Inside Gaza: From Paradise to Rubble

Gaza’s destruction was a political act. Jacobin spoke to Palestinian refugees about the vibrant, beautiful Gaza they remember and how Israel brought their homeland to ruin.

Ibrahim Hassan Muhammad Abu D’ema, who fled Gaza in 1967. (Jaclynn Ashly)

Throughout his life, Ibrahim Hassan Muhammad Abu D’ema often found himself daydreaming, reminiscing about his childhood in Gaza — the picturesque Mediterranean shoreline, the sounds of crashing waves, the sunny streets lined with colorful blooming flowers, and the fresh fish plucked from the sea.

These memories provided some solace for the now seventy-two-year-old as he navigated life in the overcrowded Al-Wehdat refugee camp in Jordan’s capital, Amman. He and his family fled there after Israel took control of Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, during the Third Arab-Israeli War in 1967. This marked the start of Israel’s brutal and still-ongoing military occupation of the territories.

Abu D’ema’s family found themselves in Khan Younis, the second-largest city in Gaza, after Zionist militias expelled them from their home in Yaffa, now part of the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, during Israel’s establishment in 1948. This period is known as the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” during which about 750,000 Palestinians were displaced from their lands in what became the Israeli state.

Despite losing everything, Abu D’ema’s family made a new home for themselves in Gaza, which had fallen under the control of Egypt, for about two decades, before being forced to flee from Israel once again.

“Gaza was very beautiful,” recounts D’ema, sitting at a shop nearby his home in Amman, where he still lives. He was fifteen years old when he fled the coastal enclave. “It was a piece of paradise. Life was very fruitful and we felt very content. We would have stayed there forever if we could.”

Landscape of Amman, Jordan. (Jaclynn Ashly)

Over the last few months, however, Abu D’ema has watched in horror as his childhood home has been turned into rubble. Israel’s unprecedented bombardment and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip — one of the most densely populated areas in the world — has so far killed more than twenty-seven thousand Palestinians, most of whom are women and children.

Israel’s attack on October 7 was in response to a complex and unexpected strike coordinated by Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip. The assault on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of hundreds and the capture of more than 240 Israelis and some foreigners.

Since then, the north of Gaza has been laid to waste and Israel has intensified its operations in central and southern Gaza — obliterating entire neighborhoods in its path. “What Israel is doing to Gaza is much, much worse than anything we experienced before,” Abu D’ema says. Israel has killed at least five of his cousins since October 7. “It is even hard to compare my experiences in 1967 to what is happening in Gaza today.”

“But, no matter what, the Palestinian resistance will never die and we will never stop until we return to our lands,” he adds. “As long as there’s one Palestinian left alive, we will continue to fight.”

Obliterating Gaza’s Ancient Heritage

Broadcasted images depict flattened neighborhoods and desperate Palestinians crowding into flimsy tents for shelter. It’s hard to imagine that Gaza was once a flourishing center for culture and commerce — long before Israel was ever established.

Over decades, “Israel has exported an image of Gaza as a place of poverty and misery — where no one wants to be and inhabited by a people who no one wants,” explains Ehab Bseiso, a Palestinian academic and vice president of the Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem.

“It is a deliberate strategy to paint Gaza as a desert and a place that needs to be civilized. Yet [this image] ignores the fact that Gaza has been the home of thriving civilizations since long before the Nakba.”

The Anthedon, which was the first seaport in Gaza, is thousands of years old and one the oldest ports in the Mediterranean. Gaza was also one of the earliest hubs for Christianity in Palestine. The Saint Porphyrius Church, a Greek Orthodox church in Gaza’s Old City, is said to be the third-oldest church in the world.

Situated as the gate between the Levant and Africa, Gaza was a regional center of trade for centuries. More than 1,500 years ago, the prophet Muhammad’s great-grandfather Hashim is said to have traveled to Gaza with a trade caravan from the Arabian city of Mecca. After he fell ill and died, his body was buried in Gaza. His tomb is believed to be located beneath the Sayed al-Hashim Mosque in the Old City, which was built in the twelfth century and named in his honor.

“This tells us from a social and cultural perspective that Gaza was a center that attracted people all the way from Arabia to exchange and do trading with the world,” says Bseiso, who himself is from Gaza.

Over the last few months, Israel has destroyed and damaged nearly two hundred historical and cultural sites in Gaza, including the Anthedon, the Saint Porphyrius Church, and the Sayed al-Hashim Mosque.

