Why Israel Once Built Fine New Neighborhoods in Gaza

Why did Israel once build apartment buildings in the Gaza Strip, and then leave residents to their own devices? How do young people from bordering Jewish communities feel about their neighbors? And why do Gazans download the Israeli missile alert app? Haaretz speaks to historian Dotan Halevy

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A Palestinian mother carrying her child faces Israeli soldiers who guard the Ansar II prison camp in January 1988.
A Palestinian mother carrying her child faces Israeli soldiers who guard the Ansar II prison camp in January 1988.Credit: SVEN NACKSTRAND / AFP
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

Tell us about yourself.

I’m 38, a historian of the modern Middle East, and I’m doing a postdoc at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. I obtained my doctorate at Columbia University, and for the past decade I’ve been studying Gaza, the city and the territory.

For the past two years – together with Dr. Yonatan Mendel – you’ve also been teaching a course at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva titled “Gaza: History, Society, Culture and Politics.” What’s the reaction been?

It’s a popular course. When we first launched it, we didn’t know what kind of reception it would get, but to our surprise a lot of people signed up – so much so that we had to enlarge the class.

Is it a declaredly political course?

Yes. The course is political. We don’t hide that, and we don’t hide our views, which are reflected in the way we convey the material. At the same time, even though the course isn’t neutral, it’s fair. We provide a platform for all shades of opinion and we invite guest speakers from across the political spectrum, including the fringes. Already in the first class we explain that, as Israelis who are nourished by the Israeli media, the information we get is very specific and is filtered through the prism of what’s “good” and “bad” for Israel.

Do you tell your students that they are getting biased information?

Biased and partial. Unequivocally. Look, it’s not that dealing with Gaza as a security problem isn’t legitimate. But that cancels out every other aspect. We tell students that if they want to hear about Hamas’ extremism toward Israel, or its internal corruption, they don’t need us. We want to bring them something else.

It’s hard to talk about Gaza without falling into the trap of people who dismiss such discourse because it’s associated with the left wing. It’s definitely hard to arouse empathy.

That trap accompanies the course all the time, because the very desire to talk about Gaza in terms of something other than what is bad or good for Israel is indeed perceived as leftist. So we try to bring as many cultural testimonies as possible, and precisely of the sort that don’t deal directly with Israel. Articles. Stories. Poetry. Dance performances. Films.

Dotan Halevy.Credit: Hadas Parush

Like what, for example?

We open the course with a screening of the [2016 German-made] documentary film “Gaza Surf Club.” It’s not about the occupation or war; it’s about a group of young local people who are trying to launch a surfing club, and issues related to their social situation also arise. Some of them are unemployed and have no [economic] horizon. Or the matter of the surfboards themselves. The few boards that can be found in Gaza are very valuable, and were brought in from Israel years ago. That is no longer possible today, because now there is a ban on [importing] the material they’re made of, and the difficulty of bringing things into the Gaza City has only increased. And there are gender issues, such as that under Hamas rule, men are allowed to go into the water at the beach and enjoy themselves, but women are prohibited. We want to show students the Gaza that doesn’t exist in the media. It’s actually an experiment. Experience proves that for some of the students, it works.

I suppose there are Israeli Arab students in the class, along with students who were soldiers and served in Gaza. There are undoubtedly students who grew up in the “Gaza envelope” [of Israel communities bordering on the Strip] and in Sderot, in the reality of “Red Alert” alarms warning of incoming missiles. How does all that work?

There’s some of everything. It’s a challenge. Interestingly, it’s actually the students from the “envelope,” who are well acquainted with the experience of the past two decades – life under missile attacks, incendiary balloons, tunnels, marches of return and a constant army presence – who do not see Gaza as being as demonic as it’s envisioned by other Jewish students. They often mention the close relations that once existed and that their parents still have with people from Gaza, or the high frequency of visits by Israelis to the Gaza Strip in early times for business or leisure.

We also have soldiers who served in Gaza [i.e., during Israel’s war there in the summer of 2014] taking the course, now and in the past. They don’t come with an “I know everything” approach, and usually, at the end, they will talk about their personal experience and also offer reflections on it. From our perspective, that’s a bonus. They were there and we weren’t, so we also learn something.

And things don’t get stressful in class?

I think that we are mainly missing how intertwined Gaza is with Israel, how much its shared history with Israel affects it.

Dotan Halevy

No. When students are exposed to facts, data and sources they have not previously encountered, they can’t respond with simplistic political viewpoints. When students read a poem by a Palestinian refugee, describing the experience of leaving his village in 1948, there’s no way they can respond by saying, “No, the Nakba never happened, the Palestinians have made it up.”

You know, for most people here, even the word “Nakba” [a reference to the Israeli War of Independence in 1947-49, when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes] is highly charged.

