great Britain to implement the Balfour Declaration which provided that the Jewish people would be granted a “national home” in Palestine.

There was a vagueness in the language, however, that led the Jews to believe that they would have all of Palestine. The British later said that wasn’t the intention of the Balfour Declaration, although the document didn’t explicitly support that view or provide implementing instructions that would establish limits. (See the illustration below.)

The Declaration also expressed support for safeguarding the rights of the Palestinian Arabs.

On November 29, 1947, the UN adopted Resolution 181 that would have divided Great Britain’s former Palestinian mandate into Jewish and Arab states in May 1948 when the British mandate ended. The UN would have administered the religious areas around Jerusalem. However, the Palestinian Arab leadership refused to accept the UN resolution. They refused to accept the idea that it would have its own state side-by-side with the Israeli state.

Then, when the British mandate ended on May 15, 1948 and Israel declared its independence, five Arab countries invaded the territory that had been governed by the mandate. When an armistice agreement was signed between Israel and the Arab nations, Israel gained some of the land that the UN resolution would have given to the Palestinian Arabs had they accepted it. That area—reduced in size from what the UN resolution offered—became known as the Gaza Strip. Egypt kept control over the Gaza Strip where it had its headquarters during the war, and Jordan kept control over the West Bank.

In 1956, tension between Israel and Egypt peaked again when Egypt blockaded and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. The Straits of Tiran sits at the north end of the Red Sea and at the southern end of the Gulf of Aqaba. Israel has a port, Eilat, at the southern end of the Negev at the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba which allows Israel to conduct shipping trade with nations to the east through the Indian Ocean without having to transit the Suez Canal. Israel invaded Egypt as a result. (See the map below.) The ensuing war was brief, but in the end, Israel announced that closing the straits again would be an act of war.

That act of war occurred again in 1967 when Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser announced that he was going to close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping again. He then positioned Egyptian forces all along the Israel-Egypt border in anticipation of the war that Israel promised. As it had warned, Israel attacked Egypt again and destroyed most of its air forces. The Israeli invasion included assaults and the ultimate occupation of Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. Since Jordan entered the war on Egypt’s behalf, Israel retook the West Bank from them as well.

Over the years, Israelis built settlements near Gaza which the Palestinian Gazans resented. The First Palestinian Uprising (or Intifada) broke out in 1987 and gave birth to Hamas, which has its heritage in the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. (See also the links below to my series of articles on the Muslim Brotherhood.) The intifada lasted for six years.

Hamas' relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood is not inconsequential to understanding the situation in Gaza. Hamas’ charter calls for Israel to be replaced by a Palestinian state, hence the battle cry “from the river to the sea.” The "river" refers to the Jordan River on the eastern Israel border and the "sea" refers to the Mediterranean to the west. As a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, the elimination of Israel and Israeli people from that land is part of a broader objective to establish an Islamic caliphate. Peaceful coexistence isn't a part of that model.

Yasser Arafat's Fatah Party led the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) which in 1993 ended the intifada and signed the Oslo Accords that gave Palestinians limited control of Gaza and Jericho. The agreement held some prospect for statehood for Palestine after five years, but that never happened over an allegation that the PLO had reneged on security agreements. The pressure on the PLO from within was likely a factor as Hamas opposed the PLO and its efforts to make peace with Israel. When it seized control of Gaza, Hamas repudiated all agreements signed between Israel and the PLO.

While Israel and the PLO sought to reignite peace talks, Hamas and another terror group, Islamic Jihad conducted attacks on Israel in an attempt to sabotage the peace process. Why? Again, peaceful coexistence isn't part of their model. That resulted in Israel imposing more restrictions on the ability of Palestinian Gazans to travel outside of Gaza.

The distinction between Palestinian Gazans and other Palestinians is worth a mention here. Somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million Palestinians live and work in peace in Israel proper. There are more than 2 million people who identify as Arabs who live in Israel, about 20% of its population, and they enjoy all the rights of citizenship that Israeli Jews do.

A new intifada broke out in 2000 which resulted in more Israeli reprisals, including the closure of the Gaza International Airport in 2001 that Israel deemed a security threat in the aftermath of 9/11 (which we ought to remember involved terrorists using aircraft in an attempt to destroy America's political, military, and economic structure).

Israel hasn’t been alone in restricting the movement of Palestinians with Gaza under Hamas control. Sensing that Hamas is a threat, Egypt has also placed limitations on travel in and out of Gaza, closing its border with Gaza and blowing up most of the tunnels that led into Egyptian territory.

Since then, attacks and counter-attacks have been a regular part of life in and around Gaza, culminating in the infamous October 7 attacks on Israelis and the subsequent Israeli offensive in Gaza.

So, where are we today? Today, Gaza is a walled city, subject to Israeli military rule with neighbors that don't trust those in charge there not to use free travel and the movement of goods to threaten them. Hamas, like the PLO before them in its days of its rampant terrorism, has been dedicated to the pursuit of its charter, to wipe out the Israeli State. That, by itself, makes for an uneasy "neighborhood" in a small nation like Israel.

But what is Israel to do? First, who could blame them for deciding that Hamas must be irradicated? Anyone who doesn't agree with the premise that Hamas must be destroyed will never agree to any action Israel would take toward Hamas from there. Anyone who does agree with that premise and is determined to see it through realizes that achieving that objective would be a brutal exercise due to the environment in which it must occur.

So, if we grant Israel that objective, how do we think they should accomplish it in an environment where there are essentially four groups in Gaza: Hamas, Hamas enablers, the Palestinian leaders who have an uneasy co-existence with Hamas, and the innocent Palestinians? In an environment where the enemy in the first two groups intermingles with the relative innocents in the other two groups, clustered in an urban environment, there is no way to destroy that enemy without a lot of collateral damage to structures and people.

Hamas isn't like Israel. It doesn't separate its military apparatus from its civilian population. Hamas uses hospitals, mosques, and schools to store its weapons and use as launch sites for rocket attacks and safe harbor for terrorists. They've built a network of tunnels under Gaza, under the homes of the innocents and under those hospitals, mosques, and schools. How do you destroy those terror resources without harming the infrastructure around them? Our solution to that during World War II in Berlin and Tokyo was fire bombing. The Israelis aren't firebombing though. They've given the innocents save passage out and they've warned the Palestinians, including Hamas, of imminent attacks, but many who are trying to get out of Gaza find that even their Arab neighbors don't want them, partly in fear of their own security since Hamas would certainly shelter among the refugees.

The solution in Gaza isn't an easy one. Ultimately, it hinges entirely on the persistent determination to wipe Israel off the map. As long as that remains a battle cry of forces capable of achieving it, there is no likelihood that Israel will sit idly and wait for it to happen. If we were in a similar situation, we wouldn't either.

BlitheringOn Series on The Muslim Brotherhood: