Locals watch the bombing of Gaza from a hill in the town of Sderot, overlooking Gaza, 2014

© Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

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Gaza in the Minds of Israelis

A new collection of essays, published just before October 7th, captures the complexity of the current war

Benny Morris
February 20, 2024
Locals watch the bombing of Gaza from a hill in the town of Sderot, overlooking Gaza, 2014

© Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

On April 29, 1956, Ro’i Rothberg, the security officer of Nahal Oz—one of the kibbutzim attacked by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7, 2023—was gunned down by Palestinian ambushers who had infiltrated Israel from the Gaza Strip. During the previous weeks, Rothberg had routinely chased off infiltrators who had come to reap the sorghum crop from the kibbutz’s fields. The ambush was the payback.

The following day the IDF chief of general staff, Moshe Dayan, delivered a memorable eulogy at the graveside. He said:

Yesterday, at dawn, Ro’i was murdered … Let us not, today, cast blame on the murderers. What can we say against their terrible hatred of us? For eight years now, they have sat in the refugee camps of Gaza, and have watched how, before their very eyes, we have turned their lands and villages, where they and their forefathers previously dwelled, into our home … How did we shut our eyes, and refuse to look squarely at our fate and see, in all its brutality, the destiny of our generation? Can we forget that this group of youngsters [i.e., Ro’i’s fellow kibbutzniks], sitting in Nahal-Oz, carries on its shoulders the heavy gates of Gaza? Beyond the furrow of the border surges a sea of hatred and revenge; revenge that looks towards the day when the calm will blunt our alertness … We are a generation of settlement [dor hitnahalut] and without the steel helmet and the gun’s muzzle we will not be able to plant a tree and build a house. Let us not fear to look squarely at the hatred that consumes and fills the lives of hundreds [of thousands] of Arabs who live around us … [We must be] ready and armed, tough and harsh—or else the sword shall fall from our hands and our lives will be cut short.

A few months after Rothberg’s murder, the Gaza Strip—along with the Sinai Peninsula—was conquered in the Sinai-Suez War of October-November 1956 by the IDF, led by Moshe Dayan.

In May 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence (or, in Arab parlance, the “Nakba,” meaning the catastrophe), Egypt had occupied the Gaza Strip, which was until then part of British Mandate-ruled Palestine. The Egyptians held onto it until November 1956 when it fell to the IDF. After four months of Israeli rule, the Strip returned once more to Egyptian control and remained Egyptian, with no thought of it becoming a self-governed territory, until it was conquered again by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Over the decades, the Strip has periodically been the springboard of attacks on Israel and the target of Israeli retaliation. Israel formally pulled out of the Strip in 2005, leaving it in the hands of the homegrown Islamist movement Hamas, which since then has periodically attacked Israeli settlements and troops with rockets, missiles, and mortars. This campaign culminated in the surprise Oct. 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel. The current IDF counteroffensive against Hamas is shaping up to be the third Israeli conquest and occupation of the Gaza Strip.

By the end of the 1948 war, some 700,000 Arabs had been uprooted from their homes in what had become the State of Israel, and thus they became refugees. Close to 200,000 of them ended up in the Gaza Strip. Most, like Ahmad Yassin, the founder of Hamas, originated in the nearby villages around the Strip that eventually became part of Israel. Today the Strip has a population of some 2.2-2.3 million, three-quarters of whom are descendants of the 1948 refugees, and a quarter of whom are the descendants of the area’s pre-1948 population.

How did we shut our eyes, and refuse to look squarely at our fate and see, in all its brutality, the destiny of our generation?

Gaza has long loomed large in the minds of Israelis—a crucial capital of their mental maps.

In 2010 Israeli artist Tamir Zadok produced a nine-minute mockumentary called “The Gaza Canal” (te’alat ‘aza). Mixing maps, news and video clips, photographs, satellite imagery, and “interviews” with experts, the mockumentary depicted how in 2002 an Israeli American political-geographic project physically severed the Gaza Strip from Israel and Egypt by cutting a deep, 61-kilometer trench or canal along Gaza’s borders with Israel and Egypt. The operation eventually triggered an earthquake which, while devastating Gaza’s cities, effectively deepened the fissure and set the Strip adrift in the Mediterranean. A border that had been a battlefield for more than five decades, was transformed into an island of parks, smiling girls, high tech enterprises and joyous sun-tanned tourists.

