It is a patchwork of labyrinthine alleys lined with booby-trapped buildings and smugglers' tunnels built under the main streets laced with enough explosives to throw huge battle tanks several feet into the sky.
Much of this is not completely new.
Since Biblical times Gaza has been a lethal weapon, the coastal attack route from Egypt into Asia. It was the base of sea-faring Philistines, non-Arab idol worshipers who died many centuries ago, after fighting Israelites like Samson, Saul, and David.
In modern times, Gaza was the favored invasion corridor of Egypt's corpulent and corrupt King Farouk (1948) and the svelte and deadly pan-Arab demagogue Gamal Abdul-Nasser who pushed Farouk from power but treated Gaza just like him -- as a springboard for personal and national ambitions, herding refugees into closed camps.
Farouk and Abdul-Nasser exploited refugees, pointing them at Israel like daggers.
Abdul-Nasser deliberately stifled Gaza's economic and political development, denying the Gazans citizenship and free movement, but he developed the fedayeen -- "men of sacrifice" -- from Gaza's teeming ranks. He spurred them to raid Israel, sparking the 1956 war, and later created the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Cynicism became Gaza's number one resource, terrorism its main export. Few Arab or Western leaders complained. The United Nations backed this system by establishing a special refugee organization (UNRWA) for Palestinian Arabs that made refugee status permanent. UN bureaucrats got fat as Palestinians remained "refugees."
Elsewhere – in Pakistan, India, postwar Europe etc -- refugees were resettled and moved on with their lives, but not in Gaza, where four generations clung to refugee status, clutching the hawiyya -- the UN refugee card -- like manna from heaven.
Egypt choked Gaza, as over 70% were jobless during Egypt's occupation, 1949-67.
To this day, Egyptian influence is heavily felt in Gaza, and most inhabitants use a dialect of Arabic that carries Egyptian cadences and vocabulary. To his dying day, PLO chief Yasser Arafat spoke with an Egyptian accent.
When Israel threw Egyptian occupiers out of Gaza in 1967, Palestinian Arab employment rose. Gaza began to climb out of the Stone Age. When Hamas took over in 2007, the Stone Age returned.
Under Israel, Gazans got jobs and moved freely, getting day work in Israel, buying refrigerators, televisions and air conditioners for the first time. This helped them, but they were still held back by the stultifying refugee status imposed on them by UN bureaucrats and PLO ideology, both urging them to remain "refugees." Any attempts to build housing projects were torpedoed by the PLO.
Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres made a bold move to lower Arab-Israeli tensions, signing several pacts with the PLO's Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas in 1993. The agreements -- known as The Oslo Accords -- failed horribly, ushering in the ten worst years of terror in Israel's history.
When Arafat took power in Gaza in 1994, economic conditions worsened, and the security situation deteriorated, especially for Israeli communities bordering Gaza and for the 10,000 Israelis living in Gaza. Hamas got stronger.
"The PLO will take care of Hamas," mused Rabin, "without going to the Supreme Court," citing his view that the "moderate" Arafat would help police the "radical" Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Rabin was dead wrong.
Yasser Arafat (real name: Muhammad Raouf al-Qudwa) was himself an ex-member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the godfather of Hamas and Al-Qaeda. His life-long lieutenants, Khalil al-Wazir (Abu-Jihad) Salah Khalaf (Abu-Iyad) were also Muslim Brothers, and Arafat corresponded with Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, founder of Hamas.
Arafat did not really change his aggressive stance towards Israel, but only his rhetoric in polite, non-Arabic-speaking society. Among Arabs, and even with Hamas, he said Israel had to be destroyed. Arafat said so in Arabic and behind closed doors. Hamas said so in public, but sometimes Arafat, and even Abbas, would slip.
"Let our rifles, all our rifles be aimed at The Occupation," said Abbas in a televised speech to Gazans in 2005. "The Occupation" (al-ikhtilal in Arabic) is what Abbas calls Israel when he's sucking up to Hamas and thinks no one else is listening.
