I first visited Gaza when I was in my teens. The year was 1977, and I was a college student visiting Israel for the first time. I had enrolled in the summer program at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, where I took two courses. One was "The Contemporary Middle East," which provided an overview of political and social conditions in the region; the other was "The History of Israel, 1948-1977," which covered the politics and wars of Israel's first three decades. The courses were designed for foreign students and taught in English, and classes were held on the university's main campus on Mount Scopus.
The summer session was divided into two terms, with a week's break between them. During that vacation week, students were offered the chance to tour the Sinai Peninsula, which had been captured during the 1967 Six-Day War and was still under Israeli administration. (Two years later, in exchange for peace with Egypt, Israel would return the peninsula in its entirety.) I jumped at the opportunity, and spent a memorable week traveling through the territory. I remember wading into the surf at Dahab on the Gulf of Aqaba, climbing Mount Sinai, visiting the 6th century monastery named for Saint Catherine, dining in the bustling town of Yamit, looking out over the Red Sea from Sharm El Sheikh at Sinai's southernmost tip, and staring at a mind-bogglingly starry sky as I lay in a sleeping bag on the desert floor.
But before my fellow tourists and I did any of those things, we drove through the Gaza Strip — also captured from Egypt in 1967 and also at that time under Israel control — since it was the gateway from Israel proper into Sinai. Our group didn't spend too much time in Gaza, but at one point our bus pulled in somewhere to gas up and give us a chance to have lunch and stretch our legs. After all these years, I don't remember if our stop was in Gaza City, the largest community in the northern part of the strip, or in Khan Yunis further south. What I do remember is the reception we got.
A 1970s Gaza street scene
We tumbled out of the bus, a group of 20 or 25 young people, most though not all Jewish, armed with nothing but cameras and box lunches. Immediately we were approached by Palestinians, lots of them. Half of them were little kids, hands outstretched and enthusiastically begging for money ("Mister! Dollar! Mister! Dollar!") The other half were adult souvenir-sellers, offering postcards, keychains, and other tchotchkes, as well as snacks and cold drinks.
Presumably that was the sort of welcome every tour bus bringing foreigners into Gaza could expect in those days. Nothing about the scene seemed unusual or hostile. I have no memory of being told to watch out for danger, to steer clear of local residents, or to stay with an armed guard. Apart from the fun and novelty of seeing a new place, there was nothing particularly remarkable about that morning in Gaza.
Which, from today's perspective, is remarkable indeed.
For much of the past two weeks, the news was filled with the violence from Gaza. Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group that has ruled the territory for the past 15 years, fired more than 4,000 rockets into Israel, some of which reached as far north as Tel Aviv and all of which were launched in the hope of wounding or killing as many Israelis as possible. In self-defense, Israel bombed hundreds of Hamas positions in Gaza, many of them located in homes, buildings, and tunnels. Hamas deliberately locates arms caches, military infrastructure, and command posts in civilian settings, in order to force Israel into an excruciating dilemma: If it attacks Hamas positions, Palestinian civilians may be harmed, but if it refrains from attacking such sites, Hamas will continue firing at Israeli communities.
As a matter of longstanding policy, Israel goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid harming civilians, even telephoning residents in advance of a strike to give them time to evacuate. But civilian casualties are an inevitable and tragic result in all wars — the United States, for example, has inadvertently killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. According to Hamas, 232 residents of Gaza were killed in the recent fighting (some by Hamas rockets that misfired). Israel says that at least 160 of them were targeted terrorists, many of whom it has identified by name . If so, that means its hundreds of bombing runs in the densely populated territory were so meticulously targeted that they caused the death of fewer than 70 civilians, an astonishing achievement.
Last week a cease-fire ended the fighting, but Hamas leaders have already announced that it is only a matter of time until the rockets resume, and that the organization's genocidal goal remains unchanged: "Israel will come to an end," Hamas political spokesman Musa Abu Marzouk serenely told a TV interviewer on Monday.
When I first visited Gaza in 1977, there was little evidence of such relentless hatred. Hamas didn't even exist, while tens of thousands of Palestinians crossed daily into Israel to go to work. Gaza was no Eden, but it was safe enough for tourists.
Twelve years later, things had changed.
I traveled to Gaza for the second time in March 1989, this time on a ride-along with an Israeli army patrol. The First Intifada — a wave of riots that engulfed much of the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem — had begun 15 months earlier, and Israeli soldiers trying to maintain order were often attacked with Molotov cocktails, grenades, and rocks. As is often the case in the region, much of the violence was fueled by disinformation. In Gaza, ancient blood libels against Jews were revived: False rumors circulated that Israel was secretly executing Palestinian kids and poisoning Palestinian water. Such accusations inflamed the legitimate frustration that many Gaza residents felt at their predicament — crowded living quarters, shrinking employment opportunities, and widespread poverty.
