Prologue: Shakespeare in Gaza
Leyla Abdul Rahim had come to the line in Act IV of King Lear where the blinded Gloucester laments, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods. They kill us for their sport.’
Or, rather, the paraphrase offered in the textbook English for Palestine: ‘We are like flies and the gods are like cruel little boys. They torment us and kill us for fun.’
The teacher described children pulling the wings off a fly. ‘So the gods torment us for fun, to laugh, to play, okay?’ she said, quickly adding: ‘This is not related to our religion. It is away from our Islam. Allah doesn’t torment us, of course.’
It was tempting to point out from the back of the class that God isn’t supposed to do that in other monotheistic religions either. But that would have been an abuse of Mrs Abdul Rahim’s generous invitation to sit in on her Grade 12 English class at Bashir al-Rayyes High School for Girls in Gaza City. And the thirty students –preparing for the tawjihi, the high school matriculation, for which King Lear was a set text –were enjoying themselves.
Hands shot up and there were repeated cries of ‘Miss, Miss’ whenever Mrs Abdul Rahim tested her seventeen-year-old charges, all but one in the standard uniform of pale blue smock, jeans and white headscarf.
‘Goneril is now in love with Edmund. He’s evil. He’s like her exactly. Do you think Goneril respects her husband?’ (Chorus of ‘no’.)
When Mrs Abdul Rahim ended the lesson, the girls burst spontaneously into applause. After the class, Khulud al-Masharawi said in English that she liked the play because ‘Lear began to feel sorry for people other than himself. He thought about people who had no home, or are on their own.’
It took a moment to remember that this classroom tour de force had taken place in an isolated, overcrowded 140-square-mile strip of territory corralled by concrete walls and electronically monitored fences, ruled by an armed and proscribed Islamic faction, and succinctly described in recent memory by Condoleezza Rice as a ‘terrorist wasteland’. Gaza, as often, was failing to conform to its stereotype.
I had been brought to the Lear class by another English teacher, Jehan al-Okka. It was fair-minded of her, because she harboured doubts about the suitability for Gaza schoolgirls of Shakespeare’s tragedies, a sentiment clearly not shared by her colleague. For Jehan, Lear was at least an improvement on Romeo and Juliet. She had been among a group of Gaza teachers who staged a successful mini-uprising against a decision to include Romeo and Juliet in that year’s English curriculum for the tawjihi. (Despite the schism between Hamas and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority since Hamas’s seizure of control in June 2007, the PA continued to supervise the syllabus from its Ramallah base for Gaza as well as the West Bank.)
Jehan was convinced that Romeo and Juliet was the wrong play at the wrong time. ‘It encourages suicide and disobeying parents,’ she said. Jehan was also concerned that some of her pupils, upon learning that they were to study the play, had downloaded the film version; more, she thought, for the ‘immoral scenes’ rather than any educational purpose. She was relaxed about university students studying the play but felt it was unsuitable for impressionable teenagers.
As it happened, Romeo and Juliet had been part of the high school syllabus from the years when Gaza had been under Egyptian control and then after the Six Day War and Israeli conquest in 1967. But Jehan, who wasn’t in Hamas, saw a ‘contradiction’between Islamic culture and ‘the things that Shakespeare is trying to convey in his tragedies’. She spoke of the conditions in Gaza: the ten-year Israeli blockade crippling Gaza’s economy which, she believed, had led to a rise in crime. ‘I’m not saying King Lear is encouraging it, but we are trying to reduce violence in our country. And for people who have psychological problems this makes it looks glamorous.’
When she was teaching Lear she said she was careful to warn her pupils: ‘this is not in our culture. None of you will do this.’ Despite her doubts, Jehan took pride in the conscientiousness with which she taught the play. And she was popular. Abir, one seventeen-year-old in the science stream class Jehan took for English, gently defied her teacher by saying she wouldn’t mind studying Romeo and Juliet instead of Lear.
When we discussed the right age to get married, none of the girls wanted to do so before their twenties, despite the tradition of early marriage prevalent in some sections of Gaza society. But the independent-minded Abir suggested the highest age of all: twenty-eight.
Jehan explained that some two-thirds of science stream pupils wanted to be doctors – ‘It’s a dream,’ she said. But Abir wanted to be an engineer. Were there many women engineers in Gaza? ‘Yes, many,’ the teacher said crisply, ‘without jobs. Unemployed.
’Back in the principal’s office we returned to the subject of the English set text. ‘Why give the students something that is full of misery?’ she asked. ‘The students, when someone dies – they are all like, “why is he doing this, the writer?” Everyone dies by the end and the lovely Cordelia dies. Some of the students cried when I said Cordelia died.
When I studied at university I was old enough to understand the value. For children, when they read something they take the image – killing, suicide, treason. And life in Gaza is bad enough not to increase that misery.’
This was the most challenging of Jehan’s points. She was right, for example, that suicide among young Gazans seemed to be on the rise. Are there societies so under pressure that they cannot safely absorb Shakespearean tragedy? Whatever Jehan’s concerns, the prevailing Gaza answer to that question appeared to be no.
