The Gaza Strip Has Historically Never Been Part of Israel

Jun 02 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

The Gaza Strip: Ancient Philistia

If you know anything about history you have to wonder about the Israeli fascination for the Gaza Strip. I know they say “God gave it to us, period,” but if you go back and look at the history of Israel, you don’t see only an intermittent and tenuous Jewish presence anywhere along the coast and Gaza itself was never Jewish. Running north to south you find Egyptians, Philistines, Canaanites, and Phoenicians, but you don’t find much in the way of Jews. In point of fact, the Eastern Mediterranean littoral is historically Pagan, as is all-important Gaza itself, which was one of the latest surviving Pagan cities in the Christian Roman Empire.

At the time of the city’s forced conversion to Christianity there were at most a few hundred Christians in the city, but the Pagan majority offended them by their existence and in the end, the emperor caved in to Christian special interests and approved their extermination, and the temple of Marnas, “the pride of the Gazans” was destroyed.[1] After that, Gaza was Christian, then Muslim, and it has been Muslim since the 7th century C.E.

In an effort to make the Occupied West Bank (fundamentalist codeword: Samaria) Jewish again and the Gaza Strip (fundamentalist codeword: Judaea) Jewish for the first time in all of recorded history, settlers flooded both areas, establishing numerous settlements between 1967 and 2008. In 1972, according to The Foundation for Middle East Peace, there were only 700 settlers in Gaza; by 2007, when 1 in 11 of every Israeli Jew was living in the Occupied Territories, the number in Gaza had dropped from a high of 7,826 in 2004 to 0.

You wouldn’t think an area just 40km (25 miles) long and 10km wide would be so important, let alone lethal, but it has become the most critical piece of real estate in the Middle East. After the area was created by the Armistice of 1948, Egypt found itself in control (just as the ancient Pharaohs once had) for the next 19 years, only to lose it to Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Israel has been in control of it since, the first time in recorded history (save for a brief spell in the first century B.C.E. when Jewish king Alexander Jannaeus conquered it) that Israel found itself in direct control of that stretch of coastline we know as the Gaza Strip.

The Pagan Coast

The writings of the Jewish historian Josephus a century later reveal that the Jews had as a people ambivalent feelings about the coast, known as the Paralia. In Josephus’ lifetime, the area was occupied mainly by Hellenistic pagan settlements and for a long time before that, various ethnic pagan groups. The ideal of YHWH’s gift to his chosen people was as viable then as now and as Ben-Zion Rosenfeld writes, we have to understand Israel’s relationship with this divine land grant according to two parameters:

1)      “National geography” – an ideological description influenced by national considerations (including the Bible); and,

2)      “Realistic geography” – what we today would call the “facts on the ground”[2]

Josephus uses the term “Judaea” as do modern conservative Jews, an area that as Rosenfeld explains can be understood to correlate with the inheritance of “Judah” but also with “the land of the Jews” – that is, the area that belongs to the Jewish state (as does, they claim, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). As he observes, this “sometimes conforms with the biblical utopian vision encompassing all the territory allocated to the Jews – Eretz Israel” but sometimes refers to only a part.[3]

Rosenfeld points to the fact that Josephus “makes it appear that the biblical conception was that he coast of Palestine in its entirety, from Sidon to Gaza, had belonged to the land of the Jews from antiquity,” and that he “appears to have exploited the biblical text to create an ideological geography in accord with his perception of the coast as belonging to the Jews from biblical times.” He was even willing to rearrange geography in the interest of pressing his point, moving an entire mountain range closer to the sea. The Jewish historian would have fit comfortably in the milieu of modern-day fundamentalists in his efforts to infuse “his realistic description with Bible-based ideology.”[4]

Elsewhere, Josephus attempts to separate the Jews from the coast, which is Phoenician, the Phoenicians being “coastal dwellers” and “sea merchants” while the Jews are agricultural and not interested in coming into contact with foreigners, let alone mixing with them. In Rosenfeld’s opinion, Josephus’s description here is based on cultural perceptions, reflecting “both the reality and an ancient ideological tradition, extending back to biblical times, of keeping a distance from the sea,” and that, in fact, “most of the coast was not in their hands already in the biblical period.”[5]

It is true that Israel was not an independent state from 44 C.E. to 1948, a period of some nineteen centuries, but Israel emerged as an independent state in the Bronze Age, first appearing to history in the 13th century B.C.E., and was, according to the Bible, a powerful nation by the 10th century B.C.E. and enjoyed long periods of independence until the Babylonian conquest of 588 B.C.E. So there was ample opportunity to control the coast. Why didn’t they?

As the Bible admits, the area now known as the Gaza Strip was home to the Philistines, comprising an area known as the Philistine Pentapolis (five cities):  Gaza, Askelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath. At one point the Philistine hegemony extended all the way to the River Jordan. North of Philistia was Jaffa (now part of Tel Aviv), an ancient Canaanite city, ruled intermittently by Canaanite rulers and Egyptians until about 800 B.C.E. According to the Bible, David and Solomon conquered Jaffa but then the Assyrians came and in short order, the Babylonians and Persians (through a Phoenician proxy), after which it fell to Alexander the Great and then his successor general, Seleucus. During the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids it became Jewish again, but only for a brief period before the advent of Roman rule.

So in answer to our question as to why Israel never controlled the Gaza Strip specifically and the coast generally, the basic problem was that then as now, there was already somebody else living there. Somebody else has always been living in the Gaza Strip; it has never really been part of Israel except ideologically.  According to the CIA Factbook the current population of the Gaza Strip is 1,657,155 (est. July 2011) and is overwhelmingly Muslim (predominantly Sunni) 99.3%, Christian 0.7%. Historically, this is probably a fairly accurate representation of the entire recorded history of that narrow stretch of land if you substitute “pagan” for “Muslim.”

These facts on the ground must trump this ideology as the facts on the ground remain consistent for a period of over 3,000 years, as far back as historical records go. In the face of this evidence, a vague promise from a god not everyone believes in seems a weak argument indeed. For Americans, it’s certainly not a reason to start a war, or fight one.

Gaza Strip Map from CIA Factbook


[1] Gedaliahu G. Stroumsa, “Religious Contacts in Byzantine Palestine,” Numen 36 (1989), 30. Stroumsa notes that the Life of Porphyry, Bishop of Gaza, which relates the account of the conversion of that city, “witnesses to the impressive resistence of the pagan population to the state-supported efforts of the Church in suppressing pagan cults and philosophical culture.”

[2] Ben-Zion Rosenfeld, “Flavius Josephus and His Portrayal of the Coast (Paralia) of Contemporary Roman Palestine: Geography and Ideology,” The Jewish Quarterly Review (2000), 144.

[3] Rosenfeld (2000), 145.

[4] Rosenfeld (2000), 155, 160, 162-63.

[5] Rosenfeld (2000), 170.

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