Reviewed by Nikhil Sharma
For many people, Yasser Arafat was the one who single handedly lead the war for liberation of Palestine and after his death nobody of his stature ever came up in the region to replace him. Such myths have crept in the common psyche because of ignorance on our part and selective propagandized hoopla the media creates around personalities and events. The Lebanon War of 2006, waged against Hezbollah by Israel, is what got me interested in history of the region.
Several commendable books on this subject have been written by historians and journalists. Avi Shlaim’s Iron Wall is an excellent book on Israeli-Palestinian conflict; The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk is a thriller with first-hand accounts of war-reporting; while Holy Land, Unholy War by Anton La Guardia unearths personal histories of many displaced Palestinians. Martin Gilbert’s Churchill and the Jews seemed to be a biased one-sided account all in praise of Churchill–he wasn’t even criticized for his racial prejudices. But to top it all, In the Name of Sorrow and Hope by Noa Ben Artzi-Pelossof read like a horribly ghost-written collection of essays and I had to donate it during a book donation drive in my office in 2007. The power of Jewish lobby in the U.S. as documented in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt cannot be whisked away under the carpet–it is the Big Elephant nobody wants to talk about. Gaza by Jean-Pierre Filiu – the subject of this review – chronicles political history of a region besieged by buzz of drones and tumbling of bombed buildings.
Gaza is a “small territory of 360 square kilometers, wedged between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea” with a “coastline of around 40 kilometres” where “more than 1.5 million souls live out their daily lives”. Gaza has been recently in the news due to insurmountable loss of lives and barbaric destruction. The author begins with Hyksos, who “established themselves in the Middle East in the eighteenth century BC”. And then starts a history of Gaza/Palestine changing hands between Semites, Canaanites, Persians, Romans, Umayyads, Abbasids, Mamluks, Mongols, Ottomans and many in between. The name Palestine derives from ‘Philistia’ which is of unknown origin. For the general reader, the mere mention of so many civilizations would be confusing, especially as no historical context has been given about most of them in the book. This could have been done to keep the length of the book within manageable limits.
It is well evident from the earlier chapters that Palestine has had many influences over thousands of years, with each having left a unique imprint on its culture and life. Coming to modern times when British Mandate was formally announced over Palestine in 1920, the author writes about “Zionist inclination of the Mandate, accentuated by the personal sympathies of Sir Herbert Samuel, head of civil administration”. Later during Nazi overtures, the immigration of Jews is documented by numbers: “9,533 in 1932 against 61,854 in 1935” and “recently arrived settlers made no attempt to cultivate relations with their Arab neighbours”. The majority of the book covers the period of second-half of twentieth century. Seemingly, the Arabs of Palestine have paid for the crimes of Nazis, only this time the sufferer of earlier times has become the perpetrator. This is not to justify the mindless violence that dominates every aspect of life in Gaza and West Bank and originates often from the various militant brigades bent upon the killing of Israelis, who then respond with a gravely disproportional force. At one point in the book it feels like you are reading repeatedly the same thing – rockets fired from Gaza into Israeli territory and Israeli reprisal attacks killing children and women in Gaza. Maybe that’s how life in a war torn zone perpetually is. The conflicts within a conflict of Hamas against Fatah, the various militant factions, the opposing external influencers, and the economic hardships faced against the dreaded Iron Domes make the region highly convoluted to untangle. The author has painstakingly and brilliantly analyzed the different factions in Palestinian politics. Hamas, for example, is so sensitive towards criticism that it arrests those who voice it.
The book is academic in its treatment of the subject, and at times so detailed that the general reader will get mired in the complexities. I wouldn’t recommend this book to someone who is totally unaware of politics of the region. A cursory knowledge about ancient history and various civilizations would be of great help before you start reading this one. But for someone who has read a book or two and is armed with a basic understanding of the issues, this book will be a treasure trove of historical facts, while taking you deep inside the machinations of how Palestinian politics is much more global than of any other region. It brings to the fore not just the mainstream players who have been feathered by the international media, but also others about whom you would seldom read in newspapers and magazines. The author, however, admits that “the act of writing a history of Gaza involves many difficulties…in many cases parts of the archives have been destroyed in the course of successive conflicts, while other sections have been moved out of the territory”.
Lives of Palestinians have for long been subject to conflicting interests of different stakeholders – Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, U.S., Russia and what not. Even after more than six and a half decades of conflict, peace and dignity is nowhere to be had. They try to make most of their lives while the world merrily celebrates “Nobel Peace Prize” and the media summarily creates heroes like Malala while a Palestinian ‘Anne Frank’ garners only subjugated attention.
Nikhil Sharma is a technology professional and over the last few years has discovered a newfound interest in literature, predominantly non-fiction history. He lives in Mumbai.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Oxford University Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.