At Gaza City’s al-Mis’hal Cultural Centre, a staged version of Romeo and Juliet ran to appreciative audiences for eight nights in early May 2016. The prominent Gaza writer Atef Abu Saif and the director Ali Abu Yassin had set the play in modern Gaza with the star-crossed lovers Yousef and Suha belonging to each of the main rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah, instead of to the Montagues and Capulets.
It opened in a café where a clean-shaven Fatah doctor and a bearded Hamas businessman fall into an argument until they are thrown out by the owner. The café owner represented the Gazan everyman, enraged by the split between the two factions that has deformed Palestinian politics since 2007.
But the ending differed from Shakespeare’s. Warned by the café owner that Suha’s family will never accept Yousef as an in-law, the young man, with the cries of Suha imploring him to stay ringing in his ears, leaves for Egypt through the tunnels to catch a boat for Europe, just like the dozens of Gazans believed to have drowned on a fatal voyage to Malta in September 2014.
Nor did the denouement resolve the split between the two factions, as it had in the original. After years of futile meetings aimed at Fatah–Hamas reconciliation, such a finale would probably be too implausible for an audience of Palestinians now deeply cynical about the prospects of such a desirable outcome.
Nor was this the only Gaza commemoration of Shakespeare’s death in the summer of 2016: students at the Nusseirat refugee camp in the middle of the Strip mounted their own video performance of Lear. It was advertised outside the Centre by a handsome poster of James Barry’s eighteenth-century painting, King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia. True, Cordelia’s (very modest) décolletage had been Photoshopped to leave an orange blur in its place. But this was the only concession to the socially conservative sensibilities of Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
The show was an imaginatively produced series of drawn and photographic tableaux with a voiceover by the high school pupils in faultless English and some entertaining visual effects. Lear’s palace was Blenheim, while Regan’s home was Buckingham Palace, complete with ceremonial troop of Grenadier Guards representing her visiting father’s unwelcome entourage. There were no Arabic subtitles. But as it was condensed into thirty-one minutes with every plot development intact, none of the parents who had loyally turned out for the evening seemed to mind.
First, there were speeches. Dr Kamal Ghunaim, an Islamic University professor and chairman of the Centre’s trustees, was convinced that Shakespeare had read the Qur’an and suggested that Othello had ‘contextualised’ the work of the ninth-century Arab poet Deek al-Jinn al-Homsi, who talked about killing his wife after being told to do so by his cousin.
Dr Ghunaim explained that the Lear project ‘aims to help bridge the gaps between Palestinians and other nations’. Yet before we sat down for the evening, I had asked the Directorate’s Head of English whether the British Council had been involved in the event. No, he said sadly. The Ministry’s contact with the Council had stopped in 2006, when Hamas was elected. The international political and economic boycott of Hamas was a cultural boycott, too.
Jehan al-Okka, the Bashir al-Rayyes High School Shakespeare sceptic, was thrilled in 2016 to be awarded a place on a US government-backed international six-week Excellence and Achievement Programme for teachers at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, coupled with a visit to Washington, DC. Among the programme’s aims was the building of ‘lasting relationships that promote mutual understanding and collaboration between the United States and international teachers and students through educational and cultural exchanges’.
Except that in an experience wearily familiar to Palestinians in Gaza, Mrs al-Okka was refused by both Israel and Jordan the permits necessary for her to be able to leave. Maybe she wouldn’t have been converted to Romeo and Juliet as a high school text. But you couldn’t help thinking of the lively insights this spirited and engaging woman would have brought to discussions about teaching English in the Arab world.
Amid the convulsions of the Middle East, from Syria to Libya, from Iraq to Yemen –and that of Gaza itself over the last fifteen years – a crushing mid-career disappointment inflicted on a high school teacher unable to improve her skills abroad seems trivial. But it was part of a larger story: Palestinian, Israeli and international, a story of how and why a population of two million at the south-east corner of the Mediterranean became so beleaguered and isolated from the outside world.
From Ottomans to Oslo, 1917–1995
Reached by a sandy track through tall cypresses, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery is the most tranquil spot in the whole of the Gaza Strip. These days its vast lawn and carefully tended beds of geranium and rosemary are a refuge for picnicking families and those who simply want to meditate quietly in the shade of the cemetery’s oleander and jacaranda trees.
But the neat rows of 3,217 graves are also a reminder of Britain’s pivotal role in shaping modern Gaza. After terrible losses in the French trenches of the First World War, the new Prime Minister David Lloyd George wanted a quick, high-profile victory over the Germans’ Ottoman allies, the imperial power in the Middle East for five centuries. What better conquest than Jerusalem?
Following in the footsteps of great leaders of the past – Thutmose III, the great Egyptian warrior Pharaoh in the fifteenth century bce; Saladin, the general who led the Arabs against the crusaders; and Napoleon – the only route into Palestine was through Gaza.
