GAZA: A HISTORY by Jean-Pierre Filiu

(Explosions from Israeli air strikes over Gaza City this past summer during the Hamas-Israel War of 2014)

Last week newly reelected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backtracked from his election eve statement that he opposed a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Though he seems to have walked back that statement because of American pressure the issue still remains, will there be any movement toward a dialogue for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians in the near future?  At this juncture the answer appears to be a resounding no.  In the absence of a clear diplomatic path it is useful to explore a major component to any future deal.  In 2005, then Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon disappointed his right wing Likud Party partners and set forth a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.  Tired of the cycle of violence with terrorist attacks and counter-terrorist reprisals, Sharon decided it was not worth the cost of maintaining an area that is 139 square miles (the same as Detroit) with a population of about 1.8 million Palestinians.

As Palestinian politics have evolved over the last ten years Hamas, seen as a Moslem extremist party and terrorists by both the United States and Israel, assumed power over Gaza, and the “more moderate” Palestinian Authority is in charge of administering the West Bank.  This situation came about through a bloody civil war between the two parties and the electoral process.   On January 25, 2006 the Hamas Party won the Palestinian legislative election resulting in the nomination of Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh as Prime Minister within a Palestinian National unity government with Fatah, the largest Palestinian political party.  This unity dissipated quickly when Hamas and Fatah effectively engaged in a civil war, the results of which have left two separate ruling bodies in the Palestinian territories.  In recent years, of the two territories, the Palestinians in Gaza have suffered the most.  Last summer, in what seems to be a bi-annual war between Israel and Hamas resulted in the death of over 2100 Palestinians and 73 Israelis.  The causes of the war center on Hamas’ frustration at its lack of progress in achieving a Palestinian state, and the belief that they had nothing to lose by launching missiles into Israel to provoke an invasion.  The background for these events are explored in Jean-Pierre Filiu’s new book GAZA: A HISTORY, a comprehensive study of Gaza from roughly 18th century BC to the end of 2011.  The book is important because it fills a gap on the literature pertaining to Gaza since most Middle East scholarship tends to focus on the endless attempts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  In addition, the book provides a useful guide to events that led to the carnage of last summer.

The author summarizes the early history of Gaza and what becomes clear from at least the12th century BC is that the region is repeatedly conquered by external forces.  Be it the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Mongols, Mamelukes, Ottomans, French, British, and eventually Israelis, Gazans were rarely in charge of their own destiny.  They would be forced to believe in paganism, Christianity and finally Islam.  Important historical figures are presented from Alexander the Great, Salah ad-Din, Gamal Nasser, to present day politicians all of which possess their own agendas that did not necessarily bode well for Gaza.  According to Filiu Theodore Herzl and his early 20th century Zionist movement did not consider Gaza as part of the land of Israel as Gaza’s land owners refused to provide the Jews land purchases the way the Arabs had in central Palestine, thereby limiting any Jewish incursion into Gaza.  From that point on Filiu reviews the history of the region exploring the diplomacy of World War I, the 1929 Arab riots, the Arab rebellion of 1936, and the effect of World War II on the area.  In addition he does a good job discussing the dynastic rivalries that existed among Palestinians throughout the period and their impact on Gaza.  In doing so Filiu forgets to explore the 1939 British White Paper, I believe in part because it doesn’t necessarily support his Palestinian bias that is present in many of the areas that he explores. Once the narrative approaches the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 Filiu zeros in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which makes up over three-quarters of the narrative.

(The Israeli Iron Dome Missile Shield developed by Israel.  It was employed last summer to protect Israel from the thousands of Hamas rocket launches.)

Filiu spends an inordinate amount of time describing what seems to be each and every act of terror and counter-terror committed by both sides in the conflict.  I understand the importance of many of these actions and counter-actions but at times it becomes tedious and can overwhelm the reader with detail.  Of course, many of these attacks lead to changes in policy or military action, particularly by the Israelis but it would benefit the reader if this could be condensed and the author could concentrate more on analysis of events rather than direct reporting of who died, how many died, and who survived.  The horror of the plight of the Palestinian refugees cannot be denied, and Filiu does a superb job providing the reader with an understanding of their plight.  Discussions of the life and politics in the Kan Younes, Jabaliya, Rafah, Nuseirat, Bureji, and Deir al-Balah camps are important because from these camps the varying leadership and shock troops of the militant Palestinian groups emerge.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is Filiu’s description of the rise of Yassir Arafat to leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Fatah, its political wing in 1964.  The author follows the evolution of Arafat as a “freedom fighter/terrorist” who is faced with increasing opposition from other Palestinian elements as the history of the region evolves from Israeli “punishment” of Gaza for attacks on its settlements to outright war.  We witness an Arafat who must balance himself between the many Palestinian factions that emerge over the years and by 1990 he begins to engage in the diplomatic process with Israel and the United States leading to the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000.  Next to Arafat, the man who receives the most attention from the author is Sheik Ahmed Yassin who became the leader of the Moslem Brotherhood in Gaza in 1966.  Later, in 1973 he would set up an organization called the Mujamma designed to meet the social service and educational needs of the Palestinians in Gaza.  In response to the 1987 Intifada of the younger generation of Palestinians against Israel he founded Hamas (the Movement of Islamic Resistance).  It is here that Filiu does his best work as he describes the ideological differences between the various groups that vie to represent the Palestinians.  He explores the ideologies and strategies that Fatah, the Muslim Brotherhood (that eventually evolves into Hamas), Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in detail, and how they hope to achieve Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, and explains the reasons Hamas emerged as the dominant force in Gaza today.

