Gaza’s Long History


Gaza: Long History of Wars and Defiance

By – Saeb Shaath

 January 2008

Gaza is one of the world’s oldest living cities. It is a city held to be of major strategic importance. It was the only overland route between Africa and Asia, which led Egypt to establish, in 3500 B.C., the citadel of Tell Sakan on the banks of the Wadi Ghazzeh, some 12km from the modern city. In the second millennia B.C., the Egyptians lost control of the city to the “Hyksos”, who expanded Gaza nearer to the sea front and built “Tell Al-Ajjul”.

Hyksos people marched southward and captured the Great Egyptian Empire, about 1650 B.C. They lasted around 100 years, before the Egyptian Army chased them out to the outskirts of Gaza. History informs us that the Egyptian then failed to crack Gaza and retreated.

Some 200 years later Gaza once again fell under the domination of Egypt, an event marked in history as the conquest by Thutmose III on April 25, 1468 B.C.Gaza’s history has been shaped by its strategic location; in 734 B.C., the Assyrian Empire took complete control of Gaza. The Persian Empire in 539 B.C. expanded and annexed Gaza.

In Gaza there is the ancient Greek city of Antidon dated to around 520 B.C., a port and settlement four kilometres from the Gaza city. In 332 B.C., Alexander the Great besieged Gaza, the last city to resist his design, for the control of the ancient world.

Most of the old Babylonian domain, including Egypt, swiftly fell into Alexander’s hands. Gaza dared to resist; a siege of two months followed by a ruin as complete as that of Tyre. The defenders, mostly local Arabs, fought to death, the women and children were taken captive.

In 145 B.C. Gaza was conquered by Jonathan the Hasmonean (brother of Judah the Maccabee) who destroyed the suburbs of Gaza by fire. The Jewish King Alexander Jannaeus, after a siege of a year, brought destruction and massacres around 96 B.C. Neither Alexander the Great’s bloody conquest in 332B.C. nor the brutal one by Alexander Janneus in 96 B.C. could vanquish Gaza who endured and rose again.

Around 50 B.C. Gaza became magnificent and so luxurious under the Romans. Gaza would reach the peak of civilization; its exports in the 5th century A.D. (during the Byzantine Empire) reached as far as England, Ireland and Geneva, Gaza’s schools graduated leading theologians such as Barsanuphius, John of Gaza and Mark the Deacon, whose writings profoundly influenced Christianity at its early stages.

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, famous Gazan Jews included the medieval liturgical poet Israel Najara, who is buried in Gaza’s local cemetery, the Sabbatean Prophet Nathan of Gaza as well as Rabbi Abraham Azulai who lived in Gaza in 1619. It was there that he wrote “Hesed le-Avraham”, the book for which he is remembered.

The arrival of Islam in 637 A.D. would not change Gaza’s unique character. Gaza remained a central crossroad. From the 8th century it sheltered the most highly celebrated school of law in all of Islam, founded by Muhammad Al-Shafi. The Crusaders under Baldwin I fought hard the Arab armies to control Gaza. In the 1170 the Crusaders lost Gaza to Saladin.

Gaza became a prosperous city under the Mameluks — between the 13th and 16th century. It was “A city so rich in trees it looks like a cloth of brocade spread out upon the land,” wrote the 14th century Syrian scholar Al-Dimashqi. In 1516, at the battle of Khan Yaunis, Gaza’s major southern town, Turkish forces under the Grand Vizier Sinan Pasha defeated the Mameluks and Gaza fell under Turkish control.

In 1660, Hussein Pasha made Gaza the capital of Palestine. Napoleon captured the Gaza city In February 1799, but when his forces entered the city terrible plague engulfed them and forced Napoleon to retreat from Gaza. In 1832 Mohammad Ali made Gaza part of Egypt. Soon it became part of the Ottoman Empire who fought the British three battles in defense of Gaza.

The Ottomans lost it to the British in the third battle of Gaza on Nov. 7, 1917 during World War I. Sir Archibald Murray who led the first and the second battle of Gaza in 1916-1917 was dismissed and replaced by “the Bull”, Gen. Edmund Allenby, who deceived the defenders by attacking Beersheba and then besieging Gaza. Gaza fell and Allenby’s road to Jerusalem opened up.

Israel captured Gaza in the 1967 war. On Sept. 12, 2005, the Israeli Cabinet formally declared an end to the military rule of Gaza; the IDF dismantled the settlements and retreated behind the walls and electric fences. It was another astonishing reminder of Gaza’s history and defiance.

The name Gaza means “strength and prevalence”; many layers of civilization lie beneath its busy streets. To uncover part of the ancient history of Gaza visit the Israel Museum, or the private collections of the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) generals who have Gaza’s history on display in their villas.

When we ride “Salh El Deen” (Saladin road), which connect Gaza’s cities towns and villages, we are riding a road that had been crossed by the greatest leaders, generals, Assyrians, Persians, prophets, Pharaohs, Alexander the Great, the Crusaders, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Turks, the British, even American presidents and chiefs of the CIA.

Gaza is still with us on planet earth and tells us: Armies have come and armies have gone and ancient Gaza has endured and risen repeatedly. Villains failed to send it in orbit to mars or sink it in the Mediterranean Sea; there is a lesson to be learned.

Gaza once again honored its past by defeating the IDF who is armed by the most sophisticated American war machines. The IDF retreated and sealed Gaza by massive walls, electric and electronic fences. The IDF’s companies continued sucking Gaza’s water out, and they are selling it back to the Gazans! Aren’t they so smart? Nothing gets in or out without the IDF approval.


Any goods in or out of Gaza, have to go through unique security examination. That by itself is a unique process since it destroys most of the goods, but who dares to object? Apart from the high taxes, their service to the little Palestinian producers is to keep the fresh produce (mainly vegetables, fruits and flowers) in the checkpoints for weeks.

The large Israel companies come to the scene, they take what Western supermarket chains need, and sell it for a very nice price; for fresh mint or flat leaf parsley we pay one British pound or two US dollars, for a small little bag of it. How much do you suppose Israel’s fat cats pay the little farmer in Palestine, for that bag, around two cents, that is if he is lucky to sell in the first place?

That is the happy scenario; the alternative is what happening now in Gaza: Utter devastation. Israeli military actions since 2000, according to the Israeli civil rights group B’Tselem, have killed four times as many civilians and eight times as many children as the number of Israelis killed by Palestinian violence.

Israeli factories got special production lines for the Palestinians; God knows why? Since they can consume only what the IDF allows them to, they are easy money for greedy capitalists in Israel. As all of us watched recently on CNN, BBC and Aljazeera news networks, Gaza is being subjected to a new style of holocaust. What the Gazans have to counter the IDF’s state-of-the art high-tech weapons with? They have their right to resist, and they improvise in making their primitive missiles. After all, they are imprisoned by the IDF.

Gazans are denied the necessities of existence. Why? Don’t we campaign for animal protection? Don’t we argue with the Japanese over whaling, don’t we pass laws against foxhunting? Why then ignore what is happening to the millions of refugees from Palestine? They are under attack on daily basis, for demanding the implantations of the UN resolutions that definitely granted them the right to return to their homes. The irony is that the same resolutions gave birth to the State of Israel!

 Saeb Shaath : An author , thinker , public speaker , Middle Eastern affairs expert  and a former diplomat. He is the co-founder of Irish Map (Medical Aid for Palestine).