Sir Archibald Murray established a major camp at Deir el Balah (‘Dear old Bella’to the British Tommies) but twice failed to take the city in the spring and summer of 1917. Under Sir Edmund Allenby, who replaced Murray, the imperial forces broke through the Ottoman lines between Gaza and Beersheba despite fierce resistance; Allenby’s troops marched into Gaza City unopposed in November 1917. Within a month, Allenby was in Jerusalem, realising Lloyd George’s dream of capturing it by Christmas.
Gravestone after gravestone –more than 700 of them inscribed with the anonymous ‘A soldier of the Great War: Known unto God’– commemorate the men of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force killed during the three assaults. Eighty-year-old Ibrahim Jaradeh, the gardener awarded the MBE for looking after the cemetery with his family over more than half a century, said the British had always been good to him although, ‘of course, my job here made me hate war. These soldiers lost their lives when they were young.’
For a man who hated war Jaradeh had seen a lot of it: as well as caring for the graves of thousands who had fallen in the 1917 military campaign for Palestine, he himself had lived through an even more epic turning point for his nation thirty years later.
Five days before Allenby’s troops had entered Gaza City, the British government had taken a momentous step, setting in train a process that would eventually culminate in that second war.
In a letter to Lord Rothschild, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour wrote: ‘His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’
While the Balfour declaration was a response to the long-standing Zionist urgings for a national home in Palestine after centuries of anti-Semitism and persecution in Europe and Russia, it was largely dictated by what the British government determined were its strategic interests. It held out the prospect of persuading Jewish leaders abroad to stiffen the resolve of the US, whose hesitant entry into the war was disappointing British expectations.
At the same time, the secret Sykes–Picot negotiations with France to carve up the Middle East between the two powers after the war had been unable to reach agreement on Palestine, deciding it should be run by some form of postwar international administration. Thanks to Allenby’s decisive victory, the British were now anxious to retain control.
As the historian Eugene Rogan put it: ‘On the face of it, Lord Balfour was offering Palestine to the Zionist movement. In fact Lloyd George’s government was using the Zionist movement to secure Palestine for British rule.’
In doing so, however, it cut directly across the promises of independence from foreign rule with which Britain had enticed the Arab leadership to rise up against the Ottomans in the First World War – aspirations which would be further encouraged by US President Woodrow Wilson’s dramatic pledge at the 1919 Paris conference of ‘an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development’ in the region.
It was hardly surprising that the increase in Jewish immigration between the two world wars would meet with stiff resistance, expressed in the Arab riots of 1929 and a full-scale revolt in 1936.
Britain, now exercising power in Palestine under a League of Nations mandate, would prove unequal to the task of reconciling the two conflicting aims of providing a ‘national home’ for the Jews while preserving the rights of its ‘non-Jewish’–overwhelmingly Arab –‘communities’, who were in the clear majority. Palestine would gradually become enmeshed in a triangle of rising and lethal violence between the Arabs, the Jewish underground and British forces.
As David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first Prime Minister, had clear-sightedly remarked after the 1929 riots: ‘Politically speaking it is a national movement . . . The Arab must not and cannot be a Zionist. He could never wish the Jews to become a majority. This is the true antagonism between us and the Arabs. We both want to be the majority.’
By the end of the Second World War the monstrous events which had unfolded in Europe – Hitler’s murder of some six million Jews in the Holocaust –immeasurably strengthened the case for a Jewish home in Palestine. Unable to find the basis of a peace agreement, Britain handed the problem to the UN, which in 1947 proposed a Palestine of two states: a Jewish one covering fifty-six per cent of the land and an Arab one on forty-four per cent.
Most nations, including the US – after intial hesitation – and the Soviet Union, supported the partition proposal. But Arab leaders, both in Palestine and outside it, flatly rejected it. They saw partition of Palestine as requiring them, after having lived peacefully in earlier centuries with a local Jewish minority, and despite the promises of independence made by the Western powers during and after the First World War, not only to accept on their land, but also on a large part of it become subject to, a state controlled by immigrants from Europe – albeit including those fleeing persecution and now survivors of Hitler’s genocide.
In 1947 the Arabs were still a two-thirds majority in Palestine. Cities like Haifa and Jaffa, designated as part of the Jewish state by the UN partition resolution, had large Arab majorities; the Arabs owned ninety-four per cent of Palestinian land and eighty per cent of its arable farmland.
In fact a minority of Palestinians did support partition. A heavily autobiographical novel, Would They Ever Learn? by Mustafa Abdel Shafi, a Palestinian surgeon from an old Gaza family, gives a rare glimpse of Gaza in the 1940s and early ’50s.
The life and loves of his hero, a conscientious and ambitious doctor named Basil, are set against the turbulent political background of the period. Coming from a family untainted by anti-Jewish prejudice –his father had been horrified by the Arab massacre of Jews in Hebron and elsewhere in 1929 – Basil (like the author and his more famous brother Haidar, in real life) is among those who had very reluctantly taken the (almost taboo) view that they should accept the partition resolution.
