Telling Gaza’s story with brutal honesty

Gaza has always been an important economic, political and cultural region. But most histories of Palestine tend to concentrate on Jerusalem, Nablus and the Galilee, with a smattering of Jaffa and Bethlehem.

For English-language readers, a small number of titles are slowly filling in the gaps — notably Thomas Philipp’s Acre: The Rise and Fall of a Palestinian City, 1730-1831 (Columbia University Press, 2001) and now, Jean-Pierre Filiu’s ambitious Gaza: A History (Hurst Publishing).

Translated from the French edition of 2012, Filiu’s book runs more than 400 pages.

Filiu starts with some of the earliest known peoples of Gaza — the Canaanites, the Egyptians under the Pharaonic dynasties and the Philistines.

Key strategic point

Gaza was a key strategic point, the last source of water before the Sinai, from the perspective of armies and merchants heading from the Levant to Egypt. As such, it was a prize in tussles between empires from the Assyrians and Egyptians down to the sixteenth-century Ottomans.

But, as Filiu notes, many of the artistic and architectural remains of these civilizations are no longer in Gaza. Like the area itself, they have fallen victim to imperial ambitions and are now to be found in museums in present-day Israel, Turkey or Europe.

Readers accustomed to thinking of Gaza only in terms of the Islamic faith may be surprised to find that it was significant in the evolution of early Christianity. And a millennium later, a controversial rabbi called Nathan of Gaza was a key figure in the Shabbati Zvi messianic movement which swept through Eastern Judaism.

Islam came to Gaza quickly, via the trade routes which had made it rich. The great-grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad died on a merchant caravan there, and Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, is said to have made his fortune in Gaza City. Its political and economic fortunes waxed under the Fatimids and waned under the Crusaders. But Gaza’s golden age was, perhaps, under the Mamluks, attested to by remains — often threatened and damaged in Israeli attacks — in Gaza City and Khan Younis.

Under the Ottomans, the region was more peripheral, and travelers up to the nineteenth century reported rich agricultural lands and a mixed, vibrant but somewhat provincial society of Jews, Christians and Samaritans, as well as the majority Sunni Muslims.

Gaza may have suffered severely at the hands of the British (and, to an extent, the Ottomans) during the Second World War, but it was not an initial target of Zionism. Nevertheless, many Gazan notables were involved in the national movement, whether through mainstream channels (although Filiu’s account seems to contrast Gaza’s long history of Islamic learning with the comparative newcomer Husseini family of Jerusalem) or, like the Gazan Hamdi al-Husseini (no relation) with the more radical politics of Sheikh Izzedin al-Qassam.

Bustling bazaars

The breadth of Gaza’s engagement with Arab movement politics is highlighted by the 1931 naming of Gaza City’s main street after Omar al-Mukhtar, martyred leader of the Libyan resistance to Italian colonialism. At this time the city was noted in a French guidebook for its “bustling bazaars” and had daily trains to Haifa and Suez.

Even the 1936-39 Palestinian uprising (and subsequent Second World War) touched Gaza less than regions further north. But the British colonial administration’s security concerns had one fateful effect: they encouraged Zionist settlers — who had largely ignored Gaza because of its peripheral place in Biblical narratives — to start colonizing the Naqab (Negev).

Filiu’s account is at it richest when dealing with the twentieth century Gaza. The variety of documentary sources available (compared with earlier periods) allow him to deliver a portrait which, as well as political and economic trends, tells us of developments in education and healthcare and of the complex relations of major families and of the national movement in Palestine.

Filiu’s narrative of the period from the 1950s to 1970s, in particular, makes full use of press sources, interviews and governmental documents — some of them rarely used by researchers before — to build a remarkably complex and vivid image of Gazan society.

Major players include Egypt’s second president Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Gazan notable families, the Muslim Brotherhood, the growing resistance movements and the vast population of refugees. Bit parts go to Che Guevara, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, who visited Gaza in the 1960s.

Dumped in desert

The account manages to juggle “official” versions with a genuine feeling for the despair and desperation on the part of the Palestinian refugees, brutal honesty over the duplicity of Egypt and Jordan and the brutality of Zionist militias from kibbutzim on the newly-enforced boundary between Gaza and present-day Israel, including little-known atrocities such as Palestinian girls raped and murdered by Israeli soldiers and refugees dumped in the desert to die of thirst.

As Filiu emphasizes, this was not a brief moment of horror during the Nakba — the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine — but a long-running effort by the new State of Israel to confine and terrify the refugees. It is not, therefore, surprising to find the young Ariel Sharon playing a role.

A sense of continuity comes from mentions of, for instance, Abdel Aziz Rantisi — later a senior Hamas figure — witnessing as a child an Israeli massacre in Khan Younis in 1956, during the Suez crisis.

After the 1967 occupation of Gaza by Israel, however, Filiu’s narrative becomes markedly less readable. The accounts of clashes between Israeli forces and the resistance are comprehensively researched but repetitive. Although the book is undoubtedly a useful resource, the final sections, with less social and much military detail, lack the verve of earlier chapters.

A minor quibble must also be had with occasional aspects of the French-English translation, which sometimes employs odd grammar and, more importantly, uses organization names which differ from the standard (such as Higher Muslim Council for al-Husseini’s Supreme Muslim Council), presumably because they have been translated without referring to other texts on historic Palestine.

But overall, this is a significant addition to the literature on Palestine, combining as it does in-depth scholarship and a wide range of sources, with a style which is approachable enough to suit the general reader.

Sarah Irving is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone, a collection of contemporary Palestinian poetry in translation. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh.