Under the Tarboush 09.07.05

What if I were to tell you that somewhere in the world was a geographic area that was a little over twice the size of Washington D.C and home to over one million people? What if I were also to tell you that this land had been claimed by no less than five separate recognized political entities, and to this day has it’s future lay uncertain? And, just for kicks, what if I were to tell you that -whether you like it or not- it is in this land that the beginning of a comprehensive Middle Eastern piece currently has the best chance of occurring? Well, if you and I were on the same page, we’d be discussing a (almost quite literally) a small piece of land known to the Arab world as قطعة الغزة, or to the rest of us as The Gaza Strip.

There’s probably been some time recently, before the news of Hurricane Katrina’s unforgiving trek across the Louisiana/Mississippi border, that you might have heard of what had just went down. Disregarding the popular and widely accepted notion of bi-lateral discussions in facilitating ‘Land for Peace’ (the arrangement in which government 1 withdraws from land in exchange for the cecessession of hostilities between itself and government 2), Israel, almost unilaterally, withdrew from the Gaza Strip- a historically Palestinian area since the era of the Ottoman Empire that it had occupied for just 2 months over 38 years; that is to say, since the end of the Six Day War in June of 1967. While people and groups remain divided on the vitality, utility, and the future of this region, the history and cultural background that have shaped it in the recent past is nothing short of remarkable.

In the following paragraphs, I would like to explain a brief history of the region and notable characteristics of it’s development to date. I would also like to say up front, however, that this will not be the most detailed piece of work, if only for one reason: this piece is meant as a premier. This is to be treated as a second more detailed glance than news clips and advertising dollars care to expound on. Names, dates, and places other sources others may deem important to the narrative may be forsaken in the interest of readability. Besides- there will be more time in the future to cover the particulars. This is a time for history.

I would also like to mention that, at this point in the narrative, the history of the Gaza Strip is dependent on the histories of the surrounding states and places. For the sake of time and clearer understanding, pieces of those surrounding states and places will be used only as necessary.

The Gaza Strip, as a distinct entity, did not come to fruition on the world stage until the formation of the state of Israel in May 1948. Beforehand, it had been a region under the administration of the Ottoman Empire- an empire whose borders spread from eastern Iraq to Morocco in west Africa, and as far south as the Arabian Peninsula to the Anatolia region east of the Caucuses in an area of what would later be known as Turkey. Just as all other regions of the empire, the land was taken care of by governors and local leaders who were loyal to the Sultan, whose seat was in Istanbul.

As time passed, and the Ottoman Empire’s power and control over it’s dominion had began to wane in the face of the spread of nationalism ideology and growing European influence in the region. By 1915, the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist as a political entity and only Turkey remained. In 1918, the Sykes Picot Treaty was signed between France and Great Britain, which created the modern-day partition of the Middle East we know today through what was called ‘the Mandate System.’ Through this system, France received the mandate for Syria, through which it promptly partitioned the largely Christian mountain range to Damascus’ western side and proclaimed it Lebanon, as well the mandate for Algeria. The remaining mandates were given to Great Britain, which got control of Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and the area that was then known as Transjordan- which held the nation of Palestine to the west along the Mediterranean Sea, and Jordan to the right.

In the 1920s, Jewish immigration had began to increase as the idea of nationalism spread like wildfire through parts of Europe and to the Middle East as well. For centuries before, Arabs and Jews has gotten along under the Ottoman system in what could be described as a harmonious fashion. With the new spread of nationalism, however, this matter of fact faltered in the face of emerging national identities. But rather than exclusively adopt national identities along borders or language, Arab nationalism in the Middle East also operated along religious identities (this is a discussion in and of itself for a future Tarboush piece). The exception to this, however, was Palestinian nationalism, which grew and engendered in response to the rising nationalism amongst Jewish Zionists who, since the rise of Nazism and pan-European anti-antisemitism had been emigrating to the area.

This leads to the partition of Palestine in 1948, which prompted the 1948 war that Israel calls it’s war of Independence. On the Arab side, in which the armies of Syria, Jordan, and Egypt participated, the creation of Israel -the antecedent event to the war- is till today known in some circles as the نقبة, or ‘naqba’- meaning “disaster.” It was from this war that armistice agreements were signed, with Jordan gaining administrative control over what became known as the West Bank, and Egypt gained administrative control over the region we call the Gaza Strip, as well as the Palestinian refugees that had moved there during the displacement following Israel’s independence.

This arrangement between Israel and her neighbors held together until June of 1967, when war began with a pre-emptive Israeli air strike on the Egyptian air force. 6 days later, Israel had expanded her borders across both the Gaza Strip and West Bank, as well as the Syrian Golan Heights to the north.

With the region was under Israeli control, voices arose from the government and populace alike that it was necessary for Israel to maintain control over the new territory in the name of national security. From then on, the first settlements began to be constructed in both the West Bank and Gaza as Israeli development teams came into the region as settlers began to migrate for both religious reasons and for the exercise of Israeli nationalism.

As Israeli development made it’s way into the region, Palestinian under-development became more of a pronounced reality as the vast majority of resources flowed from Israel directly into the settlements, which were fortified and extremely insulated from the Palestinian population outside. Not only were Western-style resources absent from many refugee populations (ie 24-hour running water, electricity, etc), but also logistic services like ambulances and food transport. Slowly, the deficiency escalated in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and lead to the first إنتفاضة ‘intifada’ or ‘uprising’ across the Palestinian territories. The direct translation of intifada is ‘shiver’ or ‘tremor’ from the verb ‘to shake.’

It was also at this time that Hamas came to light as an ambulance service for those wounded in combat against Israeli soldiers. The Palestinian Authority -Yassir Arafat’s governing body- which had a larger presence in the West Bank, had been ineffective in supplying such services to it and the Gaza Strip as well. So when Hamas came to fill the vacuum, they were welcomed by a population in destitution. From this welcoming, Hamas’ influence and scope grew.

Going into the 90s, a peace deal was signed by the Israeli government under then Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and then Palestinian Liberation Organization/Palestinian Authority leader Yassir Arafat. It was during this time, and reiterated by subsequent agreements that limited self-government would be returned to parts of the West Bank and the entirety of the Gaza Strip. Unfortunately, with the outbreak of the second intifada in 1999 dashed the highest of hopes for any future Palestinian state. That is, until now.

We are about three weeks into the reality that the Israeli presence in Gaza is minimal if not completely non-existent. And at this point, the hopes for the region are high for good reason: there is renewed hope that without the Israeli presence, and if security can be maintained, that the first inkling of a free, robust and independent Palestinian state can take hold. Foreign investment is making it’s way into the region with developers ready to make use of land they otherwise did not have before. While it will take some years to build a working harbor or reconstruct the Gaza Air Port, the labor and hope is there. Egypt, in what could be looked at as a historically ironic turn of events, will supply military training and accompanying security support for maintaining the peace in the region. Hamas, while not fully renouncing their avenue of armed struggle, has said it will enter the political realm- which if all goes well, they could end up like the Irish Sinn Fein. For the optimistic, the recent developments are nothing short of welcome.

However, there also exists a the grim alternative that the Palestinian Authority won’t be able to maintain security, and that all of the hopes I just summarized above will not come to fruition. Worse-case scenarios include anti-Israeli attacks escalating from a focal point within Gaza, to which case Israel will reply to the rest of the world “We tried, and they failed. We’re going to put the terrorists down with all necessary force.” Something like this would only mean more suffering and misery for the one million plus refugees in the region. This would effectively put another deep nail into a coffin for the peace process, which would leave an untold amount of trust that would be needed to be regained somehow.

In any case, though, one can say that the future of the Gaza Strip is the focal point for the political future of a Palestinian state. With the history it’s had, and the change it’s about to go through, it’ll no doubt be worth keeping an eye on. This columnist only hopes for the good.

If you’ve got any questions, comments, concerns, corrections, etc, let me know at the link below. Until then, that’s what’s Under the Tarboush.

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