Israeli occupation reduced one of the Middle East’s oldest cities, with at least 4,000 years of history, into a packed Palestinian enclave besieged from all sides — sea, land and air.
Under the Roman Empire, Gaza was both a prosperous and diverse coastal city led by a 500-member Senate, receiving grants from several different emperors. Centuries later, under the Mamluks, a Muslim dynasty, it became the capital of a province that covered areas from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula to Caesarea, a town now in northern Israel.
More than at any other time, under the Ottomans, the predecessor state to Turkey, the city lived through its golden age, and particularly so in the 16th century, when the Ottoman Empire conquered much of the Middle East, from Egypt to Syria, to present-day Lebanon and Palestine.
But now, after decades of brutal Israeli occupation of Palestine, Gaza has become the Gaza Strip, an enclave under siege, one of the world’s most impoverished places. It is the world’s third most densely populated city as more than two million Palestinians have been forced to live in an area of 362 square kilometres. To break it down further, it is just 41 kilometres long and between 6 to 12 kilometres wide.
Since the 1948 War, when full-blown fighting broke out between Israel and neighbouring Arab states, many Palestinians were forced out of their homes. The war ended up being a historic disaster for the Arab camp. Tens of thousands of displaced refugees were moved into Gaza. Over the years, the city swelled with more and more internally displaced Palestinians, choking its roads and neighbourhoods with large populations.
But Israelis would not leave them at peace there either. The Zionist state militarily occupied the city from 1967 to 2005. Even after pulling out troops, the Israeli state not only put Gazans under massive surveillance, but also bombed and invaded it several times, killing thousands of Palestinians.
Here is a brief history of the city since the WWI:
The British occupation
During WWI, the British-French imperialist axis aimed to take over the Middle East provinces from the Ottoman Empire. According to Sykes-Picot of 1916, a secret agreement between the two colonialist powers, Britain was offered Palestine, Egypt, Iraq and the Peninsula of Arabia, and France took Syria and Lebanon.
After three fierce battles with the Ottomans in Gaza, in 1917, Britain invaded Gaza, making it part of the British Mandate of Palestine, which was sanctioned by the League of Nations, the predecessor organisation to the UN. The mandate ensured that Britain ruled Palestine, including Gaza, for a period of 25 years between 1923 and 1948.
The 1917 British occupation of Palestine also marked another important political development, the release of the Balfour Declaration. It was a letter from Arthur James Balfour, the then-British foreign secretary, to Lionel Walter Rothschild, a prominent Zionist leader, stating British support for a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine, paving the way for Israel.
When the British mandate over Palestine began, the Jewish population was nine percent. With the immigration of European Jews under British allowance, this percentage rose to nearly 27 percent of the total population between 1922 and 1935.
Under Egyptian rule
The last year of Britain's Palestine mandate, 1948, witnessed a major war between Israel and neighbouring Arab countries. With the defeat of Arab states, Israel claimed much of Palestine except East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza, occupying more land than the UN’s initial plan allowed.
In Palestinian memory, the 1948 defeat has been coded as "al Naqba", meaning "the Catastrophe" as Israel's victory led to the mass displacement of some 700,000 members of the Palestinian community. Many ended up in Gaza.
During the war, Gaza came under Egyptian control. In September 1948, prior to the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the Arab League declared the All-Palestine Government in Gaza City. While the government was not recognised by the international community, residents of Gaza held All-Palestine passports until the late 1950s
During the war, Gaza was invaded by Israel. But a truce between Egypt and Israel in January 1949 returned the Egyptian control to Gaza, allowing Cairo to keep a strip of land along the Eastern Mediterranean coast. Since then, Gaza has been called the Gaza Strip.
The Suez Crisis of 1956 brought another Israeli invasion to Gaza along with the Sinai Peninsula, but Tel Aviv withdrew from the city under international pressure. In 1959, the All-Palestine Government, whose administrative seat was moved to Cairo from Gaza in the 1950s, was completely dissolved by the Egyptian government.
Egypt had maintained its control over Gaza until the 1967 War with Israel. During this period, over 200,000 Palestinians moved from Israeli occupied territories to Gaza, alarmingly lowering their standard of living in the city.
Israeli occupation: 1967-2005
The Six Day War of 1967, fought between Israel and an Egyptian-led Arab coalition, brought another disaster to Palestinians, making them lose more territories as the Zionist state occupied their remaining territories, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and also Gaza.
Despite Zionist control over Gaza, Israeli leaders had long worried about Gaza’s pro-resistance population, which became increasingly angry with more migrations from other occupied territories. In response to the resistance, Israeli leaders came up with inhumane destructive measures to force Palestinians out of Gaza.
Right after the occupation, then-Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol reportedly said that "Perhaps if we don't give them enough water they won't have a choice, because the orchards will yellow and wither." Israel’s inhuman political tactics and economic measures enormously impoverished Gaza, once a prosperous city. In the late 2000s, 70 percent of Palestinian residents were unemployed and about 80 percent of them lived in poverty.
During its occupation, Israel also established illegal settlements across Gaza.
Despite all Zionist measures, the emergence of the First Intifada in 1987 showed that the Palestinian resistance stayed alive across Gaza and other occupied territories. The first incident, which triggered the Palestinian rebellion, characteristically happened in Gaza.
After an Israeli army truck killed four Palestinian workers, most of whom were from Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp following a collision, Gazans rebelled saying that it was a deliberate act to kill victims. Some also believed that it was a response to the killing of a Jew in Gaza days earlier.
The First Intifada could only be stopped in 1991 by the Madrid Conference, peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis, which eventually led to the failed Oslo Accords.
Partial Palestinian control under Oslo Accords
The 1993 Oslo Accords ensured partial control under the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) led by Yasser Arafat in Gaza and Jericho, a town in West Bank. Prior to the accord, another Israeli decency toward Gaza was in play as Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli prime minister, said that "I would like Gaza to sink into the sea, but that won't happen, and a solution must be found."
While Israelis partially left Gaza to the newly established Palestinian National Authority (PNA), which later evolved to the current Palestinian Authority (PA), under the Oslo mechanisms, much of PNA actions should be in coordination with Tel Aviv, leaving Arafat’s administration weak and ineffective.
After the Israeli withdrawal from some occupied areas in 1994, Arafat chose Gaza as the seat of the first PNA administration. But following the collapse of Camp David peace talks in 2000, tensions escalated once again. Israeli hardliner Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s provocative Al Aqsa visit in 2000 triggered the Second Intifada.
During the Second Intifada, Gaza again became the centre of resistance against Tel Aviv as Hamas and Islamic Jihad defended the Palestinian enclave by launching rockets toward Israeli territory.
Israeli withdrawal of 2005
Experts cite the Second Intifada as one of the main reasons behind the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Under Sharon, Israel dismantled its 21 illegal settlements in Gaza, evicting 9,000 Jews. The Israeli army also pulled out from Gaza under the state’s disengagement plan.
Despite its withdrawal, Israel has launched several ground invasions against Gaza, starting from 2006 until now, leading to the deaths of thousands of Palestinians. Gazans have fiercely fought against Israeli forces during full-scale ground invasions in 2006, 2008-09 and 2014, forcing the Israeli army to leave the Palestinian enclave.
The rise of Hamas
Hamas, which was originally the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, was founded in Gaza in 1987. The political group refuses to recognise the failed Oslo Accords, defending armed resistance against Israel. The group has steadily increased its support among Palestinians.
After Hamas’s legislative victory in 2006, the Mahmoud Abbas-led PLO denied Hamas coming to power, escalating political tensions between the two groups. In 2007, Hamas, believing its political rights were gravely violated, took over Gaza from Fatah, the leading organisation in the PLO.
Since then, Gaza has been under Hamas control.