The Gaza Strip is famous for many reasons – particularly terrorism and war. But one of the most significant facts largely ignored by both the Western and Arab media is the historic Jewish presence in Gaza, which predates the Arab conquest of the Middle East by centuries, and ended only with the 2005 unilateral Israeli Disengagement Plan.
Laurence Beziz, the Projects Coordinator of the Gush Katif and Northern Samaria Commemoration Center in Israel, told Arutz Sheva:
“The Hebrew name for Gaza is ‘Aza’. The first reference in the Bible to that area, called 'Gerar', begins with the settling of Abraham and Isaac in the region and digging wells. In the Bible (Genesis Chapter: 20, Verses 1-18), it is mentioned that prophet Abraham settled in the land of Gerar.”
According to the Jewish Virtual Library,
“In the fourth century Gaza was the primary Jewish port of Israel for international trade and commerce… Great medieval rabbis such as Rabbi Yisrael Najara, author of 'Kah Ribon Olam,' the popular Shabbat song, and renowned Mekubal Rabbi Avraham Azoulai, were rabbanim in Gaza Jewish communities.”
Jews lived in Gaza throughout the centuries. For instance, a synagogue was erected near the Gaza waterfront in 508 CE, noted Steven Plaut, a professor at Haifa University whose family has roots in Gaza.
Yet, the Arab presence in the region started only in the seventh century when Arab armies invaded Israel. The Jewish population in Gaza collapsed simply because it was targeted by different invaders throughout history such as the Ottoman Turks.
In 1929, Jews in Gaza were once again forced to leave due to violent anti-Jewish riots by the Arabs. Beziz explained that “A historic Jewish community existed in Gaza city prior to its evacuation by the British during the 1929 Arab riots – as the threat to Jewish lives became obvious while the Arabs were at the doors of the synagogue where the Jews took refuge.”
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, following these riots, and the death of nearly 135 Jews in British Mandate Palestine, “the British prohibited Jews from living in Gaza to quell tension and appease the Arabs. Some Jews returned, however, and, in 1946, Kibbutz Kfar Darom was established to prevent the British from separating the Negev from the Jewish state.”
A year later, the 1947 United Nations General Assembly partition plan called for the establishment of two separate states side by side, Jewish and Arab, with the Jerusalem-Bethlehem region as a separate enclave under international administration. The Jewish side accepted the plan. The Arabs, however, violently rejected it and launched a war on the Jewish community living in the British Mandate of Palestine in 1948.
From 1949 to 1956 and from 1957 to 1967, Gaza remained under Egyptian military occupation. Theoretically, the Gaza Strip was officially administered by the All-Palestine Government from 1948 until its dissolution by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1959. The government was recognized by most members of the Arab League. Following its dissolution, Egypt did not annex the Gaza Strip but left it under military rule, paving the way for the continued chaos in Gaza.
During the 1967 Six-Day War, Israeli forces entered Gaza in self-defence and captured it. And in the early 1970s the initial Jewish settlements were established by the Israeli government.
In total, twenty-one Jewish communities were built in Gaza. The most thickly populated area was Gush Katif, with some thirty synagogues and prime agricultural land. The economies of these communities were generally based on agriculture, some local industry and tourist facilities. Beziz said:
“Gush Katif refers to the Jewish communities established in the Gaza Strip in the south of Israel at the Egyptian border. Our center also tells the story of four communities located in the Northern Samaria that were uprooted as part of the disengagement plan. These are two different areas in Israel but bound together by the fact that they were both evacuated in 2005.”
Jews and Muslims in Gaza coexisted for more than a decade, but tensions grew, particularly during the deadly First Intifada (1987–1993) and the Second Intifada (2000–2005), which forced Israel to carry out military operations in Gaza to stop terrorist attacks and infiltrations by Arabs into Israel.
What marked the end of the Jewish presence in Gaza, however, was Israel's unilateral disengagement plan, proposed in 2003 by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and approved by the Knesset in 2005. The deadline for the evacuation was August 15, 2005. Author Abra Forman described the period:
“Immediately, there was an enormous outcry from the 8,500 residents of Gush Katif, as well as many Israelis who disagreed with the plan. They wrote petitions, held protests, and begged the government to reconsider.
“However, their attempts were in vain. The government went ahead with the plan, promising compensation packages and resettlement deals to the Gush Katif residents who would be evicted and whose property would be destroyed as per the agreement.
“Many residents stayed until the last possible days, when soldiers forced them out. The resulting trauma had lasting effects.”
The Jewish residents of Gaza who refused to voluntarily vacate their homes before the deadline were driven out by Israeli security forces over a period of several days. The buildings belonging to Jews were razed and all Jewish families including farmers were uprooted from the area. Since the disengagement was completed by September 12, 2005, the Gaza Strip has become judenrein – a Jew-free land. Professor Plaut wrote:
“The Gaza Jewish community was destroyed by rioting Arabs in 1929, with surviving Jews fleeing to other towns in what would become Israel. Jews returned to the area after the Six-Day War, but when Israel adopted the Oslo ‘peace process’ as national policy, Gaza terrorism exploded and the Jews in the renewed Gaza communities faced mortal danger. Their actual eviction, however – the third ethnic cleansing of Gaza Jews in less than a century – was perpetrated by the government of Ariel Sharon, years after the collapse of Oslo.”
And on September 23 - less than two weeks after Jews left Gaza - Palestinian Arabs in the region fired their first post-disengagement rockets into Israel. And in January 2006, Hamas won majority of seats in Palestinian legislative elections.
Until 2005, however, Jews had created advanced, productive and peaceful communities – and particularly high-tech cooperative agricultural villages – in Gaza. A land that Jews developed and enriched is now run by terror groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Sadly, Israel’s effort to “unilaterally disengage” from Gaza and to "unfreeze" the peace process with the Palestinian-Arabs has largely proven fruitless.
It appears that the Israeli abandonment of Gaza has been detrimental to the Jewish state and the wider region in terms of security, human rights, agriculture and technology. Beziz said:
“Since the disengagement, the security situation has not improved. We have had several military operations in Gaza over the years and still suffer from the massive launching of Kassam rockets to main cities in the country as well as fire kites from Gaza.
“Not all of the Jewish families have been able to rebuild a home with the compensation given by the Israeli government and are still living in temporary conditions with no visible solution in the near future.
“The compensation given by the Israeli government for the greenhouses was not enough for most of the farmers for them to return to farming. So only few of the 400 farmers returned to farming after the disengagement. The greenhouses that were left in Gush Katif to be used by the Palestinian Authority were dismantled and the steel and aluminum were used for military purposes.”
The response to unilateral Jewish withdrawal from a land that Jews resided in for millennia has been more violence and terrorism by Palestinian Arabs. Less than two years after the Israeli withdrawal, Hamas, whose charter calls for the obliteration of Israel and the extermination of Jews, violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. As Professor Ruth Wisse put it:
“There is no such thing as an Arab-Israel conflict... there is an Arab war against Israel, there is an Arab war against the Jewish people's right to a state.”
The Israeli disengagement from Gaza and its aftermath once again demonstrate that the lack of peace between Israel and Palestinian Arabs is not due to the actions of Jews. It is due to the fact that Jews exist and want to have a state in their ancient land.