The war in Gaza: history does matter

Gaza under attack 2014, Wikipedia image
Gaza under attack 2014, Wikipedia image

Israel has launched another bloody invasion into Gaza Strip. In response to rocket attacks by the group Hamas, Israel has shelled and bombed targets in tiny coastal region — including homes, hospitals and a United nations school — and has unleashed a ground offensive. The fatality count is about 20 Palestinians killed for every Israeli. Most of the dead Palestinians are civilians, including many children; the Israeli dead are mostly soldiers.

The Israeli military says that it has warned civilians to leave their neighbourhoods prior to launching attacks, but Gaza is tiny – 51 kilometres by 11 kilometres at its widest point – so there is really nowhere to go. Further, an Israeli naval blockade of prevents anyone from leaving by sea, and prevents much needed supplies and medicine from reaching Gaza.

Unfortunately, partisan explanations for these recurring conflicts provide us with too little history. Defenders of Hamas, point correctly to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. But Hamas, which is both a political and military group, has a bloody record of its own. Meanwhile, Israel’s defenders argue that the country is surrounded by hostile Arab nations and movements and therefore blame everything on them.

In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird repeat by rote that Israel has a right to defend itself. This, however, ignores Israel’s history of oppressing Palestinians and its killing of adult civilians and children in Gaza.

For unqualified supporters of Israel, history seldom extends back as far as 1917. In the Balfour Declaration, the great powers — seeking support in the First World War — promised the Zionist movement that Jews could have a piece of Palestine as their own, even though there were already people living there. Nor do we often hear that in 1947, Palestine was partitioned the proposed Jewish state received 56 per cent of the land area at a time when Jewish ownership of land there stood at about six per cent.

Not surprisingly, there was a war, which the Israelis won before taking another 22 percent of Palestinian land. During and after that conflict, an estimated 700,000 Palestinians were driven out of what became the state of Israel in 1948. There was another war in 1967. What was known as the Six-Day-War created more Palestinian refugees and allowed Israel to seize even more territory in the Sinai Peninsula, Syria’s Golan Heights and all land west of the Jordan River. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but its military continues to control all land, air and sea access  and maintains a naval blockade. The military occupation continues in the West Bank to this day and is widely considered to be illegal.

In addition Israel has relentlessly pushed new settlements into the occupied territories and has built a huge security fence which intrudes even farther onto the land and into the neighbourhoods of Palestinians. The settlements and wall have also been declared illegal under international law.

History does matter. The late Rev. Frank Epp, a historian of Mennonite heritage, wrote a book in 1970 entitled, Whose Land is Palestine? In it, he wrote that both Jews and Arabs have been wronged. Jews were persecuted, particularly in Europe, for centuries. It was an oppression that culminated in pogroms and the unspeakable Nazi death camps of the 1940s. Still, Europe and America decided to arrange for the partition of Palestine, which created yet another injustice, according to Epp. “This then is the central problem of the Middle East,” he wrote. “The attempt to redress a wrong committed against the Jews produced a similar wrong against the Palestinian Arabs.”

Jews in Israel desire security while Palestinians seek redress for injustices committed against them through Israel’s very creation. It’s a cycle of violence and retaliation that can only be ended through negotiations. The conflict may appear intractable but others, such as the civil war in Ireland, once appeared the very same way but were settled nevertheless.

This piece appeared in slightly different form on a United Church Observer blog on July 24, 2014.

4 thoughts on “The war in Gaza: history does matter

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  1. A small detail: the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egyptian control, I think as a result of the Begin-Sadat peace accord. This truly is a situation where both sides need to hear the other’s stories. I have to say I think that an unequivocal acknowledgement by Palestinians that their vision of the future includes the continued existence of the state of Israel in some reasonable form would be immensely helpful. While there is any official rhetoric that sounds like a call for the elimination of Israel, one can understand the powerful fears that Israelis experience and act out of. One can assert an injustice without saying the other must be wiped out.


    1. Thanks Ed for your note. You say: “I think that an unequivocal acknowledgement by Palestinians that their vision of the future includes the continued existence of the state of Israel in some reasonable form would be immensely helpful.” I agree with you. It is not clear that Hamas is prepared to accept Israel’s existence, something, on the other hand, that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does clearly commit to, and that is crucial to any way forward. You say as well: “One can assert an injustice without saying the other must be wiped out.” I agree with that as well. The creation of a new state in an area where people already resided and had for a long time, and the subsequent expulsion of hundreds of thousands of those people from that territory, was a grave injustice to the Palestinians. I think one can draw a parallel to the European settlement of what is now Canada and the subsequent oppression of Aboriginal peoples. We are far past any point where Europeans could or should be expelled from Canada, but Canadians can commit themselves to doing justice in their time. Somehow that also has to happen in Israel and the Palestinian territory.


  2. Jews are the indigenous people of the land of Israel, as will be obvious to anyone who visits Rome and looks at the Arch of Titus. All others are, in a word, colonizers. In fact, even the name “Palestine” was given to the country by the Romans, in a deliberate attempt to fraudulently dissociate the land of Israel from the Jewish people following the failed 2nd century Bar Kochba revolt.

    Actually, the territory of Palestine which the Balfour Declaration referred to consisted of what has become modern Israel (including the West Bank and Gaza) and Jordan. The British cleaved off Transjordan (now the Kingdom of Jordan) from its Mandate of Palestine in 1922 and closed off Jewish immigration to Transjordan. In 1939, the British imposed a limit on Jewish immigration to Palestine of 75,000 over the period 1940-1944 (which they did not relax for the entire duration of the Holocaust). So it’s really not fair to say that the Jews got 56% of the land area with 6% of the population because (1) all of Jordan was completely closed off to Jewish immigration and settlement, and (2) the British imposed artificial restrictions on Jewish immigration for the entire WWII period.


    1. Thanks Percy for your comment. I fail to see how a group of people, most of whom emigrated from Europe in the 20th century, would be considered “indigenous” to this area, while others living there at the time would be denied that status. People emigrate all of the time and make lives for themselves in new places, but that does not make them indigenous. I found interesting a letter in the April issue of The Walrus magazine, responding to a fine and sensitive article by Joseph Rosen which had appeared in the January/February issue. The letter writer says this: “The pivotal 1917 Balfour Declaration to Baron Rothschild on Palestine perfectly encapsulates the roots of the conflict: a colonial power pledging to European Jews land that belonged to neither.”


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