We spent several weeks there in 1980
“You’re about to see the saddest sight of your entire life,” our host told us. My wife and I, recently married, were riding in a tractor that was pulling the accumulated week’s trash from our small farming village to a dumping area in the sand just outside the boundary of the village. The cart we were pulling was about 15 feet by 15 feet, piled high with what today would be composted by environmentally conscious elites: moldy bread, rotten fruit, scraps of vegetables.
As we approached the dumping area, we found ourselves surrounded by Arab residents of Gaza. They came running, competing to be the first to have access to what we were dumping. They were dressed in rags, which were torn, patched and ill-fitting. It was indeed the saddest sight I have ever seen.
Gaza has no resources that make it worth living there. It is hard to get historical demographic figures for the Gaza Strip, but it seems that at the end of World War I the area had fewer than 20,000 residents. It . As of 1948, according to Michael Oren, the population was just 80,000. He says that nearly 2 million people live there today.
Oren says that subsequent to the 1967 war (he is not specific as to when), there were 8,000 Jewish settlers in Gaza. He points out that Gaza was never a territory that appealed to Israeli hearts, but it had strategic value.
Gaza probably would have been sparsely populated had it had not been chosen (by the UN, I’m guessing) as a site for Arab refugees from Israel’s war for independence in 1948. Arab refugees, there and elsewhere, were kept in a state of dependence. No one ever made an attempt to create an actual economy in Gaza, with people working and producing. It was all handouts, and even those were inadequate.
The Israelis conquered Gaza in 1967. They, too, made no effort to develop it. They approved a handful of Jewish settlements there. From a strategic perspective, the strip is a buffer zone between Israel and the Sinai Peninsula. Israel captured the Sinai in 1967 and gave it back to Egypt under the Begin-Sadat peace agreement brokered by President Carter in 1979.
When my wife and I went to spend a couple of months in Israel in 1980, our plan was to spend several weeks volunteering on a kibbutz. We chose one located within the borders of pre-1967 Israel, nowhere near Gaza.
A kibbutz may be nominally egalitarian, but this one treated its volunteers as a sub-human species. We left after one miserable night, and we had to regroup.
We ended up getting into contact with a friend’s sister who lived on small farming collective called a moshav, which is a variation on the kibbutz idea. Instead of sharing income communally, individual households earn profits.
In 1980, getting in touch with someone in Israel was difficult. Household phones were a luxury—the waiting list for one was several years. But eventually we somehow made contact with our friend’s sister and were able to arrange to spend time on their collective, which was part of a small settlement on the Gaza Strip.
At this little moshav, our host family treated us well. The settlement’s crop was tomatoes, and theirs were coming in at a time when prices were unusually high due to an overall shortage of tomatoes within Israel.1
Gaza betrayed by everyone
As of 1980, there was no one who would do anything for the poor people living in Gaza. In the eyes of the “international community,” they were refugees who were supposed to eventually return to Israel. So, apart from subsistence handouts, nothing should be done for these refugees while they were in Gaza.
Anti-Zionists thought in terms of returning all Arab refugees (not just those in Gaza) to Israel, making it impossible for Israel to be both democratic and a Jewish homeland. From the anti-Zionist perspective, “the occupation” refers to every speck of land governed by Jews, not just the territories taken in the 1967 war.
Consistent with the anti-Zionist thinking, refugee status meant that the international community should make no attempt to give the people of Gaza any infrastructure, nothing that might make for a viable long-term presence there. Israel would not have been permitted to provide infrastructure, even if it had wanted to. The international community kept refugees on the brink of starvation, as pawns in a bigger game.
For its part, Israel was not motivated to try to take responsibility for Gaza’s humanitarian needs away from the UN. As of 1980, Israel was economically backward. Its lack of resources and misguided socialist policies kept it functioning barely above Third World levels.
Israel had many needy people. There were immigrants who came from Russia with nothing. There were so-called Mizrachi Jews, who had fled Arab countries to come to Israel and whose descendants constitute almost half of Israel’s Jewish population. Unlike the Jews from Europe, the Mizrachis are dark skinned and follow Jewish customs that differ in subtle ways. Arriving in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Mizrachis were initially treated as second-class citizens, in a country where first-class citizens were not particularly well off. Even as of 1980, the Mizrachis still faced discrimination, and many remained camped in housing not much better than that of the Arabs of Gaza.2
Then there were the non-Jewish Arabs living in Israel, inside the pre-1967 borders. As of 1980, the government of Israel still was committed to the idealistic vision of having an Arab population that could thrive with dignity and equality within the Jewish state. My sense is that such a vision no longer is held with much conviction.
My point here is that the last thing that Israel wanted was to take up the burden of assisting the people of Gaza. Given Israel’s own backwardness, as well as the requirements of its Russian population, the Mizrachis, and Israeli Arabs, Israel was content to let the UN take care of (or not take care of) Gaza.
By 2005, Israel had decided that Gaza was a strategic liability, not an asset. It hastily pulled out of Gaza, leaving it to the Arab world to assume control.
A 21st-century pogrom
In 1921, a ship arrived in the United States carrying my father, who was then two years old. He died in 2008. His family was fleeing the pogroms taking place in Russia.
In a pogrom, cossacks would ride into a Jewish community on horseback, wantonly killing and raping. The similarity to what Hamas perpetrated is difficult to miss. As a Jew, I have to ask, must we forever suffer pogroms?
If you supported Hamas, and if you celebrated their pogrom, then you have to own it that that’s what you did. This applies whether you live in Gaza or somewhere else.
That said, I cannot hate the typical residents of Gaza. I see them as a tragic people. No one has ever given them humanitarian treatment. My view is that in recent years the main benefactor of Gaza has been Iran, which only wants to use Gazans as cannon fodder in a proxy war against Israel.
One of my thoughts was that if tomato prices fluctuated so much, there must be entrepreneurial opportunities for an entrepreneur to build some sort of processing plant, such as a tomato sauce factory, to buy tomatoes when they were abundant and prices were low, which would in turn keep prices from getting so high when tomatoes became scarce.
Since 1980, the condition of the Mizrachis has gotten much better. Jewish society has become much more integrated. There is much inter-marriage between Jews of Arab ancestry and Jews of European ancestry. Much of Israeli culture, including food and dance, is more Mizrachi than European. The Mizrachis are the political base of the right-wing political parties in Israel, including the Likud Party of Netanyahu, although he himself is not Mizrachi.