Tracing Gaza’s chaos to 1948

Today’s narrow strip of land has been a source of tension since the British mandate.

Gaza Chaos

Flag of Israel flies over Gaza before the 2005 withdrawal [GALLO/GETTY]

The roots of Gaza’s misery today can be traced back to the late Ottoman period, decades before the war of 1948 transformed the Gaza Strip from a minor port and agricultural hinterland into one of the most overcrowded places on earth.

It was then, in the middle of the first great age of globalisation, that Gaza’s fate was sealed, although it would take half a century for it to unfold.

At the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman empire was undergoing a process of modernisation that was opening provinces like Palestine to greater economic and cultural penetration by Europe.

It was during this period – the heyday of high imperialism – that Zionism arrived on Palestinian soil.

By the early 20th century, thousands of young and relatively unskilled East European Jews were arriving each year in Palestine desperate for work and housing.

While Gaza was never a primary location for Zionist settlement, Gaza City had a small but longstanding Jewish community, and several settlements, including Kfar Darom, were established during the British mandate (1917-1948) period and re-established after 1967.



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Most of the young settlers who came during the first three waves of Jewish settlement, from the late 1880s until World War I, were unable to compete with the better-trained and cheaper Palestinian Arab work force, which itself was sustained by a larger Palestinian economy that had undergone a significant development, albeit with ups and downs, in the last century and a half.

This reality led the emerging Socialist Zionist leadership to develop two strategies, the “conquest of labour” (kibosh ha-avodah) and when that failed, the “conquest of land” (kibosh ha-karka’a) to ensure the creation of autonomous, exclusively Jewish settlements that would be free of competition from non-Jewish workers.

The bourgeois town of Tel Aviv, founded in 1909, copied the Jews-only policy of the first kibbutz, or collective agricultural settlement, Degania, which was founded the same year.

Both sought to create modern exclusively Jewish environments that would, culturally, economically, and politically, be as autonomous as possible from the surrounding environment – the older Arab/Sephardi and non-Zionist Ashkenazi Jewish communities as much as from Palestinian Arabs.

Transforming Zionism

Crucially, this early competition for jobs and land helped transform Zionism, in the words of Israeli sociologist Gershon Shafir, into a “militant nationalist movement” by the time Tel Aviv and Degania were established.

The exclusivist nationalism of the movement was exacerbated by the reality that Zionism, like American, Australian and South African nationalisms, was at the same time colonial.

A Jewish security group dedicated to protecting
pioneering Zionist settlements [Getty]

All were examples of “settler colonial” movements which were unique in their desire to replace rather than exploit the indigenous population of the colonised land. This strategy went well with the socialist ethos of the emerging Zionist leadership, which was ideologically committed to avoiding the exploitation of the Palestinian population.

At the same time however, many senior Zionist leaders had experience working in Europe’s African colonies, which would be put to use in developing Zionist policies in Palestine.

Following the thinking of other colonial enterprises, Zionist leaders justified their project by arguing that Zionist Jews had the right to rule Palestine because they – not the Palestinians – had the ability to develop the land to its full potential and usher Palestine out of its supposed slumber and stagnation into the modern world.

In response, the Palestinian nationalism that emerged soon after the first stirrings of Zionism was equally exclusivist in its claim to the right to rule Palestine.

A “spirit of resistance” that had defined Palestinian responses to foreign incursions, whether by Napoleon’s France or Muhammad Ali’s Egypt, became evident as Palestinians harassed Europeans who bought land in the country even before the first Zionist settlements were founded.

Conflict with Zionist settlers occurred almost from the start of the Zionist movement’s colonisation efforts.

Transition of rule

Once Palestine transitioned from Ottoman to British rule, a zero sum conflict over the country’s future was inevitable, especially when the level of Jewish immigration and land purchases increased dramatically in the 1920s and 1930s.

The fact that the British government was, literally, “mandated” to facilitate the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine while merely protecting the existing civil and religious rights of the native population, exacerbated this situation.

Thousands of East European Jews arrived in
Palestine desperate for work and housing

The very structure and aims of the British mandate necessitated that any independent Palestinian leadership should be crushed.