The violence had begun locally, but it was soon being directed by the Palestine Liberation Organization. Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership were headquartered in Tunis, far from Israel and the territories, and the outbreak of the intifada caught them by surprise. Nevertheless, they soon were controlling the uprising, and regularly issued bulletins dictating when the fighting was to be escalated, and who was to be targeted. But there were also long stretches of relative calmness, and at the time I made arrangements to go back to Gaza, there had been no major attacks for several weeks.
Two days before I arrived in Gaza City, the quiet was shattered by a riot in the course of which three Palestinian youths had been killed. "I showed up in the middle of a curfew the army had imposed on the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood where the violence had erupted," I later wrote in the Boston Herald.
That left Sheikh Radwan looking like a ghost town — a battle-scarred, gritty, stupefyingly dull ghost town. The shops along Al-Nasr Street were shuttered; the sidewalks were nearly empty. . . .
Things were less quiet on Salah el-Din Street. As our jeep passed a row of buildings, rocks suddenly came hurling down upon us from two stories up. "Jesus Christ!" hissed the soldier in the front seat, dodging as a chunk of concrete just missed his window.
Up ahead, the road was blocked by a flaming tire; to avoid it, we'd have to swerve to the right-hand side of the road, directly under the next roof, where we could already see the heads of two ducking kids, more rocks at the ready. . . .
"Go backward," the senior officer ordered, "and step on it!"
The gears screeched into reverse, and the jeep lurched back — but not fast enough to avoid the rock that slammed hard into the roof.
Three soldiers were in the jeep with me; each was carrying a submachine gun or a high-powered rifle. But submachine guns aren't of much use against 12-year-olds with rocks, hidden from sight 50 feet up.
Two things that particularly struck me during that second trip to Gaza was that Palestinians seemed entirely unafraid of the Israeli soldiers they saw every day, and that the Israeli soldiers, despite the constant threats of violence, showed no hatred for Gaza's residents. On the contrary, the ones I spoke to expressed compassion.
I visited Gaza during the First Intifada, and tried to make sense of what I had seen in a subsequent newspaper column.
"Have you entered any of the homes?" one soldier asked me. "How they live — it's so terrible."
This was my take at the time:
Israelis know that Gaza seethes, in part, because 19 years of cruel Egyptian occupation, followed by 22 years of much less cruel, but no less frustrating, Israeli occupation, have bred an unbearably choking discontent. There are three times as many mosques as there were in 1967 and tens of thousands more children. These have combined to spawn a bitter generation of Palestinians with nothing much to lose by violence and possibly a martyr's heaven to gain. Palestinians who have known occupation all their lives resent — for perfectly understandable human reasons — the soldiers who patrol their streets, search their homes, and arrest their friends.
The teeming youth of Gaza turned out to be the perfect raw material with which to fashion an intifada. Israel's most hardened enemies — the PLO thugs pledged since 1964 to its liquidation — didn't miss their chance. Almost from the start, they have exploited the intifada brilliantly.
A day in Gaza left me with fewer answers, not more.
Israel dares not withdraw from Gaza, for it would instantly become an armed, legal PLO base. But if the military presence is intensified, the resistance . . . will likewise intensify.
Yet within five years, Israel would begin to withdraw from Gaza, with grievous results.
In 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chief Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn, launching a supposed peace process that left onlookers and commentators jubilant. In exchange for Arafat's signed pledge to "renounce the use of terrorism and other acts of violence," Israel agreed to treat the PLO as a legitimate Palestinian government, and to empower Arafat with land, money, weapons, and political power. I was at the White House that day, watching as President Clinton coaxed Rabin into shaking Arafat's hand. The elation in the air was almost palpable. Peace was coming to the Holy Land! Longtime enemies were calling off their war! The dream of generations was blossoming before the world's eyes!
But the Oslo accords — the worst self-inflicted wound in Israel's history — didn't lead to peace. In the 24 months following the handshake, more Israelis were killed in bombings and suicide attacks than in any previous 24-month period in the country's history. Nonetheless, Israel persisted. In May 1994, it ended its military administration of the Gaza Strip, and began transferring governmental control to the newly empowered Palestinian Authority. Israeli forces left Gaza City, Khan Yunis, and the territory's other cities. They remained only to protect the bloc of settlements called Gush Katif in the southwest corner of Gaza near the Egyptian border, where about 9,000 Israeli Jews lived. Otherwise, all of Gaza, and 100 percent of Gaza's Arab residents, came under the jurisdiction of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.
All the while, Israel pursued the increasingly delusional "peace process." At Camp David in 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians virtually everything they claimed to be seeking — a sovereign state with its capital in East Jerusalem, 97 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, tens of billions of dollars in "compensation" for the plight of Palestinian refugees. To the intense chagrin of President Clinton, Arafat refused the offer. Instead he launched the bloodiest wave of terrorism in Israel's history — the Second Intifada.
