Gaza’s troubles began long ago

  • Themes: History, Israel-Palestine

Extreme violence has always been a feature of Gaza’s history going back to the siege of the city by Alexander the Great.

The siege of Gaza, 332 B.C.
The siege of Gaza, 332 B.C. Credit: De Luan / Alamy Stock Photo

‘As for the people of Gaza, even though their city was now overrun by the enemy, they closed ranks and fought on: and they all died where they were, each man fighting at his post.’ Alexander the Great’s biographer Arrian describes the appalling end to the Macedonian siege of Gaza in 332 BC.

Gaza lay at a T-junction, where the caravan trail from south Arabia met the coastal route between Africa and Asia. It was, depending on which way you were travelling, the first or last town you encountered during a crossing of the Sinai desert. The city was best known for trading local cloth for frankincense, which was tapped from trees in what is now Oman and Yemen, and then lugged north by camels, because the Red Sea’s contrary winds made sailing difficult. Frankincense, which was half the price of myrrh, was the affordable luxury of the ancient world. The distinctive smell and ethereal qualities of its curlicues of smoke meant that it was used in vast quantities in religious ritual. By Alexander’s time the Greeks were big consumers and the trade made Gaza very rich indeed.

According to Arrian, however, Alexander attacked the city because it was reputed to be impregnable: ‘success against the odds would have huge deterrent impact on his enemies, and his reputation would suffer if reports of failure reached the Greeks and Darius’, the Persian king. He was a young man desperate to prove himself to his dead father’s older generals: legendarily, one of the things he did once he had taken the town, was to despatch a vast shipment of frankincense and myrrh back home to spite a tutor who had doubted him.

After Alexander’s death, Gaza soon found itself on the frontline in the wars between his successors. Battles fought there tend to have powerful effects elsewhere. In 311, Ptolemy, who had seized control of Egypt after Alexander’s death, launched a campaign to take over Palestine. At Gaza his army defeated his main enemy. The governor of Babylon was killed, creating a vacancy for Ptolemy’s ally Seleucus, but Ptolemy and Seleucus then fell out and their successors fought over the Levantine seaboard intermittently for the next two hundred years.

In 217 BC, at Raphia – the modern border crossing between Gaza and Egypt – what is thought to have been the greatest elephant battle of the ancient era took place. Seleucus’s elephants came from India. To counter them, Ptolemy had sourced some of his own, but these were pigmy elephants, possibly from Ethiopia, and at the first sight of the bigger Indian elephants they fled. Despite this setback, Ptolemy won the battle but when his soldiers returned home they revolted. Ultimately his dynasty survived with Roman help, until Cleopatra’s fateful alliance with Antony led Rome to take direct control.

Gaza’s antagonistic relationship with the Jews also dates back to the first century BC. As the Seleucids also imploded, an ambitious Jewish dynasty, the Hasmoneans, seized power in Jerusalem. They forcibly converted the people of the neighbouring cities that they captured, including Gaza, with varying success. Relations between the Gazans, who were then pagans, and the Jews, were poor. When the Romans took over the region, and Nero ruled against the Jews in a long-running dispute in Caesarea, the pagan residents of numerous mixed cities in the region, believing Nero had effectively given them carte blanche, attacked their Jewish neighbours, who retaliated. The violence culminated in Rome’s sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Paganism survived in Gaza long into the Christian era. After securing the Roman emperor’s permission, in 402 the local bishop attacked and burnt down the Marneum, the great temple in the city, but not before meeting stiff resistance from its priests.

The first reference to ‘the Arabs of Muhammad’ comes in an Armenian account of a battle that took place outside Gaza, in 634. After the Shia Fatimids seized Egypt and established their own caliphate there, the city became the barbican for whoever ruled the Nile: after the Fatimids came the Ayyubids, then the Mamluks. The city was the site of the Mamluks’ last stand against the Ottomans, in 1516. Briefly captured by Napoleon during his Egyptian expedition, the town remained in Ottoman hands until the First World War, and then became central to the story of the fateful promise on which everything that has happened since still turns.

In March 1917, the British government authorised an invasion of Palestine that would begin with an attack on Gaza. The expectation that there would be a rapid breakthrough raised the question of what would happen to the territory afterwards. In theory this had been settled by the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, in which the British and the French agreed that Palestine should have an international administration. Neither side was happy with this compromise, especially the British. Some British officials feared that the arrangement would upset the Jews, who they blamed for hindering Allied fundraising on Wall Street because of their deep antipathy to Russia, the awkward and wildly antisemitic partner to the Anglo-French entente. The British began considering more open support for Zionist ambitions in Palestine, in part to try to shift Jewish opinion, in part to outmanoeuvre France.

Anticipating that the attack on Gaza would raise political questions, the two negotiators, Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, set out for Palestine together in April 1917. Sykes was never the most discreet of men and en route he told his French counterpart that, among various things, ‘the general bias of Zionism in favour of British suzerainty’ made sole British control of Palestine the ‘only stable’ answer. Georges-Picot appeared unmoved but tipped off his counterparts in Britain. One of them leaked the details of the Sykes-Picot agreement to the Guardian’s editor, CP Scott, who was disturbed by what he heard, and told the leading Zionist Chaim Weizmann. The French intention was to make clear that a deal was done and dusted. The leak had the opposite effect on Weizmann, however, who sprang into action. In meetings in the Foreign Office he realised what the British were trying to do and how this could successfully be exploited. Zionist lobbying in London went up a gear.

In the event, as always, Gaza proved a tough nut to crack. The first and second battles which broke out that spring were failures, yet, in British minds, the grounds for a pro-Zionist declaration grew increasingly compelling. When the United States joined the war, President Wilson’s foreign affairs adviser, Colonel House, made clear his contempt for the Sykes-Picot agreement when he was briefed about it. British attempts to raise more money in America that summer were painfully slow. Eventually, to try to break the deadlock, the British government sent Lord Reading to the US that autumn. Relevant to understanding why Reading was sent, but rarely mentioned, was the fact that he was Jewish.

The British attacked Gaza for the third time in October. By 6 November it was clear they had won. Three days later, in London The Times published the Balfour Declaration, which made public the government’s support for Zionism.

Two and a half years had passed since a British cabinet minister, Herbert Samuel, first mooted the idea. As Britain’s first high commissioner in Palestine, Samuel went to Gaza to greet Winston Churchill when he visited in the spring of 1921. The two men were confronted by an angry crowd of Palestinians, who chanted ‘Down with the Jews. Cut their throats’. A century on, the appalling slaughter of October 2023 has shown the sentiment remains a live one.

Extreme violence punctuates Gaza’s history, but the punctuation mark is a colon, and never, as is always hoped, a full stop.


James Barr