‘The plan is painful and unfair . . . but we cannot resist it, ’Basil says at a family discussion. ‘Let’s suppose, for argument’s sake, that we had the military power. Would the powers that be sit hand-bound and watch us frustrate what they had schemed for so diligently? . . . They would invoke shameful incidents, of which we are completely innocent, to justify their action. They would remind the whole world of the atrocities of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Dachau to justify their determination to create a national home for the Jews in Palestine. We should follow the common saying “If you cannot beat them join them.” Let’s brace up, build our own state and let the future take care of itself.’
In view of subsequent events, this was far sighted, seen from the vantage point of a twenty-first century in which Palestinians are struggling for a state on twenty-two per cent of the land, half of what they were offered in 1947.
But if rejection of the partition plan was as great an error as it is often described in hindsight – an ‘Arab mistake as a whole’ as the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, twelve at the time of the UN resolution, put it in 2015 – then the UK’s Labour government had done little to discourage it. Britain was drained militarily and economically by the Second World War, and armed insurrection – terrorism, as the British classified it – by Jewish groups had hardened public opinion at home against staying in Palestine.
Britain abstained in the General Assembly vote. And having already decided to wind up its Mandate in May 1948, it did not seek to enforce the UN resolution.
On the day the Mandate ended David Ben-Gurion declared Israel an independent state. The first major foreign leader to recognise the fledgling country was US President Harry Truman (the second was Stalin). Truman had ignored the advice of his own State Department, which had been seeking a postponement of Ben-Gurion’s declaration in the hope of averting war between the Jews and their Arab neighbours.
With a domestic election campaign only six months away, Truman had an eye on Jewish support – which could hardly be other than enthusiastic about the new state of Israel after the horrors of the Holocaust. As when the Americans had voted with the majority at the UN Assembly the previous November, Truman’s recognition of the new nation –especially when contrasted with the slowness of Britain – would indelibly reinforce the Israeli view that the US was its most important supporter. Though occasionally complicated by serious disputes, the US–Israel relationship would deepen significantly over the next half-century.
By now Gaza had become, like the rest of Palestine, engulfed in what became, for Israel, the War of Independence; and for Palestinians the nakba, or catastrophe. The military ‘Plan D’evolved by the Hagana, the paramilitary Jewish defence organisation which became the Israel Defense Forces after Israel’s birth, was to secure territory allocated to the Jewish state in the UN partition plan, ‘as well as settlements outside those areas and corridors leading to them so as to provide a solid and continuous basis for Jewish sovereignty’.
A few years later, ‘Basil’, who, despite his reluctant backing of partition, remains a nationalist to his core, tells a Jewish audience in the American town where he is by then working that ‘they planned to occupy as much Arab territory as they could, trying to evacuate it of its rightful inhabitants’. Basil goes on to cite ‘the notorious massacre of Deir Yassin where scores of innocent unarmed men, women and children were killed in cold blood’. This, he says, was ‘aimed at terrorising other Arab villagers, to make them leave their homes . . .’
Whether or not it was the ‘aim’, the April 1948 massacre at Deir Yassin, a village outside Jerusalem (which was in turn followed by the retaliatory killing of seventy-three Jews in a convoy travelling to the Hadassah Hospital-Hebrew University complex in Jerusalem) did indeed give a ‘powerful push to the flight of Arabs from their homes elsewhere.
In fact there were two wars, or a war of two phases. The first civil or ‘ethnic’war between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine lasted from the UN partition resolution in November 1947 until Ben-Gurion’s declaration of the state in May 1948. The second, from May 1948, was between the newly founded Israel and the armies of neighbouring Arab states that arrived to support the Palestinians: Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt, the last of which, for obvious geographical reasons, formed a southern front that included Gaza and its surrounding countryside.
According to Uri Avnery, who fought as a commando on the Jewish side in the 1947–8 war and later became a pioneering left-wing peace activist, it was in the second phase that ‘a deliberate policy of expelling the Arabs [living in Palestinian towns and villages] became an [Israeli] war aim on its own’. As Avnery also pointed out, no Jews remained in the land the Arabs conquered – like the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. But that hardly compared with over 700,000 Arabs driven by the Jewish advances from their homes into permanent exile, internal or external, or with hundreds of Palestinian villages which (unlike the handful of Jewish neighbourhoods conquered by the Arabs but recovered twenty years later after the Six Day War) were subsequently destroyed.
Refugees poured into Gaza not just from the surrounding villages but from major towns like Jaffa, Ashdod, Majdal (now Ashkelon, where Mustafa Abdel Shafi had been a GP) and Beersheba as they fell to the Israeli forces. The Gaza cemetery gardener Ibrahim Jaradeh’s family fled Beersheba, which was repeatedly hit by strafing and bombing by the Israeli air force on the nights of 19 and 20 October 1948.