At the time, Abbas was trying to form a kind of Hamas-PLO union. It is a dream that Abbas has pursued in the formation of his recent "technocrat" regime, and it is a dream he has discussed for years on his Arabic website since at least 2002..
"Al-'udoo al-sihyouni"—"The Zionist Enemy" is what Hamas spokesmen call Israel, not wishing to utter the word "Israel." They will sometimes also say "al-kayaan al-sihyouni"—The Zionist Entity. Occasionally, Mahmoud Abbas's television station, PBC, will use the same terms.
Abbas and the PLO, when forced, will say something pleasant to Israeli and American ears -- such as a pro-forma condemnation in English of terror, but they make many more statements -- especially in Arabic -- lauding those who committed terror, calling them martyrs or heroes, naming streets and schools after them.
Many Israeli and American policymakers have ignored this. Bill Clinton and Benjamin Netanyahu pretended the PLO had amended its charter in 1998 to accept Israel. The PLO's own top officials and internal records show this is just not true. But politicians find it easier to lie than to admit error.
Rather than repudiate the failed PLO pacts of the 1990's, Israeli prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, and Ehud Olmert tried to appease the PLO with more concessions. Ariel Sharon unilaterally evicted the 10,000 Israelis in Gaza, hoping to boost peace, but only assuring war.
Prime Minister Sharon wounded Israel from within. His first casualties were the 10,000 Israelis in Gaza many of whom used special farming techniques to yield crops and flowers with few insects and little or no pesticides.
Sharon said he saved the farmers from attack by evicting them from their homes. But he saved no one. Rocket attacks jumped 500% after the pull-out. In 2005, the year of Sharon's "disengagement," there were 179 rocket attacks on Israel, and there were 946 and 783 in 2006 and 2007, respectively, with even more mortar attacks.
Meanwhile, the Stone Age returned to Gaza with the Hamas coup of 2007. As rockets reigned in Gaza and rained on Israel, economic activity slowed as Israel clamped inspections on Gaza trade and periodically retaliated to rocket fire.
HAMAS is an abbreviation for Harakat al-Muqawwimah al-Islamiyya: The Islamic Resistance Movement, but it has a secondary connotation because, in Arabic, hamas also means zeal, and it accurately sums up an organization whose leaders proclaim that they yearn for death.
It is tempting to grant Hamas leaders' death-wish by using the kind of firepower that would destroy, for example, the Shifa Hospital used to hide Hamas leaders and also built atop one of Hamas's main ammunition dumps.
But taking such steps and using such force would surely backfire in moral terms and in terms of world opinion. At the same time, Israel cannot defeat terror only with planes, helicopters and drones. It must insert at least some ground troops.
Israel has faced this dilemma before in its battle with terrorists. In Gaza in the 1970's, several Israeli generals -- Rehav'am Ze'evi, Ariel Sharon, and David Maimon -- crisscrossed the camps of Gaza to uproot the deeply rooted Fatah concentrations, and Israel used probing commando tactics in 2002 to uproot suicide bombers in Jenin.
Still, to do something similar today in Gaza would also require Israel to endanger its own soldiers by injecting troops into a bomb-rich environment where the slightest error could be disastrous. Touching a door knob can explode an entire city block.
The challenge is to restore the ability of the average Israeli to live without the specter of bombs. This means destroying Hamas's warmaking ability -- its capability to transfer heavy rockets and explosives into Gaza by sea or by tunnels as well as its home-grown bomb-building capacity.
Friends of Israel and those who pray for a world with more democrats and fewer terrorists can help Israel by giving it the time and the strategic room for maneuver to do the job carefully and completely.
Dr. Michael Widlanski is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat, published by Threshold/ Simon and Schuster. He teaches at Bar-Ilan University , was strategic affairs advisor in Israel ’s Ministry of Public Security, and was the Schusterman visiting professor at University of California , Irvine for 2013-14.
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