During the prolonged Israeli assault on Gaza this summer, the presenter of the BBC Radio 4 weekday news programme The World At One Ed Stourton interviewed Jean-Pierre Filiu, professor of Middle East Studies at Sciences Po in Paris about his book Gaza: A History (C Hurst and Co Publishers Ltd). The French original of the book was published in France by Fayard in 2012 as Histoire de Gaza . John King has done an excellent job of translating the book into English for the the Hurst edition.
Stourton asked Professor Filiu about the importance of tunnels to besieged Gaza. The tunnels Stourton had in mind were not those constructed by Hamas, but the tunnels used at various times in history, beginning with Alexander the Great's siege and destruction of the city of Gaza in 332 BC.
"The tunnels were one of the main features of Gaza at that time", Filiu said. In his book he describes the tunnels and counter-tunnels of Alexander's Greeks and of the locals under the leadership of Batis, known as "the King of Gaza". After Gaza fell, all those suspected of having fought were slaughtered and their families sold into slavery. "Batis, who refused to kneel before the conqueror, was bound to Alexander's chariot after having his legs broken, and his body was then dragged in agony below the ramparts of the defeated city. The sack of Gaza filled six ships with booty to be send back to Macedon."
Ed Stourton observed that Gaza has had "a very warlike history" with all "sorts of people going through there, fighting, from Alexander to Boneparte, to the British including General Allenby in the First World War, Ariel Sharon, President Nasser ...."
Filiu said the historical pattern has changed dramatically since 1948. "Until 1948, Gaza was a crossroads that any empire in the Middle East who wanted to conquer Egypt had to gain, or that any empire controlling Egypt had to take over in order to open and break through to the Middle East."
But after 1948, when the Egyptians took what is now called the Gaza Strip under their protection and administration, "Gaza became a dead end where basically Israel and the Palestinians started to fight the war they are still fighting today. And so it has to be reopened, this space, to give a horizon for peace and for the people." In 1948 the 80,000 people in Gaza, were joined by 200,000 refugees. The proportion of refugees is roughly similar today: "Among the 1,800,000 inhabitants of Gaza today, two thirds are refugees."
Although Gaza has become a powerful symbol for Palestinians, while writing his history Filiu was "quite puzzled to discover how little some Palestinians know about the history of Gaza; they’ve been focused on Jerusalem, on the diaspora, on the refugee camps."
Filiu writes in his foreword of the many difficulties and methodological problems he faced in writing a history of Gaza. Parts of the local archives have been destroyed during numerous conflicts, while other parts have been moved out of Gaza and are the object of wrangling between Fatah and Hamas. Filiu sought to overcome the deficiency of local information by conducting a series of interviews, and by gaining access to a substantial number of unpublished documents. Security constraints were also a problem.
A further constraint is Hamas's policy of promulgating an "official history" of Gaza. This "spuriously credits the Muslim Brotherhood with a continuous existence in a position of pre-eminence over the last seventy years, which suggests that the Brothers had always been in the vanguard and at the heart of the Palestinian national struggle." Such claims tend to withhold credit from the other Palestinian factions, and in particular from Fatah.
"The perspective of history provides the ability to reinterpret these often tenuous and biased accounts of Gaza's history: and as Hamas's intention is to reinforce its dominant position now and in the longer term, much is at stake."
...also by Professor Filiu
The book's jacket well describes its contents: "Through its millennium–long existence, Gaza has often been bitterly disputed while simultaneously and paradoxically enduring prolonged neglect. Squeezed between the Negev and Sinai deserts on the one hand and the Mediterranean Sea on the other, Gaza was contested by the Pharaohs, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Fatimids, the Mamluks, the Crusaders and the Ottomans. Napoleon had to secure it in 1799 to launch his failed campaign on Palestine. In 1917, the British Empire fought for months to conquer Gaza, before establishing its mandate on Palestine.
the late Haydar Abdel Shafi: medical doctor, and a key figure in Gaza's modern political history
"In 1948, 200,000 Palestinians sought refuge in Gaza, a marginal area neither Israel nor Egypt wanted. Palestinian nationalism grew there, and Gaza has since found itself at the heart of Palestinian history. It is in Gaza that the fedayeen movement arose from the ruins of Arab nationalism. It is in Gaza that the 1967 Israeli occupation was repeatedly challenged, until the outbreak of the 1987 intifada. And it is in Gaza, in 2007, that the dream of Palestinian statehood appeared to have been shattered by the split between Fatah and Hamas. The endurance of Gaza and the Palestinians make the publication of this history both timely and significant."
Although Filiu's book reaches far back in Gaza's history, his main emphasis is on the modern era. The book's first section, "Gaza Before the Strip", comprises three chapters. The first examines its position as the crossroads of empires, the second the Islamic Era, and the third the British Mandate.
The book's remaining three main sections each covers a 20-year period: "1947-67: The Generation of Mourning"; "1967-87: The Generation of Dispossession", and "1987-2007: the Generation of the Intifadas". Filiu ends his history with "Conclusion: The Generation of Impasses?"
Filiu's history is written with admirable clarity and draws on a wide variety of sources, including Gaza rap group Palestinian Rapperz (PR) The author provides numerous references and an extensive bibliography. In addition, he helpfully provides 16 pages of biographies of many of the protagonists in the modern history of Gaza. All in all, Gaza: A History merits a prominent place in any library of works on Palestine.
Susannah Tarbush, London