Israeli ground troops moved into the town on 21 October, in a conquest ‘accompanied by the execution of a handful of Egyptian POWs and wholesale looting by individuals and military units’.
Aged eleven at the time, Jaradeh remembered the journey by camel to Hebron where they were eventually given temporary housing through the winter of 1948. ‘So it wasn’t only the immigration, God also made it harder with the cold and snow, we used to sleep next to each other, holding the [younger] kids to make them feel warm with the very light blankets.’
Then the family, plus two camels, and, said Jaradeh, a monkey, made for Gaza. His younger brother travelled in one of the camel’s saddle bags. Sixty-nine years later he told his British visitor that Ethel Mannin’s The Road to Beersheba was an authentic account of how ‘Israel stole our land’, but then added quietly: ‘God willing things will be for the better, we ask God for peace for the Jews and for the Arabs.’
Many refugees, including Jaradeh’s family (and indeed Gamal Abdel Nasser, who served as an Egyptian officer in the Gaza district during the war), blamed Egyptian failures for the loss of territory. Attia Hijazi was twenty-two and living in Deir Sneid, only half a kilometre from the Gaza district kibbutz of Yad Mordechai.
His father was the village mukhtar (local leader). ‘We had good relations with them [the Jews] before the war. They were Palestinian Jews and immigrants. My father regularly visited the Jews’ mukhtar. We were connected by the common interest of agriculture.’ When the war started, the residents were determined to prevent the village from being captured. But, said Hijazi, ‘when the Egyptian army came during the war they told our fighters they could take a rest, saying, “We’ll do it.”
’The Egyptians occupied Yad Mordechai after a five-day battle in May during which the local kibbutzniks, aided by a Hagana unit, had held out under heavy Egyptian bombardment, allowing Israeli forces time to halt the Egyptian army’s northern push. Hijazi said that when the Egyptians started to fall back to Deir Sneid, ‘the Jews attacked them, and we understood that the Egyptian army was covering its withdrawal, not fighting.
By October, they left us all with no protection whatever and the Jews bombarded the place. My brother was injured. When we saw the Egyptian flag coming down at Yad Mordechai [in November], we left for Beit Lahiya [in Gaza].’
By the winter 13,500 refugees were sheltered in a former British Army camp at Bureij, south of Gaza City. ‘They had staked out little cubicles for themselves using rags or flattened gasoline tins. Everyone was very dirty and cold. In one cubicle we saw a group of ten people ranging in age from infancy to about seventy looking at an old woman on the floor who had just died.’
By then Basil/Abdel Shafi had become the only doctor at a clinic servicing refugees in Khan Yunis and agitating against the ‘unacceptable’ insanitary conditions in the camp, where, according to an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimate, children were dying at the rate of around ten a day.
The war ended with an armistice signed by Israel and Egypt in February 1949, followed by similar agreements with Syria and Jordan in the succeeding months. These divided what had been Palestine into three separate parts: first the new state of Israel, of course; second, a landlocked 5,640-square-kilometre territory under Jordanian control which contained East Jerusalem (including the Old City) and a sector that became known as (and still is) the West Bank (of the Jordan river); and, finally, the ‘Gaza Strip’, which came under Egyptian control and was cut off from the Jordanian-run East Jerusalem and the West Bank by what was now southern Israel.
Israel had been offered fifty-six per cent of Palestine under the UN partition plan. It now held seventy-eight per cent; the rest was made up of Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The armistice brought little relief for the now 200,000 refugees in Gaza, numerically overwhelming the existing population. (There were up to 750,000 Palestinian refugees in all from what was now Israel: 280,000 in the West Bank, and most of the rest in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.) A new body, the UN Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA), had taken over from Quakers and others who had been caring for them voluntarily.
A year later Sir Ronald Storrs, who had been Britain’s first military governor, launched a series of appeals for clothing to be donated to UNRWA for refugees who had ‘fled their homes of more than 1,000 years’, quoting a UN official at one camp describing ‘children by the hundred, most of them half naked – shoeless, shivering.’
Uri Avnery always believed the moment that determined the subsequent history of the conflict was not so much the expulsion and flight of the refugees itself; rather, that ‘the real decision was taken after the war: not to allow the 750,000 Arab refugees to return to their homes’.
The decision was ruthlessly enforced. Mustafa Abdel Shafi’s autobiographical novel describes his own indelible memory of carrying out post-mortems of impoverished refugees shot dead by Israeli forces on the new armistice line as they tried to get back to the villages where ‘they had earned their living by hard work’, if only to retrieve a few belongings: ‘There was a dead man, riddled with bullets and his intestines were exposed, for the first time Basil saw maggots in action; it was a ghastly scene . . . On the way back he wondered when the massacre of these innocent, ignorant and unarmed people was going to stop.’
