Gaza Without Gazans: History of an Israeli Fantasy

Today, Ben-Gurion could declare with satisfaction that he was right: A thousand conquests haven't conquered Gaza.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

On December 17, 1948, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion told his cabinet, "We might benefit from conquering Gaza. But it's clear to me that Gaza won't be in our hands even if we conquer it 1,000 times."

Statements like this made some consider Ben-Gurion a prophet. In reality, Israel invested great effort in "taking" Gaza, but could never decide whether it really wanted it.

A few days after Israel declared independence, its nascent air force bombed Gaza City. Five months later, on October 14, it did so again.

A week later, Ben-Gurion told the cabinet that Israel could take Gaza in two weeks, "and that's a big thing," but it had to accede to the United Nations demand for a cease-fire. Violating this demand, he feared, would lead to the loss of the Negev.

"Israel can live without Gaza," he told the cabinet on November 18. That was in response to Interior Minister Yitzhak Gruenbaum's complaint that Israel agreed to the lull in the south too quickly because with a little more time, Gaza would have fallen.

Had it not been for the cease-fire in the south, Ben-Gurion added, Israel wouldn't have been able to capture the Galilee. "The Galilee is worth as much as Gaza," he declared.

Nevertheless, he wanted Gaza, too. And in December 1948, he ordered one of his top generals, Yigal Allon, to take it. Until his dying day, Allon believed that had he just been given a few more days, he could have captured Gaza City.

"Had it been possible to conquer Gaza, that would have been good," Ben-Gurion said on January 5, 1949 - the implication being that it wasn't possible, due to American pressure. "We have no choice but to obey," he said. The Bible, he added, promises Sinai to Israel as well, but wars aren't fought according to the Bible.

"Perhaps we'll have another opportunity to finish off this matter," he concluded. But Allon never forgave him for the one that was missed.

In early 1949, the question arose as to whether Gaza would remain in Egypt's hands or be transferred to Jordan. The Jordanians didn't want Egypt to keep it, but the Egyptians didn't want Jordan to get it. That naturally raised the possibility of giving it to Israel.

"If they offer it to us, I'd accept it," Ben-Gurion said in May 1949, adding that this included its tens of thousands of Arab refugees. A few weeks later, he said Gaza was "one of the things I'm sorry we didn't capture."

The idea of Israel being given Gaza was pure fantasy, of course, but this diplomatic fiction persisted for another year. Some ministers, including Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, said they would rather do without Gaza and its Arabs. But Ben-Gurion retorted, "The danger of Gaza in someone else's hands is greater than the danger of Gaza in our hands."

In March 1955, Ben-Gurion proposed conquering Gaza, but his cabinet didn't agree. During the Sinai Campaign in October 1956, it happened anyway. Almost all the ministers pretended they wanted to keep Gaza City but were bothered by whether and how they could get rid of its population. Yet a few months later, Israel once again bowed to American pressure and withdrew.

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan similarly debated over whether to reconquer Gaza in the 1967 Six-Day War: He, too, didn't want its residents.

And thus it went, for years: an ongoing saga of violence, desperate poverty, violated agreements and missed opportunities. Israel missed a chance to rehabilitate the refugees after 1967 and a chance to return Gaza to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty; it subsequently wasted the Oslo Accords and the 2005 evacuation of Gaza's settlements.

Today, Ben-Gurion could declare with satisfaction that he was right: A thousand conquests haven't conquered Gaza.

Khan Yunis, 1956. When the possibility of annexing Gaza arose, Ben-Gurion said 'Israel can live without Gaza.'Credit: GPO

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