Gaza: 5,000 Years of Strife

Just as the Prophets foretold, this gorgeous strip of land has been fought over since time immemorial. And now is about the only time Egypt doesn't want it.

Avshalom Halutz
Avshalom Halutz
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A man looks at a mosaic at St. Hilarion’s monastery, from when Christians ruled in Gaza.
A man looks at a mosaic at St. Hilarion’s monastery, from when Christians ruled in Gaza.Credit: AP
Avshalom Halutz
Avshalom Halutz

The Gaza Strip is beautiful. Its sun-kissed beaches by the warm, fish-rich Mediterranean Sea and glorious climate have attracted dwellers from the dawn of time. But the terrible images of destroyed homes and rising plumes of smoke during Operation Protective Edge illustrate another truism about Gaza. Throughout its roughly 5,000-year history, this strip of land has known little but strife, just as prophesied by Jeremiah, Amos and Zephaniah.

"The word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah the prophet against the Philistines, before Pharaoh smote Gaza. Thus saith the Lord; Behold, waters rise up out of the north and shall be an overflowing flood... then the men shall cry, and all the inhabitants of the land shall howl... Baldness is come upon Gaza." (Meaning, the Gazans will shave their head in mourning. Jeremiah 47:1-5)

Gaza’s history reads like an encyclopedia of misery – war, destruction, earthquakes, plagues and floods. It has been destroyed and rebuilt, conquered again and again. But it also enjoyed periods of prosperity, when pagan, Jew and others lived together in harmony.

Man is first known to have settled the area in about 3000 B.C.E., in Tell as-Sakan, south of the modern city of Gaza. Unusually, its name hasn't changed over these many thousands of years. The city is first mentioned in early Egyptian writings as Ghazzat.

Pharaoh conquers the city

Gaza has always been (and still is) heavily influenced by its southeastern neighborhood Egypt, for which it served as a waypoint to Asia.

Not content with merely passing through, Pharaoh Tuthmosis III sent forces to conquer the city in 1468 B.C.E. It was to remain under Egyptian rule for 350 years, becoming an administrative center for the Egyptian government and army in Canaan. But it the Philistines conquered it in the 12th century B.C.E. They evidently struck some terror into local hearts: the Philistine Gaza is mentioned several times in the Bible, and its residents are described as giants.

Gaza was under Philistine rule during the Biblical era of the Judges, when the Israelite hero Samson arrived, was imprisoned after betrayal by his beloved Delilah and met his death, famously pulling down the gates of the city in the process:

"And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein." Judges 16:30.

Did the Samson story really happen? We don't know, but a stone seal found in 2012 while excavating in Tel Beit Shemesh could be the first archaeological evidence. The seal dates to the 11th century B.C.E., the pre-Judean era of the Judges, and scholars say the scene shown on the artifact recalls the story in Judges of Samson fighting a lion. That's hardly proof, but scholars point out that near Beit Shemesh is Tel Batash, the biblical Timna, home of Samson's wife.

The Jews conquer, for a while

The city came under Jewish rule for the first time in the 11th century B.C.E., in a victory by King David. But Judean rule was to prove ephemeral.

Gaza was wracked by serial conquests. During his campaigns in 734 to 732 B.C.E., Gaza was conquered by the Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser III, and then by the Persians.

In 332 B.C.E., it was taken by Alexander of Macedon. This turned into a boom period for the coveted city. Alexander’s conquest had the side effect of importing Greek idol worship to the city, which became an important port and commercial hub.

The peace was not to last. In 96 B.C.E. Gaza was once again conquered by the Jews under Alexander Yannai – who destroyed it, killing many of its inhabitants. Yet again the conquest was short-lived. In 63 B.C.E. it was conquered by the Roman general Pompey the Great, and the Roman governor Aulus Gabinius rebuilt Gaza, making it part of the Roman empire.

The city was to become a center of trade between Europe and the Middle East and Africa, and would flourish for the next 60 years. Then, it was destroyed yet again: Jewish rebels against the Roman regime burned it down in 66 C.E.

