Benny Morris: Palestinians on the Right Side of History

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Benny Morris, the author of "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited," is a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, Israel.]

THERE is, from the historian's perch, something fitting about the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. I am not speaking about the fact that this appallingly overcrowded area has 1.3 million Arabs who need every inch of its 140 square miles to even begin to imagine a better life and who regard their former Jewish occupiers as nothing more than robbers.

I mean instead that for the greater part of ancient history - that past in which the Jewish people anchor their claim to Israel - the Gaza Strip was not part of the Jewish state. The embattled settlers may have screamed last week that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was expelling Jews from part of Eretz Yisrael, "the land of Israel." And the first Hebrew, the patriarch Abraham, may have understood God, at least on paper (or papyrus), to have included this narrow strip of territory in his promised domain.

But in reality, the Gaza Strip and the coastal towns to its north, for most of the years between, say, 1250 B.C. and 135 A.D. - the era in which the Jews lived in and often ruled the land of Israel - eluded firm Israelite or Judean control and, indeed, Jewish habitation. It is not even clear that the great Hebrew kings David and Solomon, under whom the kingdom reached its vastest expanse, ever directly controlled the Gaza area.

The Hebrew tribes that crossed the Jordan River and pushed into the Holy Land in the 13th and 12th centuries B.C. settled and established their rule along its hilly central spine, between Ishtamua (present-day Samua), Hebron and Shechem (present-day Nablus). This stretch, with Jerusalem at its center, comprises the area that the Bible and many Israelis now refer to as Judea and Samaria, and the rest of the world calls the West Bank. This is the historical heartland of the Jewish people - and of course today it is largely populated by Arabs, who claim it as their own and are demanding that Israel evacuate it.

By contrast, the coastal strip to the west, from Rafah north through Gaza to Caesarea, was the land of the strangers, the Gentiles. Paradoxically, Tel Aviv, that ultimate Israeli-Jewish city, serves as the hub of this coastline today, a city of the plain par excellence.

Thus in a spiritual sense, history served up a terrible irony at the start of the Zionist enterprise. Wishing to return to Shiloh and Bethel, Jerusalem and Hebron, the Jews immigrating to Palestine found its hilly core heavily populated by Arabs. So the early settlers put down roots in the thinly populated coastal plain and interior lowlands (the Jezreel and Jordan Valleys), where land was available and relatively cheap.

Then, in the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, the Jews established their state in those same lowlands, while Judea and Samaria were occupied by the Jordanian Army, which resisted Israeli takeover. Thus history was reversed: the reborn Jewish state sprang up precisely in those areas that millenniums earlier had been the domain of the Gentiles.

The Gaza Strip was the exception. It was the only part of the old Gentile coastal plain that was saved for the Arabs, by the Egyptian Army....

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