Meanwhile, the most logical and “efficient” way to develop the economy would be through relying on the development programmes of the Zionist movement, whose ideology, political and economic discourses appealed to European imperial sensibilities and to the powerful Christian Zionist impulses that had emerged in England in the latter part of the 19th century.

Equally important, the Zionist enterprise brought a huge influx of capital into the country that enabled its development without great expense to the British tax-payer.

Ironically, Zionist leaders like Felix Frankfurter, the supreme court justice, would argue that “no cordon sanitaire” could protect Palestine from the modern world that he believed only arrived with the Zionist movement and British rule.

But in truth neither had brought modernity to Palestine because it had arrived decades earlier.

The Zionists merely replaced an emerging and increasingly cosmopolitan Ottoman modernity, one which saw Palestine undergo a rapid development in the last decades of Turkish rule (in which Arab Jews and early Zionists, as well as increasing trade and contact with Europe, played a part), with a European, colonial modernity that would ultimately push Palestinians off of, and for more than half of them out of, their land.

In the case of Gaza specifically, this meant herding Palestinians, first in 1948, then in 1967, and again during the Oslo decade of “separation” and “divorce” between Israelis and Palestinians, into a prison from which they are still trying to escape.

Flood of refugees

At the outset of the 1948 war, the population of the Gaza region was approximately 60,000 to 80,000. By the end of the hostilities, at least 200,000 refugees had flooded what would become the Gaza Strip, whose rectangular shape roughly corresponded to (but was smaller by at least a third than) the area of the Gaza District during the mandate period.


Israel built 17 settlements in
Gaza from 1970 to 2000 [Getty]

The exact shape of the Gaza Strip was determined by the position of Egyptian and Israeli forces when the ceasefire was announced.

The majority of the refugees came from the almost wholesale eviction or evacuation of Palestinian towns and villages from Jaffa southwards to Gaza City and the surrounding villages to the north and east that were depopulated during the war.

These refugees were housed in the ensuing years in eight camps throughout the region, many of which were former British military bases. By 2000, the last year of the Oslo peace process, the number of refugees and their descendants had swollen to well over 400,000.

The Gazan hijra

Based on several years of fieldwork interviewing refugees in Gaza, Ilana Feldman, a New York University professor, describes the typical experience of becoming a refugee in the Gaza Strip in what has been described by many Gazans as the “hijra”, (adopting the Islamic terminology for the flight of the still small Muslim community from Mecca to Medina in 622) as having “happened almost without awareness….”

“They crossed no international border, but simply went down the road…. Few people imagined that they would be gone for longer than a few days or weeks,” she wrote. In this thinking, Gaza’s refugees were a microcosm of the larger Palestinian experience of the Nakhba, or disaster of the 1948 war.

Unlike the West Bank, which was effectively annexed by Jordan in 1950 and its population offered Jordanian citizenship, Egypt maintained Gaza under military rule until a legislative council was elected in 1957.

Moreover, unlike Jordan, Egypt had little ties with or concern for Gaza, and thus the Strip received little attention or investment in infrastructure between 1948 and 1967.

Jewish settlements

A Palestinian farmer looks on with his daughter
as Israeli tanks sweep through Gaza [Getty]

After its conquest by Israel, 17 Jewish settlements would be established inside the Gaza Strip between 1970 and 2000. While housing well under 10,000 settlers, the settlements came to dominate the geography of the Strip, securing access to much of the best land, water, and shore areas.

Their presence justified the transfer of only 60 per cent of the Gaza Strip to Palestinian control during Oslo. The settlers, only half a per cent of the Strip’s population, controlled 40 per cent of its territory and even more of its resources.

This situation would not change significantly during the Oslo period, and when the last settler left, five years into the al-Aqsa intifada in September 2005, Gaza effectively became the world’s largest prison.

Mark LeVine is professor of history at UCI Irvine and author or editor of half a dozen books dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and globalisation in the Middle East, including Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, Reapproaching Borders: New Perspectives on the Study of Israel and Palestine, Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil, and the forthcoming An Impossible Peace: Oslo and the Burdens of History.

Source: Al Jazeera