The plight of many of Gaza’s non-refugees was hardly better. The Gaza Strip was now under Egyptian control, but the armistice lines made it far narrower than the old Gaza district under the British Mandate; forty-one kilometres long and a mere twelve at its widest point. As a result peasant farmers whose land lay beyond the armistice line, and therefore in Israel, simply lost their livelihoods. Nor were they afforded even the rudimentary provision for refugees; their woefully undernourished children were sent begging, and some of the poorest were reduced to selling the doors and windows of their houses and even timber from the roofs.
D. C. Stephen, the district officer of UNRWA, which became and still is to this day responsible for the education and welfare of the refugees, pointed out that the native Gazans had previously ‘made a fair livelihood according to standards generally accepted in the Middle East’. ‘They are of a proud race and it is as degrading for them as it would be for us to be in their present position . . . The setting of the present boundary by the “Powers that Be” means that the people of Gaza have completely lost their only means of existence.’
Over the following eighteen years, Gaza –now under Egypt’s control – played a pivotal part in the hostilities between Israel and its Arab neighbours, which culminated in all-out war in 1967.
The 1955 Gaza Raid, authorised by then Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion after Palestinian infiltrators killed an Israeli cyclist, and led by twenty-seven-year-old paratroop officer Ariel Sharon, killed thirty-seven Egyptian soldiers at a cost of eight IDF lives. It almost certainly put paid to a secret dialogue between Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Israel’s dovish Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, which might have dented the unremitting hostility of Arab countries towards the eight-year-old Israeli state.
Instead, after the raid Nasser, who had hitherto restrained Palestinian fedayeen –nationalist volunteer militants mostly from refugee families – allowed them to carry out commando raids across the Gaza border. Ben-Gurion, who soon became Prime Minister again, in turn adopted a much more confrontational policy towards Egypt.
The secret partnership between the United Kingdom, France and Israel to confront Nasser after he decided to nationalise the Suez Canal in July 1956 ended in disaster for the first two governments, causing head-on confrontation with US President Eisenhower and leaving the Canal in the hands of Nasser, whose prestige in the region greatly increased in the wake of the Anglo–French fiasco. But, at least in the short term, it was a military triumph for Israel, which overran both Gaza and the Sinai Desert in Egypt.
Although Ben-Gurion too was forced to bow to US pressure, in his case to withdraw from both Gaza and the Sinai, and he did not succeed in overthrowing Nasser as he wanted, nevertheless the Israeli military destroyed the main fedayeen bases in Gaza during its four-month occupation of the Strip. And he secured a US guarantee that Egypt would allow free passage for ships bringing Iranian oil for Israel through the Straits of Tiran.
In the following decade, which passed without military conflict between Egypt and Israel, Nasser moved to bring Palestinian nationalism under the wing of the Arab states, and Egypt in particular. He took the lead in the Arab League’s formation in 1964 of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) with its military arm, the Palestinian Liberation Army; their stated aims were the ‘restoration of the Palestinian homeland’–including the return of the 1948 refugees to their original homes in what was now Israel. In practice the PLA came under the strict control of its Egyptian, Iraqi and Syria sponsor governments.
Nasser was also seeking to curb the activities of the more militant and independent Fatah. On 22 May 1967 Nasser decided to close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. This was a dangerously provocative step, though it is unlikely Nasser intended it to lead to war. The Six Day War, which did indeed break out a fortnight later, on 4 June, was arguably the only Arab–Israeli war that ‘neither side wanted’.
Nasser was under mounting Arab pressure to show solidarity with Egypt’s ally Syria, whose border with Israel was the focus of an escalating series of incidents culminating in an aerial battle in which six Syrian MIGs were shot down in April. The historian Avi Shlaim has persuasively depicted Nasser as having embarked ‘on an exercise in brinkmanship that was to carry him over the brink’, while also rejecting a widespread Arab view that Israel deliberately provoked the war to expand its territory.
The huge expansion that did indeed follow Israel’s stunning military victory against the forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, was a consequence rather than a specific war aim. This did not make it any less traumatic for the Palestinians in the conquered territory. Israel now occupied all the land that since the 1949 armistice had been controlled by Jordan (the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including its holy sites) and by Egypt (Gaza).
By 1967, the tents and makeshift huts in the still crowded and impoverished refugee camps set up in 1948 had largely been replaced by UNRWA with more solid housing. But the somewhat better conditions added to the bleak sense of permanent displacement among refugees, now reinforced by the catastrophic defeat of the Arab states. For the refugees it meant being controlled by the very forces who had driven them from their homes –sometimes on land that, painfully, they could still see from inside the Strip –nineteen years earlier.
Mohammed Kardash, who was thirty-three and living in Jabalya at the time, remembered with disgust forty years later the bombastic claims of Ahmed Said, the Egyptians’ propagandist-in-chief, who declared Israeli warplanes were ‘falling like flies’, when in fact Egypt’s air force was destroyed on the first day of the June war. ‘We huddled round the radio all the time to listen to him. I believed what he was saying and so did everyone else. He said, “I congratulate the fish of the Mediterranean because they will eat the flesh of Jews.” ’Still furious at the deception, Kardash added: ‘There is a stain of shame in the way he was talking.’
