While the recent flotilla attempts to end the economic blockade have turned it into front page news, Gaza has been a forgotten add-on for most of its 62 years of existence. For millennia it was simply a part of Palestine occupied by a succession of foreign rulers. On 14 May 1948 the last of those rulers, the British high commissioner, left Palestine formally ending the colonial mandate. (photo:AP)
The Zionists immediately proclaimed an independent Israel. Within 24 hours armies from Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq launched an attack across the frontier but stopped short at occupying Jewish settlements. The Israelis battle-hardened from fighting Germans and British alike routed the invaders.
When fighting ended in January 1949 Palestine had disappeared from the map. Most went to Israel, the west Bank went to Jordan leaving behind just the tiny strip of Gaza administered by Egypt. The strip was home to thousands of Palestinian refugees who fled across the border or were forced to leave by Jewish settlers.
Egypt’s King Farouk ordered the building of a new palace in Gaza where he could preside over a Palestinian Arab Government. But his grandiose schemes fell apart when Nasser and his Free Officers deposed him in a coup in 1952. Nasser turned his attentions to removing the hated British from the Suez Canal Zone while Gaza reverted to near lawless anarchy and fedayeen raids against Israel.
Four years later the Israelis invaded the strip in the Suez War. It followed a blitz attack on Egyptian forces in Sinai then a diversion south to open up the Gulf of Aqaba. The southern end of the Strip became one of the key battlefields of the war but the Israelis quickly overran the 8,000 Egyptian defenders before taking Gaza City.
After the war Israel told the UN it would keep its troops in Gaza and Sharm el-Sheikh in Sinai. The Americans although sympathetic to Israel, reacted angrily and threatened to cut off aid and end its guarantee of unrestricted oil supplies. With a likely vote on a UN resolution condemning Israel, then Prime Minister Ben Gurion accepted the inevitable and agreed to withdraw from Sinai and Gaza in exchange for access to the Gulf of Aqaba. The war ended the facade there was an independent government in Gaza. Direct control went back to Cairo with a military governor installed in Gaza City.
Gaza changed hands again in 1967 when once again the Strip and Sinai were vital battlefields in the Egyptian flank of the Six Day War. At the end of the war the Israeli Government voted unanimously to return the Sinai to Egypt and the Golan Heights to Syria in return for peace agreements. However Gaza was conspicuously absent from the decision and the arrangement was rejected by Egypt and Syria.
Israeli historian Benny Morris said at least 70,000 Gazans emigrated to Egypt and were forced to sign documents saying they were leaving of their own free will. Israelis moved into the Strip in large numbers taking up one fifth of the land in an already crowded area. Israel finally gave Sinai back to Egypt in 1979 but once again the status of Gaza was not addressed by President Carter’s peace treaty. Egypt did however agree to renounce its territorial claims on the area freeing it to become a part of Palestine, in theory.
Growing Palestinian unrest led to the First Intifada from 1987 to 1993 and a year later to the Oslo Accords which called for the total withdrawal of the IDF from parts of Gaza and the West Bank. It also created the Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority for these areas for a transitional period of five years. It was also the first time that Israel and the Palestinians agreed to view Gaza and the West Bank as a single territorial unit. The Oslo Accords were a brave move but ultimately foundered on aspects that had been deliberately put into the ‘too hard basket’: Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees, security and border control, and the status of Jerusalem.
Yet there was impact in Gaza. The IDF left Gaza City and the urban conurbation around it and the Palestinian Authority began to administer and police the region in their place. The PA was racked by corruption and mismanagement and by 2000 most of the Strip’s 400,000 residents were frustrated by the lack of progress and the squalid conditions they lived in. The scene was set for the Second Intifada and the fracturing of the Oslo Accords.
After Israeli soldier were killed by a Palestinian mob in the West bank, the IDF launched retaliatory air strikes against PA targets in the West Bank and Gaza. Attitudes hardened on both sides with Israel turning to the right wing Likud Party while Hamas grew in popularity in Gaza. As matters dragged on for years, an exasperated Ariel Sharon decided in 2004 to unilaterally evict all Israelis from Gaza’s 21 settlements. The IDF withdrew a year later. The disengagement did not address wider issues of occupation. Israel still retained control over Gaza’s borders, airspace, coastline, infrastructure and power grid.
Nevertheless the withdrawal gave fresh hope to a peace settlement, hopes that were soon dashed again. In Palestine parliamentary elections were held in early 2006 for the first time in 10 years. Hamas stunned the ruling Fatah party by easily winning the election. With Hamas refusing to recognise Israel, the US and EU imposed sanctions on Palestine. Israel also imposed a blockade on the Strip which exists to this day. The election result also led to the “fratricidal war” between Hamas and Fatah and the latter used its greater numbers in the West Bank to wrest back power there. Hamas remained entrenched in the Strip.
They also continued their low-level war against Israel with home-made Qassam rockets a constant irritant in border regions. In December 2008, Israel lost patience and launched Operation Cast Lead with a series of air strikes before a ground-based invasion in which over a thousand Palestinians were killed and most of Gaza’s infrastructure was destroyed in a three-week campaign. Today the border remains sealed and the IDF strictly controls travel to and from the area.
The end result may to be harden attitudes within the Strip that its future lies not as part of a united Palestine with the West Bank but as a separate country in its own right. It is this reality that no one in the region has yet confronted.