Eyeless in Gaza

The Strip has always been a strategic, populous and potentially valuable piece of real-estate.

October 13, 2007 20:59
Eyeless in Gaza

cute Hamas kid 224.88. (photo credit: AP [file])


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Arms-smuggling, Katyusha launchings, the murder of a member of the Christian minority - the Gaza Strip is embroiled in violence. But the trials and tribulations of Gaza did not start with the Hamas takeover in June 2007; nor with the unilateral Israeli withdrawal two years previously. The area has changed hands dozens of times and sustained siege after siege. In the Six Day War the Egyptians lost it to the Israelis, who had also held it briefly in 1956-57 during the Suez Campaign. After the British Mandate and the War of Independence it came under Egyptian administration in 1949, but before the Mandate it had been attacked by the British Army under General Sir Archibald Murray in 1916 and 1917. However, thanks to German stiffening of the Turkish garrison, it did not fall. Murray was dismissed and replaced by General Edmund "the Bull" Allenby, who made the Turks believe he would attack Gaza again, but actually went for Beersheba. It fell with little resistance and Gaza followed, allowing Allenby to march on Jerusalem and make it a Christmas present to prime minister Lloyd-George, as he had been ordered to do. In the 12th century the Crusaders held Gaza until Saladin conquered it from them in 1170. In Arab hands Gaza City flourished with a considerable Jewish population until the 19th century. The invasion of 1799 by Napoleon, on his way from Egypt to Acre, had little effect as, after his ships were sunk by the British navy in Alexandria harbor, he retreated down the coast nearly as fast as he had advanced up it. THE ARABS laid siege to Gaza and captured it in 635 from the Byzantines, who had allowed a great synagogue to flourish in the center of the city. What remained of its fine mosaics, including a representation of David taming the wild animals with his harp, as uncovered in 1967, is now safely in the Israel Museum. The Hasmonean king Alexander Jannai laid a lengthy siege to the city in 96 BCE and partially destroyed it in revenge for the fact that his great-uncle Jonathan had been unable to capture it 50 years earlier. After its recapture by the Romans it was rebuilt in classical style by the governor Gabinius in 57 BCE. Before the Hasmoneans, Gaza, under the Ptolemies, had been a great trading center, an emporium on the Mediterranean, accepting grain from Egypt and exporting olive oil from the Judaean hinterland, and the exotic frankincense and myrrh of the East coming over the spice route from Sheba and the Yemen. The Ptolemies of Egypt had taken over from Alexander the Great, who had had to spend several months besieging Gaza before it fell. Gaza was the only city in this country that had resisted Alexander, and he was not pleased. In fact he was wounded at the siege and it is possible that while he was convalescing he spent some time up in Jerusalem, as Josephus and the Talmud relate. The story that he went up to the Temple and dismounted from his horse to bow down to the High Priest Shimon, who had come out to greet him, is seen as fiction by most historians, but this unnecessary detour may have been made possible by the protracted siege of Gaza and the wounds that forced Alexander to rest before crossing the Sinai. Long before Alexander, his deadly rivals, the Persians, had besieged Gaza in 529 BCE and the Emperor Cambyses had turned it into a royal fortress and trade center. THE IMPORTANCE of Gaza as a trade center goes back to the Assyrians' conquest of the Palestinian coastline and their desire to secure the route to Egypt. At Gaza they established a kind of free trade zone on the doorstep to Egypt, which did not have to pay taxes to Egypt or to the Philistine hinterland. On the contrary it collected its own dues and taxes on all the products that came into and went out of this key port. The resultant wealth was used to attract colonists to the city and thus protect this route to the south. Even in the time of the Assyrians, in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, the Philistine influence was still paramount. It dated from the 12th century BCE, when Gaza was the most important of the five cities of the Philistines, who formed a thorn in the side of the Israelites. There Samson paid a courtesy visit on a call-girl, and when his enemies planned to trap him in the city, he wrenched off its gates and carried them off to the Hebron hills. But in Gaza he also met his end, after his encounter with Delilah. Being imprisoned there, "eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves" (Milton), he was soon taking his revenge on Gaza by bringing down the temple of Dagon on his tormentors. IN SPITE of his great strength and great deeds Samson could not throw off the yoke of the Philistines and it was only some 150 years later that king David was said to have neutralized the Philistines and confined them to the coastal strip. They, the Sea Peoples, had attempted to sail to the riches of Egypt from their homeland in the Aegean, and had been driven up the coast by Rameses III and forced to settle in Gaza and cities further north. Much evidence of the Philistines has been excavated by archaeologist Trude Dothan, the Israel Prize laureate, who shifted vast quantities of sand at Deir el Balah, 13 kilometers south-west of Gaza. There she dug up 50 anthropoid (human-shaped) clay coffins with realistic if grotesque heads that now stand in a somber row in the Israel Museum. Besides pottery, the burials contained carnelian and gold jewelry, royal Egyptian scarabs (charms) and objects in bronze, and even a wine set consisting of a jar, a strainer and a bowl. These testify to the richness of the Philistine population of the 12th and 11th century BCE. In this area the Philistines replaced the Egyptian colonists who had been in residence from the time of Pharaoh Thutmosis III. He had seized Gaza in 1468 BCE, on the anniversary of his coronation, and made it the chief Egyptian base in Canaan and a major administrative center for the colonization of the country. It was from there that "his Majesty" struck north and defeated the kings of Canaan at the pass of Megiddo, the gateway to the Galilee and Syria. GAZA CITY LIES some two or three kilometers from the coast, but the city of Tell el-Ajjul, which the great archeologist Flinders Petrie considered to be the original ancient city of Gaza, lies right on the coast, where the estuary of Nahal Besor runs into the Mediterranean. Here he found a thriving great city which, judging from the extensive burials and several gold hoards, was rich and prosperous in the Middle Bronze Age, that is, before and after 1800 BCE. Petrie considered this to be in part a city of the Hyksos people, who had invaded Egypt in about 1650 BCE and been driven out 100 years later. It was with them, according to Josephus, that the Bnei Yisrael came out from Egypt. On their expulsion, the Hyksos settled in Tell el-Ajjul before travelling further north to their original bases in Syrian. It seems that the Egyptians, chasing them out of the Delta, pursued them to this part of Gaza and then besieged it for three years; but it is not clear whether the city succumbed or not. So, unlike later cases, this very early siege of Gaza may not have lead to a downfall of the city, but rather to a retreat of the attackers. Thus we know of 13 or more major successful attacks on Gaza, by the Egyptians under Thutmosis III, by the Philistines from Crete, by the Assyrians of Tiglat-Pileser, by the Persians under Cambyses, by Macedonians under Alexander the Great, by the Jews under Alexander Jannai, by the Romans under Pompey the Great, by the Arabs, by the Crusaders under Baldwin I, by Saladin and later the Turks, by Napoleon and the French, by the British under Allenby and then the modern Egyptians and the Israelis. What was the purpose of all this warlike activity? Gaza was strategic, and it remains so. Gaza was always populous, and it is certainly so now. Gaza was rich and beautiful, and it could be so again. The writer is a Fellow of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.

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