True. And there are [Jewish] students who say in class that from their point of view, the Nakba was essential for establishment of the state. I have no problem with that. From the Nakba to today’s blockade of Gaza – what we actually want is for the students to grasp the whole picture, and then to judge for themselves. First they should know exactly what happened, where and how, and then draw conclusions.

A mosque in southern Gaza. “The Palestinians thought that after Oslo things would continue as they had been. When Israel said goodbye, go cope, and disengaged – it caused a tremendous rupture.”Credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

For example, we held a conversation with Matthias Schmale, former director of UNRWA [the UN refugee agency] in the Gaza Strip. The students confronted him with what they think about UNRWA, with the fact that they teach anti-Israeli content in UNRWA’s educational institutions. He replied that obviously the teachers there are not “lovers of Zion,” and that they [UNRWA] tries to monitor the situation to the best of their ability, but they are dealing with hundreds of thousands of children who, if they don’t go to school via UNRWA – what other option do they actually have?

Hamas’ educational institutions.

Yes. And when he explained that to the students, it had a significant effect. By the way, Schmale was expelled from Gaza in the end, last year, apparently because of clashes he had with the Hamas government, which he also told the students about. His successor has politely refused to speak to us.

In June, 2021, you hosted as guest speaker the former manager of the Erez border crossing [between Israel and Gaza], Shlomo Tzaban. He argued forcefully that Gaza should be opened up, and immediately. That doing so would not bring about terrorist attacks, but the opposite – it would weaken Hamas. He spoke with students and then discovered that the conversation with them was the lead item on the evening newscasts. Did his approach surprise you?

Very much so. We brought him in as the former supervisor of the crossing and expected that he would be the voice of the closure policy and would explain its necessity. We got the exact opposite and we were simply stunned. If that is the view of a Defense Ministry official, from the heart of the system, then where are the people who believe in that policy? He said explicitly that, given how the crossing operates today, there is nothing from the security viewpoint to prevent Gazans from being allowed to enter Israel. All the security means exist to prevent the passage of people the defense establishment objects to, and certainly the passage of combat materiel. He told the students, “Since 2006, I approved nine million entries of Gazans into Israel, at a price of zero casualties or terrorists.”

The establishment was quick to dissociate itself from what he said.

Yes. The Defense Ministry made it clear that it was his personal opinion and that it didn’t represent the ministry’s position.

He won’t be coming to your course anymore, either. How did the students respond to what he said?

No, he won’t be coming back, but this year we showed the class the video of the discussion we held with him last year. Both the students who met with him and those who watched the video responded in the same way: “Wallah, he’s right,” “Right on!” and the like. Hearing that from an establishment official who’s there on the ground, who can’t be suspected of harboring a hidden anti-Israeli interest – it led them to accept what he said. That is exactly the reality we want to show the students, the complexity.

Barley and Bedouin

Maybe you can try to show us that reality, too. What don’t we know about Gaza, what are we missing?

I think that we are mainly missing how intertwined Gaza is with Israel, how much its shared history with Israel affects it.

Yesterday I watched an old television interview with a Gaza merchant. He said into the camera, in Hebrew, “What’s going on? What have you done to us? You [Israel] have left us to our own devices.”

A man sells sheep at a livestock market ahead of the Eid al-Adha festival, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, earlier this month.Credit: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

He’s right. Gaza was never a territory that existed on its own – in part because of the way Israel shaped it during its rule there.

Let’s start, shall we, with the Gaza Strip as it was before the encounter with Israel.

Israel launched a series of projects in Gaza… Fine new neighborhoods were constructed, and an offer was made to the refugees to leave the camps and move into them, provided they gave up their refugee status.

Dotan Halevy

In the 19th century, Gaza City was a district that connected Sinai and the Arabian Peninsula. A market city and commercial center though which one passed on the way north to Syria or on the way south to Egypt. At the end of the 19th century, maritime routes and railways replaced the overland desert routes, and Gaza became a city of maritime exports, especially of barley, grown by Bedouin tribes across the Negev. Gaza was considered one of the major suppliers of barley for the beer industry in England.

But on the eve of the 20th century, after a few years of drought, it lost its status in the grain market and collapsed economically. During World War I, three large-scale battles took place in a then-bankrupt Gaza between the British and the Ottomans. The Gaza Strip became the main site of destruction in the Middle East.

History repeats itself, once as tragedy – but it’s impossible to say it does so a second time as farce.

Once as tragedy and a second time as an even greater tragedy. Gaza found it very difficult to recover from that blow. When the inhabitants who had been evacuated ahead of the wartime events returned, they discovered that only heaps of rubble remained. It took years upon years for Gaza to be rehabilitated, with the result being that during the important years when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict developed, from the start of the British Mandate until 1948, Gaza was not part of the game. The important cities were Jaffa, Jerusalem and Haifa. They were the focal points of the collision, the places where Palestinian nationalism emerged, and it’s there that the struggle [between Palestinians and Zionists] over control and resources was waged. Gaza – distant and impoverished – was simply not relevant.

