The current conflict in Gaza is the third since 2008. If nothing is done to address the root causes, any cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas will only be a pause before the next outbreak of violence. The collective impotence of the world’s leaders is striking, since the Gaza Strip is, within the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a far less complex issue to handle than East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
All parties have endorsed the Gaza Strip’s borders, which were drawn in 1949 at the end of the first Arab-Israeli war. The last Israeli settler left Gaza in 2005, after Ariel Sharon opted for a unilateral withdrawal, similar to Ehud Barak’s disengagement from southern Lebanon in 2000. There is no religious site in the Gaza Strip to be contested by Muslims, Jews and Christians.
Many Israelis dream of waking one morning to discover that Gaza has gone away (or been annexed by Egypt, a softer version of such a fantasy). But Gaza is there to stay, with its 1.8 million people crowded into 141 square miles (365 square kilometers). How did this tiny slice of the Mediterranean coastline become one of the most wretched spots on earth?
Over the centuries, travelers have remarked on the fecundity of Gaza’s vegetation. The Gaza Valley, which runs down into the Mediterranean coast, south of the modern city, is a refuge for migrant birds and small animals. Gaza was once the leading exporter of barley in the region; more recently, it has been a producer of citrus. Perched between the Levant and the Sinai and Negev deserts, Gaza has had the misfortune of being at the crossroads of empires.
Gaza City, slightly inland and adjacent to a natural harbor, has been inhabited for at least 3,500 years. The first historical reference to the loose subsoil of Gaza — which has made possible the network of Hamas tunnels targeted by Israel in the latest conflict — dates to Alexander the Great, whose forces besieged the Arab garrison for three months and eventually sacked the city, filling six ships with booty. Some 1,500 years later — following the emergence of Islam and sporadic rule by crusaders — Gaza was the westernmost point of the Mongol advance. Centuries later, it was seized (briefly) by Napoleon.
In 1906, the British government, which controlled Egypt, agreed with the Ottoman Empire on the boundary between the Egyptian Sinai and the Ottoman province of Palestine, with Rafah becoming the coastal border town that it is today.
In Gaza, the earliest Jewish-Muslim conflict dates to the period of the British mandate, which began in 1922. The indigenous Jewish inhabitants — some 54 individuals, as of 1922 — left the city (although they had been protected by their Arab neighbors) after anti-Zionist riots broke out in Jerusalem, Hebron and elsewhere in 1929. By 1945, 4 percent of the land in the Gaza region was owned by European Zionist settlers, who made up 2 percent of the population.
Under the 1947 partition plan of the United Nations, Gaza was supposed to be part of a new Arab state, alongside the new Jewish state. But when the state of Israel was proclaimed on May 14, 1948, the Egyptian Army entered Gaza and the territory became a magnet for Palestinians fleeing from all over.
Israel bombed Gaza by land, sea and air, even though its firepower was far more restrained than what we witness nowadays. American Quakers, funded by the United Nations, tended to the first waves of refugees. Measles and cold took dozens of lives. Gaza became, as one refugee told me, the “Noah’s Ark” of a lost Palestine. One in four Arabs from the former British mandate took refuge on 1 percent of its land area. Seen another way, 200,000 refugees were packed into a territory inhabited by 80,000 Palestinians. (The proportion is about the same today: 1.2 million refugees out of a population of 1.8 million.) But for the Sinai, those waves of refugees could have settled in refugee camps around Cairo the way they did around Beirut, Damascus and Amman.
The Egyptians administered this territory, but refused to annex it, contrary to what Jordan did in the West Bank. So in 1949, David Ben Gurion proposed to annex the Gaza Strip and to resettle its Palestinian refugees throughout Israel.
This offer was rebuffed both by the United Nations and by the Arab states, which would not accept Israeli territorial expansion. An Egyptian-run Gaza inexorably became a hotbed of Palestinian nationalism. It was sometimes directed against Egypt’s ruler, Gamal Abdel Nasser, as during an uprising in 1955. Or it could be manipulated by Egyptian intelligence, which trained the first Palestinian Fedayeen — freedom fighters or terrorists, depending on your point of view — for missions in Israel.