After the war, Kardash, who had originally been brought to Gaza in a Turkish boat by his parents fleeing from his native Jaffa in 1948, would now be a refugee again, this time in Jordan, part of a limited and ill-starred scheme by then Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to evacuate (with some money) refugees from Gaza after the 1967 war. (In fact, Kardash had hidden two rifles for his brother who had been in the Palestine Liberation Army. After what he said was a beating, ‘the [Israeli] army gave me a choice,’ he says, ‘to go to prison or to leave Gaza’. He never revealed the whereabouts of the rifles.)
It was after the Six Day War that Fatah, the secular resistance organisation founded by Yasser Arafat ten years earlier, began its ascendancy in the Palestinian liberation movement. In 1969 it joined and immediately dominated the PLO.
Arafat, whose chequered keffiyeh and battledress would become the global symbol of Palestinian struggle, had been born in Cairo to Palestinian parents. He had studied in the Egyptian capital, fought in the 1948 war and founded Fatah in the early fifties in Kuwait with a group including two Gaza-based refugees, both to become prominent PLO leaders.
The militancy repressed by the occupation of 1956 resumed in Gaza after the Six Day War. Within a few months of the war ending, the military occupying authorities began to allow Palestinians out through Erez, the Strip’s northern crossing, to work in Israel. This would begin what was to be for three decades a major source of income for tens of thousands of Gaza’s families, albeit one entirely dependent on Israeli goodwill and the demand for cheap labour.
As a boy growing up in the poor and overcrowded Shaboura district of the Rafah refugee camp, Fathi Sabbah, who would later become an activist and later still a leading journalist, remembered armed militants throwing grenades at Israeli buses transporting the workers, as well as ambushing soldiers in the camps’ narrow alleys and attacking military bases. ‘There was a saying that the Palestinian militants were ruling Gaza at night and the Israeli army in the daytime,’ he recalled.
In 1971 Ariel Sharon – by now in charge of the IDF’s Southern Command – moved large forces into the refugee camps in a remorseless operation to crush the nascent resistance. Hundreds of Palestinians were killed in Gaza in 1971–2 and thousands more detained and sometimes deported. His troops conducted house-to-house searches under curfew, bulldozed thousands of houses to create buffer zones and widen the roads to allow armoured vehicles easier movement through the camps.
In Shaboura, Sabbah recalled, ‘the only street that was paved with asphalt was for security reasons, not for helping people. It wasn’t easy for their vehicles to withdraw. So they destroyed hundreds of houses and they deported people from Shaboura to the Canada and Brazil camps. ’Those two camps – named after the UN national contingents that briefly patrolled the border immediately after the 1956 Sinai campaign – were located on either side of what became the closed border, which cut Rafah in two and left thousands of Palestinians stranded on the Egyptian side.
Now in 1971 – after the mass exodus of 1948 and further displacements in 1967 –refugees were on the move again. Sharon’s draconian tactics were successful.
Elsewhere in the region, the following decade was turbulent: the ‘Black September’ conflict between the PLO and Jordan, the massacre of athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, Anwar Sadat’s decision to address the Knesset in Jerusalem in 1977, the Israel–Egypt peace agreement in 1979 and Sadat’s subsequent assassination in 1981.
But Gaza was relatively calm. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan’s ‘invisible’ occupation policy of trying to ensure ‘that areas of friction between the two [Israeli and Palestinian] peoples are minimal’ was intended to dilute Palestinian nationalism; but it had financial benefits.
The opening of the borders to daily migrant workers was one; another was allowing farmers and manufacturers to trade with Israeli companies, though with restrictions to ensure their exports did not adversely compete with Israeli business (while no such restrictions applied to imports from Israel to Gaza). Exports abroad – beyond Israel and the West Bank –were invariably handled by Israeli agents. But when a generation later exports of goods and labour were barred and unemployment shot up above forty per cent, and above sixty per cent for youth, older Palestinian civilians often looked back on the 1970s as –paradoxically –something of a silver age.
Munir Dweik started work in Israel at the age of fifteen. He had grown up in a desperately poor family of refugees in the Jabalya camp. His parents had been peasant farmers from Batani al-Gharbi, east of Ashdod, one of the villages targeted – and in most cases mortared – by incoming Israeli troops in May 1948 during the IDF’s Operation Lightning, under which the Givati Brigade was ordered to deny ‘the enemy a base for their future operations . . . by creating general panic’.
In a circuitous flight typical of the times, the Dweik family fled to Gaza through neighbouring villages, moving on as each also fell. With his father unable to find regular work, his steadfast and resourceful mother decided that tourmos – lupin beans, a regional staple and universally popular in Gaza – could provide a living for the family.
