Magazine article The Christian Century

Gaza: A History

Magazine article The Christian Century

Gaza: A History

Article excerpt

Gaza: A History

By Jean-Pierre Filiu

Oxford University Press, 440 pp., $29.95

How begin to describe the Gaza Strip, which came into existence with the 1948 war--the War of Independence for Israelis and the nakba, or catastrophe, for Palestinians?

As I write this review, the Israeli military has begun a ground offensive into Gaza following days of Israeli aerial bombardment and rocket fire from Hamas and other Palestinian fighters. Many Israelis view Gaza as a hotbed of terrorism to be cordoned off and battered into submission, while for many Palestinians Gaza represents a six-decade-long disaster but also Palestinian endurance and resistance.

A fuller description of the Gaza Strip must go beyond the spectacular violence of the present moment. One could begin with basic geographic and demographic facts: the Gaza Strip has one of the world's highest population densities and one of the world's fastest growing populations, with over 1.8 million people living in a 141-square-mile territory (25 miles long and between four and seven miles wide), bounded by Egypt, the state of Israel, and the Mediterranean Sea, which is patrolled by the Israeli military. One could highlight Gaza's rich history, underscoring its strategic location next to the sea and its role as a key stopping point for caravans traveling between Egypt and the Arabian peninsula. One could stress that Gaza has been shaped over the centuries by Egyptian, Philistine, Byzantine, Crusader, and Islamic civilizations and could point to architectural gems like the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Porphyry, the Great Omari Mosque, and the still-functioning 14th-century bathhouse, Hamam al-Sammara. One could describe various aspects of Gaza's vibrant cultures, as Laila El-Haddad has done in her delightful cook book/ethnography The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey.

Or one could adopt the approach taken by Jean-Pierre Filiu, professor of Middle East studies at the Paris School of International Affairs at France's Sciences Po, and focus on Gaza's central role in the Palestinian national movement, especially after 1948. In Gaza: A History, Filiu offers a helpful corrective to narratives of Palestinian nationalism and resistance that focus on the West Bank or the Palestinian diaspora. Filiu reminds us that by the end of the 1948 war, the newly created Gaza Strip had become home to one quarter of the Palestinian population of the Palestine Mandate. Refugees had been driven into the Strip from their former dwellings in the Naqab desert, coastal towns like al-Majdal and Asdud, and even as far afield as Galilee. Today over two-thirds of the Gaza Strip's inhabitants are refugees registered with the United Nations, with many of those refugees living in the Strip's eight UN-operated refugee camps. Gaza is starkly representative of how the experience of exile has shaped Palestinian identity.

The core of Filiu's study is divided into three sections. In the first, "The Age of Mourning," Filiu examines the Palestinian resistance that coalesced in Gaza's refugee camps in the wake of the nakba. In the second section, "The Crushed Generation," he looks at how Palestinians in Gaza adjusted to Israel's military occupation of the Strip, and in the third, "The Generation of the Intifadas," he considers Gaza's leading role in the first intifada, the formation of the Palestinian National Authority in the wake of the Oslo Accords and its "Gaza-Jericho First" approach, and the outbreak of the second intifada as the hopes of the Oslo peace process crumbled.

Filiu's history of Gaza has several strengths, first and foremost his focused insistence on moving Gaza from the margins to the center of Palestinian history. Filiu also capably narrates the roots of Palestinian Islamism in the Gaza Strip, explaining how today's Hamas emerged from the Mujamma founded by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in the early 1970s as a competitor to the Palestine Liberation Organization's secular-nationalist politics, embodied by Fatah and various leftist parties. …

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