The intense fighting in Rafah over the past few days has thrust this relatively unknown border town to international prominence, but not many people are aware of its long and rich history.



The late historian and geographer Zeev Vilnai notes that the first mention of Rafah dates back to an inscription of the Egyptian pharaoh Seti I in the year 1303 BCE, meaning that the town was first inhabited over 3,000 years ago.



Although Rafah is not mentioned explicitly in the Torah, the Targum Onkelos, one of the great Aramaic commentaries, interprets the place-name "Chatzerim" in Deuteronomy 2:23 as referring to it.



Due to its location as a gateway to the Land of Israel, Rafah served as an important transit and commercial point for international trade and seafaring. Not surprisingly, the town was also the site of many great battles, including a decisive one in which the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy defeated the Syrian emperor Antiochus III in 217 BCE. In the wake of this battle, in which both sides deployed elephants of war, Ptolemy went on to capture the land of Israel.



Rafah was also home to an ancient Jewish presence. As Josephus recounts in his book, The Jewish Wars, the city was captured by the Hasmonean ruler Alexander Yannai, and it remained in Jewish hands until the coming of the Roman armies. Centuries later, a thriving Jewish community lived in Rafah, where it flourished for nearly three hundred years, until the arrival of the Crusaders in the twelfth century. The Crusaders brutally destroyed the city and left it in ruins. A number of Jewish relics from this period, including letters and correspondence by community members, were later found in the famed Cairo Genizah.



Throughout most of the Middle Ages, however, Rafah remained little more than a nearly deserted outpost under Ottoman control.



In the early 1900s, Zionist groups made a number of attempts to purchase land in the area and settle Jews there. This included a plan by a group of Jews in Bessarabia to purchase 40,000 dunams (10,000 acres) in Rafah and settle 30 Eastern European Jewish families there. But the proposal was rejected by the Turkish authorities, who were apparently not keen on having a Jewish community established along the border.



In 1925, during the British mandate, the Zionist Organization (the precursor of the Jewish Agency), conducted negotiations with the British with the aim of renting tens of thousands of dunams of land in Rafah, again for the purpose of settling Jews there. But the talks went nowhere.



It was around this time, in the 1920s, that Arabs began settling there, including many from Khan Yunis, who were attracted by the employment opportunities created by the establishment of British military camps nearby. These camps were later used to imprison various leaders of the Haganah and Irgun prior to the establishment of the State. Under the British, Rafah grew rapidly. Whereas in 1922, the town had just 600 residents, this number more than quadrupled in the following two decades, reaching 2,500 by 1945.



During Israel's War of Independence, some 40,000 Arabs from Beersheba and the Negev fled the fighting and settled in Rafah, serving as the nucleus of today's current Palestinian population in the area.



In 1972, Israel sought to alleviate the plight of some of the town's refugees by building permanent housing for them. Some 240 of Rafah's Arab families were given new apartments in Machane Avraham, which was named after Rafah's first Israeli military governor, Avraham Zaks, who had died three years earlier. While Israel now finds itself compelled to demolish Palestinian homes in Rafah for reasons of security, at least one thing has not changed with the passage of time. Then, as now, Israel was condemned for its actions. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the UN General Assembly actually passed an annual resolution criticizing Israel's "resettlement of Palestine refugees in the Gaza Strip", as though building permanent housing for Palestinians was a crime of some sort.



And so, decades later, Israeli soldiers comb the area, searching for weapons and smuggling routes used by Palestinian terrorists. After centuries in obscurity, Rafah finds itself once again a place of conflict.