The more concessions Israel made, the worse its relations with the Palestinians grew. Successive Israeli governments, prodded by Washington, kept seeking to quench Palestinian hostility with withdrawals and gestures of good will. Yet peace became more, not less, elusive. The hard-and-fast rejectionism of the Palestinian Authority didn't thaw, it calcified. As terror attacks mounted, however, the Israeli government never called a halt. Time and again, it proclaimed its faith in the "peace process" and upped the price it was willing to pay for a final settlement. With every new concession, Palestinian leaders grew more certain that the Jews were on the run — and that hitting them even harder would bring even greater returns.
In 2004 Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed the most extreme concession of all: the total "disengagement" of Israel from Gaza. He announced that every settlement in Gush Katif would be dismantled, and that the Israeli military would remove every single Jewish resident from the territory, by force if necessary. The planned expulsion was nothing less than the most radical act of ethnic self-cleansing in recorded history. Yet Sharon's plan was approved by the government, supported by a majority of Israeli citizens, and overwhelmingly endorsed by governments and media worldwide. (There was a handful of dissenters.)
As Israeli officials described it, the blessings of "disengagement" would far outweigh any drawbacks. "It will be good for us and will be good for the Palestinians," forecast then-Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was to succeed Sharon a few months later. "It will bring more security, greater safety, much more prosperity, and a lot of joy for all the people that live in the Middle East." Olmert was sure that after disengagement, "a new morning of great hope will emerge in our part of the world," and that Israelis and Palestinians together would make the Middle East "what it was destined to be from the outset, a paradise for all the world."
The departure from Gaza, the ejection of its few thousand Jewish residents, and the transfer of total control over the territory to the Palestinian Authority was scheduled for August 2005. In May 2005, I went to pay one last visit.
Gush Katif was beautiful. I spent the day exploring several of its communities, speaking with the residents — many of whom had never lived anywhere else — and admiring the grit and love with which they had brought their sterile little corner of the world to life. We talked about politics and the coming evacuation, of course, but also about much else. Including, as I subsequently wrote, flowers:
GADID, Gaza Strip — Plots of flowers grow outside most of the homes we pass as we drive through this small agricultural cooperative in southern Gaza. I point out a particularly lavish one, and the driver, a gruff 55-year-old, stops the car.
"What are those white ones?" I ask, motioning through the window. "And those yellow ones with the orange tips?"
From the back seat, Rafi Horowitz, a veteran of four Arab-Israeli wars, calls out a Hebrew name for one of them. Debbie Rosen, a resident of nearby Neveh Dekalim and a spokeswoman for Gaza's Jewish communities, isn't sure he's got it right. I get out of the car to take a closer look, and a moment later all three Israelis are in the garden with me, admiring the flowers and arguing about their names. A consensus is reached on the begonias, hibiscus, and pimpernel, but the white ones remain an enigma.
Rosen knocks on the front door and tells the man who opens it about the botanical debate underway in his front yard. He steps back inside, then reappears with a well-worn guide to the flora of the Holy Land. In it we find a picture of our mystery flower: white bougainvillea.
A visitor would have to be strangely obtuse not to sense the deep attachment of Gaza's Jews to the land they live on. Gadid is the kind of place where even tough army veterans take an interest in flowers — a place whose streets and kindergartens are named for the seven biblical species of fruits and grains. "Gadid" itself is an old Hebrew word for the date harvest, and the names of other settlements, like Pe'at Sadeh ("edge of the field") or Netzarim ("sprouts"), similarly evoke the agricultural yearnings of their founders.
When those founders first arrived in the years after the Six Day War, Jewish Gaza was all yearning and no agriculture: The settlements were mostly built on barren sand dunes where no one lived and nothing grew. Over the years it was transformed into a horticultural powerhouse, supplying two-thirds of Israel's organic vegetable exports, and particularly renowned for its bug-free lettuce and other greens.
Though the settlements of Gush Katif were largely built on sand dunes where no one had ever lived or farmed, they became famous for their greenhouses and agricultural exports.
"Gaza's legal status may be complicated (it is technically an unallocated portion of the League of Nations' 1922 Palestine Mandate)," I wrote, "but the moral status of this land is as clear as day: As a matter of justice and sweat equity, the Jewish homesteaders whose faith and hard work have made the sand dunes bloom surely have as much right to their homes in Gadid and Neveh Dekalim as the Arabs have to theirs in nearby Khan Yunis and Dir El Balah."
I spent part of my day speaking with some of those Arab residents, too. On a tour of Tnuvot Katif, a large produce packaging plant, I watched for a while as two dozen workers got heads of tall leaf lettuce ready for shipment. More than half of the company's 127 employees were local Arabs; they accounted for about 2 percent of the 3,500 Arabs employed by Gaza's Jewish firms. The looming departure of the Israelis, I discovered, filled them not with glee but with dismay.
