TEL AVIV (Oct. 31)
The sandy strip of land known as the Gaza Strip — wedged between the flat, arid landscape where Egypt, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea meet — is something of a conundrum in Jewish history. Depending on how one interprets the Bible, Gaza either was or was not included in the Land of Israel conquered by the Israelites; Samson is the only Israelite noted for having set foot there; and in the Middle Ages, the false messiah Shabbatai Zevi gave the area a bad name when he launched his movement from its shores.
After a contentious debate, Israel’s Knesset recently voted to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and evacuate the 7,500 Jewish settlers who live in suburban-style settlements there, where sprawling green lawns and playgrounds are protected by wire fences and military search towers.
The settler population is dwarfed by the 1.3 million Palestinians who live in densely populated Gaza, which is 25 miles long and just 6 miles wide. The settlements often come under attack by rockets and mortar fire. School busses are armored and escorted by soldiers in an area where drive by shootings and roadside bombings are facts of life.
But the Jews who have made the Gaza Strip home in the years since settlement returned there following the Six-Day War in 1967, remain defiant and hopeful that the close-knit communities they have built will be allowed to remain.
During biblical times, Gaza was part of the land promised to the Jews but never part of the land actually conquered and inhabited by them, said Nili Wazana, who lecturers on Bible studies and the history of the Jewish people at Hebrew University and is writing a book on the borders of the biblical Land of Israel.
She said there are contradictory references to Gaza in the Bible. One passage, often cited by Jewish settlers and their supporters is a passage in Judges which says the tribe of Judah took control of the area. But other stories in the Bible contradict this — typical of the Bible, she said.
“On almost everything you will find an opinion and an opposite opinion. It was not a homogenous text, it was not written at same time, and there are competing ideologies,” Wazana said. “The question of Gaza is one of the issues where you will find different opinions.”
Polls show that most Israelis are in favor of leaving Gaza. They see neither historic nor strategic reason for staying.
But to Yigal Kamietsky, the rabbi of the Jewish settler bloc in Gaza known as Gush Katif, Gaza is an integral part of biblical Israel.
“Gaza is part of Land of Israel, no less than Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak,” he said. “There is no doubt it is part of the borders.” He said that not only was it considered a mitzvah to settle there, but that “if we were not here, I am not sure the State of Israel would still be there.”
Kamietsky was referring to the more than 4,000 rounds of mortar fire launched onto Gaza’s settlements. He said Jews there act as a buffer for those Jews living within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
Kamietsky takes strength from history, where Gaza was often caught in the crossfire of war.
“Always in history, Gaza seemed more problematic,” he said, noting the fabled enemies of the Israelites, the seafaring Philistines who controlled the area in biblical times.
The one period when Jews appeared to have sovereignty over Gaza was during Hasmonean rule when the Jewish King Yochanan — whose brother was Judah the Maccabee — captured the area in 145 C.E.
Haggai Huberman, who has written extensively on the history of Jewish settlement in Gaza over the centuries, is writing a history of the Jews in Gush Katif.
He maintains that the Jews who lived there always considered themselves residents of the Land of Israel.
He says that Jews lived on and off in Gaza since the time of Roman rule, their settlement following a pattern of expulsion during times of war and conquest and return during more peaceful periods. The remains of an ancient synagogue found in Gaza date to around 508 C.E. Its mosaic floor was unearthed by archeologists and is now displayed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
There was reportedly a large Jewish community in the area when the Muslims invaded in the seventh century. The Jews were noted for their skills as farmers and for making wine in their vast vineyards.
After the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 some Spanish and Portuguese Jews fled to Gaza. When Napoleon’s army marched through the area they fled, but later returned in the early 1800s.
When the first wave of Zionist settlers arrived in the region at the end of the 19th century, a group of 50 families moved to Gaza City. According to Huberman, they established good relations with local Arabs.
They stayed until they were expelled in 1914, along with Gaza’s entire Arab population, by the Ottoman Turks during World War I. In 1920 the Jews returned but at this point, with Arab and Jewish nationalism on the rise, tensions simmered and the former good relations with local Arabs began to sour, said Huberman.
The major Jewish presence in Gaza on the eve of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 was a kibbutz called Kfar Darom set up in 1946. It was evacuated during the war and was among the first places to be resettled by Jews after 1967 — first inhabited by Israeli soldiers from the Nahal brigade before becoming transformed into one of several civilian settlements established in the 1970s as the settler movement gained strength.
Any attempts to downplay Jewish roots in the Gaza Strip “is part of the disinformation being spread,” said Eran Steinberg, spokesperson for the Gush Katif settlements.
For her part, Wazana said present-day debates over territory mirror those in the Bible.
“Descriptions of borders reflect different ideologies even back then,” she said. “People have put words in the mouths of God even in biblical times. If you have an ideology, you will find the right words to support it.”
Some who oppose Jewish settlement in Gaza point to the fact that Orthodox Jews are allowed to consume produce grown in the Gaza Strip during shmita, the seventh, or sabbatical year, when fruits and vegetables are not to be cultivated in the Land of Israel according to Jewish law.
But Kamietsky said it is permitted to grow produce in the Gaza Strip because even though it is every bit “as holy” as the rest of the Land of Israel, it was not an area settled during the Second Temple period when Jews returned from exile in Babylon.
Today support for Jewish settlement in Gaza is dwindling, especially as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — once the settlement movement’s champion — becomes its greatest threat.
“There is a lot of use of historical arguments” to bolster an argument, said David Newman, a professor at Ben-Gurion University who specializes in political geography and writes about Israel’s borders and settlements.
“But political decisions are based on real politics,” he said, adding that “people on both sides give up historical aspirations to reach a safer, more secure compromise.”