Israeli forces continue to pound Gaza with airstrikes, killing hundreds, wounding thousands, and displacing even more. Just weeks after Human Rights Watch finally labeled Israel an apartheid state, Israel is doing its best to prove the designation amid widespread war crime accusations.
Gaza is not a state at war with Israel. A narrow strip of land subjected to a brutal siege for more than fifteen years, Gaza is alternately called the world’s largest refugee camp and the world’s largest open-air prison. UN reports describe it as “unlivable.” The majority of its two million people live in cramped refugee camps.
The bitter irony is that the dire situation in Gaza was created by Israel itself in the heat of war.
“We Have Turned Their Lands and Villages Into Our Home”
It began with the Nakba: the mass expulsion that accompanied Israel’s founding in 1948. About 750,000 Palestinians were forced to flee their homes; 250,000 of those uprooted flooded into Gaza, tripling the population overnight. Gaza became one big refugee camp — a giant tent city squashed between desert and sea.
The moral calamity was not lost even on top Israeli officials. In April 1956, military leader Moshe Dayan confessed: “What we can say against their terrible hatred of us? For eight years, 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 dwelled, into our home.”
Israel’s founders, notably David Ben-Gurion, foresaw the risk of concentrating tens of thousands of refugees in a coastal strip where natural obstacles prevented their dispersion. They feared the spectacle of “waves of refugees marching on Israel from Gaza.”
The United Nations, meanwhile, set up a special agency to provide assistance to Palestinian refugees (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) and approved a resolution calling on Israel to ensure Palestinian refugees could return to their homes.
Yet international pleas fell on deaf Israeli ears, and the fate of Gaza refugees was sealed. In the seven decades that followed the 1948 war, the gates of Gaza were slammed shut on its displaced population. Its impoverished, overcrowded refugee camps became permanent. And Israel attempted to solve the problem by wiping it out.
Invasion and Occupation
In November 1956, Israel marched on Gaza. First launching military raids on refugee camps, Israel then occupied Gaza for four months, culminating in two massacres at Khan Yunis and the Rafah camps. The human cost was so high that E. L. M. Burns, the head of a special UN observer mission in Gaza, said Israel’s actions showed it intended to get rid of Gaza’s refugee population.
In 1967, war again broke out and Israel invaded Gaza for the second time. It was no easy task: It took Israel six days to win the conflict, but four years to take control of Gaza. The fighting spurred a second exodus, as tens of thousands of refugees, still traumatized by the memory of the first occupation, fled the coastal strip to Jordan and Egypt, never to return.
The refugee population of Gaza continued to worry Israeli leaders after 1967. Transfer plans abounded. During the country’s prolonged occupation of Gaza — which placed refugees under the control of the very forces that had uprooted them two decades earlier — Israeli politicians, notably Levi Eshkol and Moshe Dayan, contemplated transferring Gaza refugees to the West Bank or Sinai, or an Arab country in North Africa. (One plan, ultimately rejected as costly and impractical, would have sent refugees to Latin America.)
Even peace proved costly for Gaza’s refugees. The 1979 Camp David Accords closed off Gaza’s border with Egypt, dividing families by barbed wires, causing further population displacements and house demolitions along the newly demarcated border, and depriving Gaza’s fishermen of their traditional access to Egyptian territorial waters. The destruction of Israeli settlements in Sinai was further compensated by an upsurge in settlement activity in Gaza.
Over the next two decades, the dispossessed rebelled.
In 1987, the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, broke out in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza (nicknamed “Vietnam Camp”), led by young Palestinians who grew up under Israeli occupation. In 2000, Gaza became the symbolic battlefield of the second intifada when, on September 30, at a crossroads near Bureij refugee camp in Gaza, twelve-year-old Muhammad al-Dura was shot dead in his father’s arms, the iconic image of the uprising.
After nearly four decades of protracted occupation, Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, leaving behind some one million camped refugees. When its forces left the coastal strip, Israeli leaders were confident they had finally swept Gaza’s refugee crisis under the rug of “disengagement.”
For Israel it was a win-win: they continued to control Gaza’s frontier posts, airspace, and territorial waters and — declaring the Strip a “hostile territory” — continued to subject it to military operations and collective punishment. At the same time, Israel’s withdrawal was seen as fulfilling its obligations toward Gaza and its refugees.
Over the past fifteen years, Israel has maintained a total blockade on Gaza, while routinely assaulting and raiding its population, killing thousands. Bombarded and under siege, the refugees of Gaza, trapped and deprived of the choice to flee, have come to realize the depth of their tragedy: there is one thing worse than displacement, and that is not being able to leave.
“Mowing the Grass”
Israel’s aggressive policy toward Gaza over the past seven decades has seen it launch two occupations, endless military raids and offenses (the French historian Jean-Pierre Filiu tallied twelve Israeli wars on Gaza since 1948), and a fifteen-year blockade. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) describes its tactic in Gaza as “mowing the grass”; former IDF military chief Benny Gantz, referring to Israel 2014 invasion of Gaza, has boasted of “bomb[ing] Gaza back to the Stone Age.”
Israel continues to view the impoverished, powerless territory as a security threat of “existential” proportions that requires extraordinary and disproportionate measures.
When Gaza refugees staged the “Great March of Return” in 2018 to commemorate the annual anniversary of the Nakba, Israeli responded by killing over a hundred fifty demonstrators and injuring ten thousand others, including children and journalists, over a six-week span. A UN report later concluded that Israeli soldiers and leaders committed crimes against humanity, and intentionally used live ammunition against civilians.
But if I opened with an irony — Israel created the very refugee problem it’s now trying to bomb out of existence — here’s another one: Rather than eliminating the refugee population, Israel’s endless offensives have only enhanced the feeling of solidarity between the urban population of the Gaza Strip and that of the refugee camps. Perhaps justice is still on the horizon.