That perhaps explains how Gaza became a place of refuge in 1948, no? If it’s so weakened, so remote, there is no one to shut its gates in the face of the masses of refugees flooding in. When you think about it, it’s pretty insane. A city of a few tens of thousands of residents takes in hundreds of thousands of refugees.

It’s not an historical accident. The large numbers of refugees that were channeled into Gaza were a by-product of its provincialism. Gaza was of no interest to anyone, certainly not the Zionist movement, and it became a kind of hole that simply swallowed up Palestinian refugees.

The local population became a minority, and the face of the place naturally changed. What did it look like?

Around a quarter of a million people flooded into the city in waves [beginning in 1949]. It took time for the locals to grasp what was happening, and especially to understand that this was a permanent situation, not temporary. The press of that time dealt at length with the question of what to do with these people. Should people open their homes to them or should they reject them? [Most of the refugee camps were built some years later.] In the course, we teach a poem by Harun Hashim Rashid [from the 1950s], calling on the Gazans to accept the refugees, to listen to them and assist them. In 1953, the Egyptian military government and the United Nations put forward a plan by which they wanted to thin out the refugee population in Gaza and relocate them to Sinai. When the plan became known, it stirred an uprising against the Egyptian administration, because from the refugees’ point of view, Gaza was the starting place for the new Palestinian state. Locals and immigrants fought together against the Egyptian administration for the right to remain in Gaza.

Let’s leap forward in time, ignoring the four-month period after the 1956 Sinai Campaign when Gaza was under Israeli control. In 1967, Israel conquered Gaza, where there were already about half a million people. The Israeli army established itself there, and Gaza City was controlled and administered exclusively by Israel.

What we saw in 1967 was actually a reflection of certain Israeli mindset: In Israel’s consciousness it could manage this territory, because it was compact. There was a large population in a small area whose borders were clear and which was closed on one side by the sea.

It’s doesn’t have the sporadic character of Judea-Samaria – it’s a densely crowded, homogeneous territory.

Totally, and we can see that the topography and the population dispersal in Judea-Samaria compelled Israel to establish its rule in a different way. Gaza is really a kind of concentrated pill of the refugee problem, and Israel decided that it would take control of it and resolve the problem. The first step was to encourage the emigration of Gaza’s residents, in particular to Jordan.

How was this done?

Because Gaza was so overpopulated, it was easy to lower the living standard. People were prevented from going to work. Businesses were not allowed to develop. But emigration was insignificant, so Israel had to switch gears. The thinking was that if we didn’t succeed in removing the refugees from Gaza, we would at least cause them to give up their refugee status. Israel launched a series of projects involving the country’s major architectural firms. Apartments were built, fine new neighborhoods were constructed [in Gaza], and an offer was made to the refugees to leave the camps and move into them, provided they gave up their refugee status and demolished their homes in the refugee camps.

A Gaza beach in June.Credit: SUHAIB SALEM/Reuters

Israel built in the Gaza Strip the way it did in Yamit [in northern Sinai]: It was part of a project of rebuilding the whole territory of what was then called the “Eshkol District.” The idea was for Gaza to be connected to Ashkelon, for the southern Strip to be economically connected to Yamit, for settlements to be established that would break the continuity of the [Palestinian] population, for Yamit to act as a buffer between the people of Sinai and the residents of Gaza, for the territory to be dispersed and decentralized. Above all the hope was that the refugees would not have anything to complain to Israel about.

During that phase, Gaza was not hostile territory – or at least it wasn’t perceived as such. That changed in 1971 with the murder of the Aroyo family’s children. A terrorist tossed a grenade into the car of an Israeli family that was on a Shabbat outing in Gaza, murdering the two children, Marc and Abigail. Their mother was seriously wounded.

In those years, ferment and resistance to Israeli policy began to surge in Gaza, as documented well in Motti Kirschenbaum’s 1970 film “Grenade in Gaza.” That murder was indeed a turning point, because it sparked an Israeli response. Ariel Sharon [then head of the Israel Defense Forces Southern Command] was sent to the Strip to “make order.” He went in with bulldozers that created huge boulevards in the camps, so that armored personnel carriers could pass through. His brutality led [Defense Minister Moshe] Dayan to replace him with “Gandhi” [Maj. Gen. Rehavam Ze’evi], but in the meantime relative quiet was achieved. In 1981, Israel established the Civil Administration, signalling to Gaza and the West Bank that we were there to stay. But the significant thing that happened in this period – what influenced and would continue to influence dramatically, in the future, the ongoing relations between Israel and the Gaza Strip – was that Israel simply made Gaza economically dependent on it. Israel allowed Gazans to work in Israel in industry, agriculture and construction, but prevented the development of local industry and commerce in the Strip. From the first moment, Gaza was built and shaped as a dependent economy.