The young state of Israel became obsessed with the menace from Gaza. This was one of the main motivations for the offensive against Nasser’s Egypt, begun in October 1956 with French and British support. Gaza was occupied for four months, with a terrible toll on the population (more than 1,000 dead out of some 300,000 inhabitants). Under American pressure, Ben Gurion agreed to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, but he trusted Nasser to keep the territory quiet. The next 10 years were marked by very little tension, but the Fedayeen merely went underground. The Palestine Liberation Organization was established in 1964 with prominent nationalist figures from Gaza.
During Israel’s Six Day War against its Arab neighbors, in June 1967, Gaza was conquered in a matter of hours and the surrendering Egyptians were soon evacuated. But local Palestinian guerrillas kept fighting this new occupation for the next four years. Then the Israeli military thought it best to let an Islamist network develop, to neutralize the nationalist camp in Gaza. This is how Sheikh Ahmed Yassin built a power base and eventually founded his movement, Hamas, to challenge the nationalist P.L.O.
In December 1987, a Palestinian generation born and raised under two decades of occupation found in its frustration the energy for an unprecedented intifada, or uprising. The cradle of this uprising was the Gaza Strip, but it soon spread to the West Bank and forced Jordan’s king to relinquish any claim over the West Bank. The P.L.O. endorsed a “two-state solution” — an independent Palestine, covering East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza — in the early 1990s, as part of the process leading up to the Oslo Accords. This peace option was bitterly opposed by Hamas: Its leader, Sheikh Yassin, had been jailed by Israel, but his followers founded a military wing, the Qassam brigades. In 1994, the P.L.O. leader, Yasir Arafat, led the new Palestinian Authority into Gaza — a significant blow to Hamas, which then transferred part of its apparatus to the West Bank. Yitzhak Rabin, Arafat’s partner in the Oslo Accords, was murdered in 1995 by a Jewish extremist. Benjamin Netanyahu took over and, eager to “destroy” Hamas, dispatched agents in 1997 to Amman to poison Khaled Meshal, head of Hamas’s exiled leadership.
The plot was disrupted by Jordanian intelligence; Netanyahu not only had to turn over an antidote, which saved Meshal from certain death, but he was also forced to release Yassin, who was flown back to Gaza. Arafat was now overshadowed by the larger-than-life figures of Yassin (who was assassinated in 2004) and Meshal (who continues to lead Hamas, from exile in Qatar). The weakening of the Palestinian Authority led to the second intifada in 2000, with its disastrous string of suicide attacks and aerial bombings.
Ariel Sharon’s campaign against Arafat’s nationalist movement, Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority, only strengthened Hamas, even after Mahmoud Abbas succeeded Arafat in 2005. Two years later, Hamas expelled the Palestinian Authority from the Gaza Strip. Israeli forces invaded Gaza at the end of 2008 and bombed it in the fall of 2012; the latest campaign has been deadlier than the previous two, combined.
There is a way to break this vicious cycle. Israelis want the Gaza Strip demilitarized, and the Palestinians want a lifting of the blockade of Gaza. From an Israeli perspective, lifting the economic siege is essential for demilitarization, since the blockade generates a demand for commodities that can only be met through smuggling, via the tunnels. And those tunnels can only be financed with hard currency, obtained through the exchange of weapons and explosives.
So the most efficient way to “destroy” the tunnels is not by sending Israeli tanks into Gaza, but by lifting the blockade, reviving the local economy and offering, at last, other opportunities than militant Islam to young Palestinians (more than half of the Gazan population is unemployed). Gaza has to be able to rebuild, to sell the products of its farms and workshops; its people must be allowed to move freely. It is certainly easier said than done, but there is no alternative to achieve a sustained peace in Gaza.
And yet, both Israel and Hamas still harbor elusive dreams of military victory.
The people of Gaza are the ones who suffer from these delusions. Three generations have grown up: a generation of mourning (1948-67), a generation of submission (1967-87) and a generation of the intifadas (1987 to the present). To turn back the clock, it will be necessary to return to a concept from the Oslo Accords: “Gaza first.” If there is ever to be Israeli-Palestinian peace — with all other options having been exhausted — Gaza will be the foundation, and the keystone.
Jean-Pierre Filiu is professor of Middle East studies at Sciences Po, a former career diplomat for France, and the author of the forthcoming book Gaza: A History.