(Destruction in Gaza caused by the Israeli invasion)

The importance of Filiu’s work lies in his discussion of the escalation of violence that took place in 2001 as Hamas and its allies expanded their attacks from targeting Israeli settlements inside Gaza to the territory of Israel itself.  This would lead to Israel’s application of an “iron fist” in response and a cycle of violence that would continue until Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2006.  Hamas would launch its first home made Qassam rockets, employ its first female suicide bombers, and reject all calls to demilitarize the second Intifada.  Throughout the period not a day went by when there wasn’t an assassination, air strikes, suicide bombings, or destruction of Gaza’s homes and infrastructure.  By 2006, Hamas’ strategy concerning elections would change by first running in municipal elections, then parliamentary contests which in the end brought them to political power. However, instead of using their victory as a positive force they engaged in a fratricidal war with Fatah.  But as Donald Macintyre suggests in the The Independent it would have been interesting if Filiu provided greater analysis of these events and the actions of the Bush administration, as well as the lack of action by the European Union as they sabotaged any chance of an international agreement with Hamas by the policies they pursued. (The Independent, September 11, 2014)  What is even more troubling than missing an opportunity after the election of 2006 to pursue some sort of diplomatic demarche, is the author’s description of the fighting between Hamas and Fatah between 2006 and 2011 that can only be characterized as savage.  Further this brutality was taking place at the same time as Israel pursued “Operation Cast Lead,” its punishment of Gaza for the militant’s seizure of Gilad Shalit, a nineteen year old Israeli soldier on June 25, 2006.

Earlier I mentioned that Filiu at times is not totally objective in his presentation.  A few cases in point; in discussing casualties in various attacks and counter attacks, the author provides minute details of Palestinians and then glosses over Israeli casualties.  The reader is presented with the Grand Mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husani as a leader of the Palestinian people, but Filiu skirts over his alliance with Nazi Germany during the war, and his work to help Nazis accused in the Holocaust to escape to the Middle East.*  In discussing the outbreak of the Suez War, Filiu makes it appear that Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in response to the Israeli assassination of his intelligence chief.  In point of fact, Nasser’s anger was due to the withdrawal of the Aswan loan guarantee by the United States, their refusal to sell him weapons to counter Israeli attacks, and their policy of trying to create a Middle East Defense Organization geared against the Soviet Union.  In 1967, the author suggests that Nasser ordered the UN forces out of Sharm el-Sheik to take Arab pressure off of him for restraining Fedayeen attacks against Israel.  In fact the Russians kept feeding Egypt information about the coming Israeli attack and that he should take action.  Perhaps as Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez suggest in FOXBATS OVER DIMONA, the Soviets wanted to provoke a war in order for them to interfere in support of the Arabs and destroy the Israeli nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert.  In discussing the Yom Kippur War he emphasizes the “air bridge that brought in supplies provided by the United States” to Israel, but makes no mention of the “air bridge” that the Soviets provided the Arabs.  Perhaps Professor Filiu should have explored Nasser’s true feelings about the Palestinians, who behind closed doors was repeatedly heard to make derogatory remarks describing them.  In his discussion of the outbreak of the 1987 Intifada, the author should explain the demographic and financial inequalities in the Arab world that in part led to the outbreak of violence, and perhaps mention that though Arafat took credit for the revolt, it caught him by surprise just as it had the Israelis.  I find the documentation that Filiu uses rather selective at times, concentrating on United Nations Documents and mostly pro-Arab secondary sources.  I am not suggesting these sources are wrong, however one should employ a myriad of sources to assure objectivity.

(Hamas tunnel complex used to smuggle materials into Gaza and fight against Israel)

(Israeli soldier discovers Hamas tunnel opening during the fighting last summer)

Despite these flaws Filiu has prepared a remarkable book that fills the historiographical gap that is apparent with the paucity of historical monographs that examine Gaza.  I would hope that the author would prepare an updated edition of the book that carries his story through the events that led to the Hamas-Israel war of last summer, and the horrifying result for the people of Gaza, as opposed to Hamas’ leadership, that appears to have emerged unscathed.

  • See Rubin, Barry; Schwanitz, Wolfgang G. Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.
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