During a break in the shift, I ask some of workers if they like their jobs. They shrug — rinsing and bagging lettuce is no one's idea of exciting work. But when I ask what they think of the coming Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, they grow animated. If the Israelis go, some of them tell me through an interpreter, they'll lose their jobs. If this plant shuts down, they'll be out of work, and if the Palestinian Authority takes it over, they'll still be out of work — the jobs will go to workers with better connections to the PA's ruling thugs.
"If that's how you feel," I ask, "why don't you oppose the disengagement publicly? Why don't you tell the PA that you want your Jewish neighbors to stay?"
When my question is translated, the men look at me as if I'm crazy.
"It's forbidden!" replies Randoor, the only one of the workers who would give even his first name. "We're not allowed to say that!"
I press him: Why not? What would be so bad about saying that Jews and Arabs should be able to live together? But Randoor shakes his head and crosses his wrists, as if being handcuffed. "They might put us in jail," he says. "They might call us 'collaborators.'" In the jungle that is Palestinian society, being called a "collaborator" can be a death sentence. Indeed, the PA's newly elevated security chief — a cold-blooded killer named Rashid Abu Shabak — is known in Gaza as the "collaborator hunter." In recent years, reports Khaled Abu Toameh of the Jerusalem Post, Abu Shabak has "hunted down" scores of Palestinians accused of helping Israel prevent terror attacks. Who knows what he might do to any Palestinian who would dare to call for the Israelis to stay?
At a time when politicians and pundits the world over were applauding Sharon's coming retreat, a humble lettuce-packer like Randoor grasped a truth that so many were blind to: The lives of Gaza's Arabs were not going to be improved by expelling Gaza's Jews.
No one's lives were improved.
Three months after my last visit to Gaza, the army was sent in and the Jewish residents were escorted out. Their homes, schools, and shops were demolished. The remains of 48 Gush Katif residents buried in the local cemetery were disinterred, to be reburied in Israel. Only the synagogues were left standing, out of respect for their sacred status, and 3,000 high-tech greenhouses, which had been purchased by American Jewish philanthropists and donated to the Palestinian Authority as a show of goodwill and fraternity.
But that goodwill and fraternity were not reciprocated by Gaza's now-unchallenged rulers.
"Today you leave Gaza in humiliation," Hamas chieftain Mohammed Deif taunted the Israelis, who crowed that Israel was pulling out because years of attacks had made Gaza "hell" for them. "We promise that tomorrow, with Allah's help, all of Palestine will be hell for you."
With the Jews out, Palestinians surged into the abandoned settlements and immediately burned down the empty synagogues. Within days, the valuable greenhouses had been trashed, as looters stripped them of irrigation hoses, water pumps, and plastic sheeting. Almost at once, Kassam rockets began flying over the border into nearby Israeli communities — the beginning of a terrorist torrent that would continue, off and on, for the next 16 years. In January 2006, Hamas handily defeated Fatah (the main faction of the PLO) in Palestinian Authority elections; by 2007, Hamas had seized total control in Gaza, and imposed a brutal Islamist reign of terror.
The rest is history, culminating in the bloodshed and destruction unleashed this month by Hamas's latest campaign of rocket barrages into Israel. In the 16 years since Israel unilaterally "disengaged" from Gaza, it has found itself compelled to conduct six large-scale military operations to protect its citizens from widespread slaughter. By ending its occupation of Gaza, Israel told itself it would achieve "more security, greater safety, much more prosperity, and a lot of joy." It achieved none of those things. Disengagement, like the Oslo "peace process," proved a disaster in every respect, not only for Israel, but for the nearly 2 million Palestinians forced to live under the cruelty and fanaticism of Hamas.
When I first visited Gaza as a teen, Hamas was nonexistent, the PLO was no one's idea of a "peace partner," and Israel was in full control of the territory it had taken from Egypt in a war of self-defense. It was far from an ideal situation, but not so far that tourists couldn't walk around in safety, menaced by nothing more dangerous than pushy souvenir-vendors. Even the Gaza of my second visit was preferable to what exists now: There was sporadic civil disobedience and street violence, but not flights of missiles aimed at Israel's civilians or bloodthirsty incitement calculated to indoctrinate an entire generation in murderous Jew-hatred.
Peace will never come to Gaza until Hamas is destroyed and Palestinian culture liberalized and detoxified. Alas, there is no prospect of that happening in the foreseeable future. Gaza's dictators and Islamist zealots will continue to preside over the hellscape they have fashioned. And my three trips to Gaza will never be augmented by a fourth.
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The last line
"For you see, in Ireland there is no future, only the past happening over and over." — Leon Uris, Trinity (1976)
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(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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