The Romans crushed the Jewish revolt and rebuilt Gaza, which quickly flourished anew. Emperor Hadrian even built a stadium there, featuring gladiator fights and boxing matches.

The city’s population was very diverse in those days, inter alia comprising Philistines, Greeks, Romans, Jews, Egyptians, Persians and Bedouin. Centuries later, during the Byzantine era, the Christians conquered the city, but pagan culture would continue to flourish.

No-man’s land

Islam became the dominant religion in Gaza after the city's conquest by the Muslim general Amr ibn al-Aas in 637 C.E.. Most of its residents converted and Arabic became the official language.

In 796, the city was destroyed again by inter-Arab tribal warfare, but it was rebuilt in the ninth century.

Together with the rest of the area, Gaza was conquered by the Mamluks in the Middle Ages, and then by the Turks in the 16th century. The city remained part of the Ottoman Empire until the waning days of World War I, when it was conquered by the British army, after a fierce battle, in 1917.

It subsequently became part of the British Mandate for Palestine, and the Mandatory government ruled it until 1948.

When Israel declared independence that same year, several Arab armies invaded. The Egyptian army conquered Gaza as it advanced northward and eastward. Under the UN Partition Plan of 1947, Gaza was supposed to have been part of a Palestinian state, but the Arabs rejected this plan. Thus after the cease-fire was reached in the War of Independence, Gaza remained under Egyptian military rule.

During the years when Egypt controlled the Strip, the territory was legally considered no-man’s land, despite an attempt to establish an independent Palestinian government there. Gaza residents weren’t offered Egyptian citizenship, and in any case, the Egyptian regime wasn’t democratic, so the military governor was effectively the sovereign.

In 1956, during Israel’s Sinai Campaign, Israeli forces briefly conquered both the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. But they withdrew from both after the war, returning it to Egypt. In 1967 Israel reconquered both; it returned the Sinai to Egypt under the 1979 peace treaty – but not Gaza. It seems that this time around, Egypt didn't want it.

“I don’t know whether there was ever a formal Israeli proposal to return Gaza to Egypt,” said Dr. Mark Heller, principal research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies. “It could be that feelers were put out, though even back then, there were already [Jewish] settlements in Gaza. But in any case, the Egyptians indicated more than once that they weren’t interested in getting the Strip back. Effectively they insisted on leaving the Gaza issue on our doorstep – in fact, to this very day.”

Nevertheless, Egypt continued to exercise considerable influence on the Strip. The Hamas movement that now rules the Strip was an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Heller says.

After the Six-Day War, Israeli settlements began to sprout in the region, but were forcibly evacuated by Ariel Sharon in 2005. The Israeli army disengaged as well, removing Israeli control from Gaza and ceding it to the Palestinian Authority.

Yet just two years later, the Hamas terror movement was to supplant the PA, taking over the entire Gaza Strip in what is just the most recent in its long, long history of conquests.

A view of Gaza, 1956.Credit: Fritz Cohen / National Photo Collection
Man walks through remains of St. Hilarion’s monastery.Credit: AP
Mosaic from the ancient synagogue in Gaza, depicting King David.Credit: Avishai Teicher
The ancient statue of the Greek god Apollo, found in Gaza.Credit: Tourism and Antiquities Ministry in Gaza / Reuters
Khan Yunis, 1956. When the possibility of annexing Gaza arose, Ben-Gurion said 'Israel can live without Gaza.'Credit: GPO
Shimon Peres meet with Yasser Arafat at the erez checkpoint entrance to Gaza, 1995.Credit: Avi Ohayon / Government press ofice
A refugee camp in Gaza, 2009.Credit: Marius Arnesen
An IDF soldier on the Gaza border during Operation Pillar of Defense. Credit: Nir Kafri
Palestinian detainees in Operation Protective Edge.
Baptism basin at St. Hilarion’s monastery.
A man looks at a mosaic at St. Hilarion’s monastery, from when Christians ruled in Gaza.
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Palestinian detainees in Operation Protective Edge.
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Baptism basin at St. Hilarion’s monastery.Credit: AP
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A man looks at a mosaic at St. Hilarion’s monastery, from when Christians ruled in Gaza.Credit: AP
Gaza history

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