Thus Yitzhak Rabin’s famous 1992 fantasy wish—“for my part, Gaza can sink in the sea” (which he immediately rolled back by adding “[unfortunately] it is not possible”)—was now magically transformed by Zadok into an ideal resolution of the Gaza problem beneficial to all: a battlefield transmogrified into a resort-cum-pleasure dome for local Arabs and international clientele. In the mockumentary the narrator declares: Don’t say “it can’t be done”—in Hebrew i efshar. But i efshar in Hebrew can also mean “island (i) [is] possible (efshar)”—“an island of commerce, industry … a green island … an ecological island … a symbol of health … change … an island of perfection.”

Sadly, Zadok’s utopia, like all utopias, was a fantasy and remains unrealized.

Gaza also figured large, metaphorically, in the rhetoric of the Palestinian national movement. Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestinian national movement from the 1960s until his death in 2004, famously declared that those who doubt that the Palestinian aspiration for statehood will ever be realized “should go drink from the waters of Gaza’s sea.”

Now a new academic work, Gaza: Place and Image in the Israeli Landscape (Gama Publishers, 2023), edited by Omri Ben Yehuda and Dotan Halevy, which appeared in Israel just before the Oct. 7 assault, looks at the role of Gaza in the Israeli imagination more fully. An anthology of essays by Israelis and Arabs, it deals as much with metaphor and rhetorical devices as it does with history. In it, Amira Hass, a daughter of two Holocaust survivors and longtime columnist in Haaretz, devotes a long essay to Gaza’s refugee population. Hass knows her subject intimately—she lived in the Strip from 1993 to 1997 (and currently lives in the Arab town of Al-Bira in the West Bank). Her essay, “Both on the Fringes and at the Center: Gaza as the Palestinian Microcosm,” begins: “Whoever has not tasted Gaza’s local Sheikh Ajlin grapes has never tasted [good] grapes. Juicy, mildly sweet, soft on the palate.” But many of the Sheikh Ajlin vineyards “have been uprooted over the past twenty years in the [successive] offensives of destruction and revenge carried out by the IDF [in response to Palestinian rocketing and terrorism].”

Gaza, Hass points out, used to export wine in Byzantine times, when the Strip, with Gaza City at its center, was a crossroads of empires and peoples, where goods and ideas were liberally exchanged. “The historical accident generated by Israel”—Hass presumably means in 1948, 1967, and the virtual siege of Hamas-ruled Gaza since 2005—turned Gaza into an isolated enclave. “The abomination [sha’aruriya] lies in Israel’s success in imprisoning the Strip’s two million inhabitants … and compressing them into a corner, transforming [the Strip] into a huge concentration of beggars [mikbatz ‘anak shel mekabtzei nedavot].”

During the first decades of the post-1967 Israeli occupation, Gazans were relatively free to visit Israel (and the West Bank) and work in Israeli settlements, including in the border-hugging kibbutzim. But this freedom disappeared in the early 2000s as rocketing, terrorism, and counterterrorism became daily fare along the border.

As Hass points out, the isolation of Gaza over the decades has shaped a distinct identity and esprit de corps that today separates its inhabitants physically and psychologically from their cousins in Israel (the Israeli Arab minority) and also from Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. No doubt the Gazan experience since the start of the IDF counteroffensive that began on Oct. 8—with most of the population turning into internal refugees inside the Strip’s devastated buildings and infrastructure—can only have deepened this separate and distinct identity. “Gaza became a mini-Palestine,” writes Hass of the years before Oct. 7, and it is no wonder that the leadership of the Palestinian armed factions—(the “resistance,” in Palestinian parlance) largely emerged from Gaza’s refugee camps.

Since 2005, as Dotan Halevy, one of the anthology’s editors puts it in the introduction, a generation has grown up in Gaza “that knows nothing of Israel” (and in Israel, a generation that “knows nothing of Gaza”). Unfortunately, that generation of Israelis is now getting to know Gaza too well. During the Oct. 7 assault, hundreds or even thousands of the Strip’s civilians streamed into southern Israel. They plundered and, alongside the Hamas fighters, murdered and raped—while their faces shone with profound joy.