Half a century later, now a fifty-two-year-old taxi driver, Dweik recalled every detail of the process. First his mother bought a sack of lupin beans and boiled them in a large saucepan; then she decanted the beans into half a dozen separate earthenware pots filled with sugary water to counter their natural bitterness. She changed the water three times a day, over several days, until they tasted good enough to eat. At 8 a.m., Dweik and his father would carry them in sacks 2.5 kilometres from the refugee camp to Beit Lahiya to sell, shouting ‘tourmos, tourmos’ when they arrived; if they could find a wedding, they might sell out by noon; if not they stayed into the afternoon.
Dweik remembered the journeys back to Jabalya in summer on the scorching sand. His father had plastic shoes but he had none; sometimes to cool his feet he would sit on the ground and put his legs in the air. ‘It was boiling. Sometimes I was making a pee, and then put my feet in the pee to cool them, after that I was running, running to find some shade and wait for my father.’
A school friend suggested Dweik join him working as a chicken plucker and cleaner for a shopkeeper in Tel Aviv during the summer holidays. The boys took the bus through Erez early in the morning from Monday to Thursday, earning about 150 shekels a week. When he was sixteen, Dweik decided to work in Israel full-time; his mother resisted strongly because she wanted him to stay at school and complete his education, despite the parlous state of the family finances. ‘This is your future, you should continue studying and learning – maybe you could become a teacher or a doctor,’ his mother told him.
Remembering his mother’s warmth and selflessness, Dweik put his hands over his face to cover his tears. From 1981 until restrictions were imposed on Palestinian workers in Israel during the 1990–91 Gulf War, Dweik worked full-time in Israel. As he improved his skills and became fluent in Hebrew, he worked for several Jewish employers, each of whom successively poached him with higher pay, till he was earning around 450 shekels a week. Dweik remembered nearly all his employers with affection.
By now the right-wing Likud government elected in 1977 and led by Menachem Begin had begun to expand Jewish settlements in occupied territory. Like Palestinian refugee camps, settlements are the object of a frequent popular misconception. The camps now consist not of tents but residential buildings, even if usually ramshackle and heavily overcrowded, set along dusty narrow alleys.
Similarly, settlements are not normally the remote, hastily assembled barbed wire-protected hilltop clusters of caravans the word conjures in the foreign imagination. Such outposts – many illegal even in Israeli law – have always existed, and usually as an embryonic settlement or the expansion of an existing one. But most settlements proper, essentially colonies in occupied territory, would in time become well-planned communities, often close to Palestinian villages or towns, and typically comprised red-roofed villas, often with shops, synagogues and leisure centres, making ample use of local water and land for agriculture and domestic purposes.
The rural ones were and still are normally protected from the Palestinians (to whom they were such a daily affront) by their own armed security details, and by IDF troops stationed in the vicinity. Not only did the Palestinians see their land, including pastures and olive groves, swallowed up by the settlements and their surrounding military security zones, but they themselves, unlike the settlers, who enjoyed normal civil rights as Israeli citizens, were subject to the Israeli military justice system.
The biggest settlements, those bordering the 1949–67 ‘green line’, like, say, Maale Adumim, close to Jerusalem, or Ariel, a great residential finger stretching through the West Bank from east to west, became essentially dormitory cities, many of whose breadwinners would work in Israel itself.
The settlement building in Gaza and the West Bank had started, albeit falteringly, after the Six Day War under a Labour government, despite the written opinion of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s own legal adviser, submitted in secret to ministers, that it contravened international law, especially the Fourth Geneva convention, for a country to transfer civilians to occupied territory.
That might be less significant had the lawyer not been Theodor Meron, who rose to become one of the world’s most eminent international jurists and President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. A Holocaust survivor, Meron has never recanted, and in 2007 confirmed that this was still his opinion.
Yet despite that legal view, widely shared by most Western governments, settlements steadily multiplied during the seventies in the West Bank and Gaza – where the most rapid growth would take place in the eighties. And that in turn convinced many Palestinians that Israel felt no real international pressure to end the occupation. For this and other reasons, the relative calm in Gaza in the early 1970s could not last indefinitely.
The Palestinian sense of abandonment increased with the 1979 Egypt–Israel Treaty; Sadat effectively subordinated the Palestinian cause to Egypt’s own interests and Begin had little intention of implementing even the severely limited provisions for Palestinian autonomy contained in the treaty terms.
At the same time, the factions were beginning to stir again. Fathi Sabbah recalled that when he joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a smaller leftist faction within the PLO, in 1981 as a nineteen-year-old, he was part of a consciousness-raising group. ‘Our main duty was to read about what happened in the nakba . . . then we make a presentation to the group about it.’ The group then passed on what they had learned to high school students and others.
The PFLP was rooted in the left and, unlike the Communist Party, had not rejected armed struggle. Its members studied Marx, Engels, Maxim Gorky, Che Guevara. They idolised Ghassan Kanafani, a PFLP official and among the greatest of Palestinian twentieth-century writers, assassinated by Israel in 1972 at the age of thirty-six.
The PFLP also ran social programmes, including food donations, house repairs and street cleaning.
GAZA, Preparing for Dawn
by Donald Macintyre
get it at Amazon.com