By: Jean-Pierre Filiu
The current conflict in Gaza is the third since 2008. If nothing is done to address the root causes, any ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas will only be a pause before the next outbreak of violence. The collective impotence of the world’s leaders is striking, since the Gaza Strip is, within the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a far less complex issue to handle than East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
All parties have endorsed the Gaza Strip’s borders, which were drawn in 1949 at the end of the first Arab-Israeli war. The last Israeli settler left Gaza in 2005, after Ariel Sharon opted for a unilateral withdrawal, similar to Ehud Barak’s disengagement from southern Lebanon in 2000. There is no religious site in the Gaza Strip to be contested by Muslims, Jews and Christians.
Many Israelis dream of waking one morning to discover that Gaza has gone away (or been annexed by Egypt, a softer version of such a fantasy). But Gaza is there to stay, with its 1.8 million people crowded into 141 square miles (365 square kilometres). How did this tiny slice of the Mediterranean coastline become one of the most wretched spots on earth?
Over the centuries, travellers have remarked on the fecundity of Gaza’s vegetation. Gaza was once the leading exporter of barley in the region; more recently, it has been a producer of citrus. Perched between the Levant and the Sinai and Negev deserts, Gaza has had the misfortune of being at the crossroads of empires. Gaza City, slightly inland and adjacent to a natural harbour, has been inhabited for at least 3,500 years. The first historical reference to the loose subsoil of Gaza — which has made possible the network of Hamas tunnels targeted by Israel in the latest conflict — dates to Alexander the Great, whose forces besieged the Arab garrison for three months and eventually sacked the city, filling six ships with booty. Some 1,500 years later — following the emergence of Islam and sporadic rule by crusaders — Gaza was the westernmost point of the Mongol advance. Centuries later, it was seized (briefly) by Napoleon. In 1906, the British government, which controlled Egypt, agreed with the Ottoman Empire on the boundary between the Egyptian Sinai and the Ottoman province of Palestine, with Rafah becoming the coastal border town that it is today. In Gaza, the earliest Jewish-Muslim conflict dates to the period of the British mandate, which began in 1922. Under the 1947 partition plan of the United Nations, Gaza was supposed to be part of a new Arab state, alongside the new Jewish state. But when the state of Israel was proclaimed on May 14, 1948, the Egyptian army entered continued…