In one of her contributions to the anthology, Sama Hassan, a Gazan writer and journalist voicing the anguish of Gazans, writes: “My friends in this enfeebled and tired and stubborn and proud land, Gaza is like a woman struggling with her drunk husband. He wakes up sober and clear-headed in the morning, but his disheveled hair and bloated eyes are a constant reminder that he will return to the bottle and to unleash mayhem when night falls.”

One of the volume’s most striking essays is “Daddy Works in Gaza,” by Yuval ‘Arab ‘Ivri, the son of Nissim ‘Arab ‘Ivri, an Israeli administrator who worked in Gaza between 1973 and 1983 during the second Israeli occupation. Yuval teaches in the Near East and Jewish Studies Department at Brandeis University. Nissim was in charge of employment in the Strip and Sinai. Looking through the family photo albums, the son, who was 9 when Nissim abandoned the home and family, notes that his father looks like his Arab colleagues and clients—dark-skinned with a prominent black moustache and an un-Israeli suit. The family apartment was bedecked with a collection of swords Nissim had acquired in Gaza. Nissim was at one with his Arab work environment—he was a native Arabic speaker, born in Basra, Iraq, in 1938.

Many of Israel’s post-1967 occupation officials, in Gaza as in the West Bank, were of Middle Eastern origin, hired because of their fluency in the language and culture of the occupied. “His Arabness [‘arviyuto] had changed from a hump [hatoteret] that needed to be hidden and erased to an ‘expertise’ or ‘merchandise’ that opened up new vocational opportunities [and an avenue to] social mobility,” writes the son.

But, at the same time, the new job did not provide internal tranquility. “My father’s sense of shame from his Arabness, which was dominant during my childhood and youth, was, over time, replaced by another type of shame, of an almost opposite [order] … a sense of embarrassment because of his work in the civil [meaning military] administration in Gaza and from his involvement in the service of the Israeli occupation.” Yuval notes that the upper echelons of the Israeli occupation bureaucracy in the Palestinian territories were manned by Ashkenazi Jews.

His work seemingly allowed Nissim to reconnect with the language of his childhood, with his roots. But Yuval notes that the Arabic used by the Israeli administrators who helped oversee Gaza’s occupation was not the Arabic spoken in Iraq’s streets but a hybrid Arabic-Hebrew construct, studded with words pertinent to an occupation—an Arabic of “permits, and prohibitions,” of “regulations and guidelines,” a language that had passed through a mechanism of Israeli “securitization” (bit’honizatziya).

In a throwaway line, Yuval reveals that one of his uncles, David (‘Arab) ‘Ivri, was among the founders of Kibbutz Be’eri, another of the kibbutzim ravaged by Hamas on Oct. 7.

Uri Cohen, who teaches Hebrew and Italian literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in his essay “Gaza Has Come: The White City and the Twin City,” argues that Gaza is “the ghost of the country, of Palestine.” By which he means that Gaza is in effect a mirror image of “little Israel, a crowded and closed entity of refugees. Israel and Gaza contain each other like Babushka dolls: a narrow strip [of land], unconscionably crowded, with tightly shut borders, with hostile neighbors, whose name carries [the weight of] the past.”

In his essay “The Refugee as an Enemy,” Omri Ben Yehuda, the anthology’s co-editor, notes that Gaza’s refugees are not “run-of-the-mill refugees … who seek shelter but flatly demand [the territory of] Israel itself, [that is] those who were dispossessed from [Israel] desire to inherit [or dispossess] those who dispossessed them.” This highlights the left-liberal Israelis’ abiding dilemma: The Palestinian national movement’s unwillingness to reach a two-state compromise, and its ultimate goal of possessing all of Palestine for itself, mirrors the right-wing Israelis’ desire to possess, unshared, the whole Land of Israel.

Benny Morris is an Israeli historian and the author, most recently, of Sidney Reilly: Master Spy (Yale 2022).

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