Israel simply made Gaza economically dependent on it. It allowed Gazans to work in Israel but prevented the development of local industry and commerce in the Strip.

Dotan Halevy

But even before that it wasn’t independent.

Correct. In 1967, the economic situation was bad. There was poverty. The Egyptian army [which had ruled Gaza, except for a short period in 1956, until the Six-Day War] is not exactly a liberal body. So, yes, Israel rehabilitated Gaza, there was prosperity, but that prosperity came at the expense of development. The inhabitants experienced a rise in standard of living, but they lacked the ability to stand on their own.

‘The absolute end’

And you maintain that this was a policy. Can you elaborate? Ground your argument?

It’s policy. There are numberless examples. After 1967, Israel shut down the Arab banks in the Gaza Strip. Israeli banks avoided giving loans, resulting in a shortage of capital for investment in industry and agriculture. Israeli farmers received subsidies and benefits that farmers in Gaza didn’t get, so agriculture in Israel had an advantage. For years, Israel prohibited the export of agricultural produce from Gaza to Europe, in order to prevent competition with Israel. Marketing of produce in Israel was also barred for various periods, again to prevent competition with Israeli growers, though Israeli farmers could sell in Gaza without limits.

Israel barred the digging of new wells in Gaza, and restricted water consumption by farmers. For example, in 1985, the water consumption of Jewish settlers was 2,300 cubic meters per capita annually, whereas local Gazans were limited to an average of 123 cubic meters per person. Similar restrictions were imposed on industry: Israel banned importation of various types of machines and materials into Gaza. Israeli industrialists received considerable governmental encouragement to invest in factories in the Strip and the West Bank, where labor was cheap, but the profit line belonged to the Israelis.

And in light of that dependence, when Israel began to prohibit Gazans’ entry into Israel some 30 years ago, it was a mortal blow.

When we think today about besieged Gaza, we think about the disengagement [Israel’s withdrawal from the Strip, in 2005], but it should be thought of as a process that began as early as the first intifada [which began in late 1987], as a security measure. Beforehand, Dayan had advocated an open-door policy, and everyone who wanted to leave Gaza was able to do so. The intifada upended that: Israel no longer allowed the population of the Strip to leave freely.

And things were upended again after the Oslo Accords, in 1993.

The Palestinians thought that after Oslo, things would continue as they had been, only that the government would be Palestinian. When Israel said goodbye, go cope, and disengaged from them – it caused a tremendous rupture. In our course, we hosted Sufian Abu Zaida, a former Fatah official, and Ali Al-Awar, from the Palestinian Culture Ministry. Both of them were in the Gaza Strip at the time of Oslo. They described the crisis painfully, the shock, the great hope of Oslo, which became a bitter disappointment. The disengagement was in fact the absolute end of a process that began long before.

I spoke today with a friend who grew up in a settlement in the Gaza Strip. He told me about how the lives of the settlers and the Gazans are intertwined. About the friendships that persist to this day. It’s clear that the relations were based on force and authority, but there was also a human relationship. There was a reality of coexistence.

A reality of life together did exist. Kobi Bornstein, who directed the Israeli settlers’ PR campaign against the pullout, was another guest speaker in our course. He said that even in the most utopian scenario, from his viewpoint – of returning to Gush Katif [the bloc of Israeli settlements in the Strip] – the relations would not be unequal, as they had been. That the situation would have to change. He expressed deep reservations about the way we treat the Palestinians today. Our students from the Gaza envelope communities also really help us understand the transition from the situation in which the Strip was totally intertwined with Israel, and the situation of total disconnect today. The intifada affected that early coexistence critically, and after Oslo, that window was closed completely. Israel left Gaza.

“You left us to our own devices.”

Yes. It isn’t just a matter of being “left on our own,” but also “You shut the gate on us.” For Israelis, the disengagement and the closure are a kind of end of the story. But for the Gazans, Israel remains a significant factor in their life. Palestinians just laugh when they hear “Israel left the Gaza Strip.” The dominant currency in Gaza is the shekel. They see the soldiers sitting across the fence, the observation balloons; they hear the buzzing of the drones that have become an integral element of life in Gaza. The buzzing is heard everywhere, relentlessly. I have a friend who works in an international organization, who enters and leaves Gaza all the time. I asked him whether there’s an alarm system in Gaza as protection against Israeli bombing raids. He replied that there isn’t one, but that the Gazans download the Israeli Red Alert app. That way, they know what to expect.

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