Gaza’s ancient history, spanning thousands of years, gradually evolved into “modernity and cosmopolitanism,” Bseiso tells me. The Anglican Hospital was built in 1906, and impressive hotels were constructed along Gaza’s beaches — all of which have now been obliterated in airstrikes.

In 1948, the establishment of the new state of Israel resulted in the displacement of approximately 80 percent of the Palestinians living in the region. Gaza’s population suddenly exploded, almost tripling practically overnight, as more than two hundred thousand refugees fled into the small enclave.

According to Bseiso, many of these refugees were expelled from villages located in what is now called the “Gaza envelope.” This region comprises Israeli-populated areas in the southern district of Israel that are within 4.3 miles of the Gaza Strip.

Other refugees arrived from Isdud, a coastal village located northeast of Gaza, which Zionist militias partially destroyed during the Nakba, and al-Majdal, a Palestinian town that was depopulated of its Muslim and Christian inhabitants. As Jewish immigrants moved in to replace the Palestinians, al-Majdal was renamed to Ashkelon.

Some, like Abu D’ema’s family, traveled about forty miles from Yaffa with just the clothes on their backs. Refugee camps were constructed and, as temporary tents grew into small homes built with concrete, anger deepened. Today, about 80 percent of Gaza’s population are refugees or descendants of those expelled from their homes in 1948.

Despite the hardships of accommodating a mass influx of refugees, Gaza did not lose its beauty. Its flowers, oranges, and strawberries gained global recognition and were highly sought after. Farmers in Gaza proudly labeled the enclave’s strawberries “red gold” due to their exports guaranteeing a steady flow of cash. Gaza was also once one of the world’s top exporters of flowers.

“This place was beautiful,” Bseiso tells me. “It’s important to know that Gaza is not the image that Israel has exported. It was not a place of misery, poverty, and frustration. It was a very rich place — full of culture, joy, and prosperity. And this continued up until 1967 when Gaza was completely occupied by the Israelis.”

War of 1967

In 1967, Omar Mahmoud Draz, seventy-three, was in the middle of his school’s final exams when bombs began to fall from the sky. The then seventeen-year-old immediately dropped his things and ran to his family’s home in Khan Younis.

“We weren’t expecting it,” Draz says. “We fled our house with a small amount of food and water and hid near the sea. For days, the sky became our blanket cover and the ground was our mattress.”

Omar Mahmoud Draz (Jaclynn Ashly)

The years following Israel’s establishment were characterized by regional tensions in the Middle East. Frequent clashes occurred along Israel’s unilaterally declared borders with Syria and Jordan. Thousands of Palestinian refugees, in search of relatives or trying to return to their homes and recover their lost possessions, attempted to cross into Israel, resulting in Israeli forces fatally shooting many of them.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Palestinian armed resistance groups increased their attacks against Israel, while Israel continued carrying out intermittent massacres on Palestinian villages. Territorial disputes escalated, particularly between Syria and Israel, stemming from disagreements over the use of the Jordan River and Israeli cultivation along the border.

On June 5, 1967, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser mobilized his ground forces in the Sinai Peninsula in response to Israeli threats toward Syria. Israel responded with a surprise attack against Egypt’s forces and managed to almost entirely destroy its air force. Jordan and Syria were soon drawn into the battle.

In a matter of six days, Israel managed to crush the Arab forces, pushing them back and seizing the remaining Palestinian territories of the Jordanian-controlled West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip. Israel also captured the Syrian Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, which was later returned to Egypt in 1982.

Israel’s sweeping military defeat of the Arab armies and its takeover of the rest of historic Palestine became known as the “Naksa,” meaning “setback” or “defeat.” About three hundred thousand more Palestinians were displaced or expelled from their homes. At least 130,000 Palestinians became refugees for the second time.

During the war, Israel bombed the central train station in Gaza City, severing the territory’s link to Egypt. Additionally, Gaza’s airport was destroyed. It was reconstructed in 1998, only to be destroyed again two years later during the second Palestinian intifada in 2001. Gaza’s fertile agricultural lands were transformed into Israeli army bases and camps.

“They had no mercy,” Draz says, remembering the Israeli soldiers who appeared on the streets of Khan Younis. “Anyone in front of them they killed. They did not differentiate between elders, women, or children. If you moved, they killed you.”

On the last day of the 1967 war, Draz caught a glimpse in the distance of Iraqi flags fluttering in the sky from tanks that drove into Khan Younis. For a moment, he felt relief and elation. Iraq had sent about twenty-five thousand troops to support Arab forces against Israel. Draz believed the flags were a sign that the Arab alliance had won.

“But it was the Israelis playing a game with us,” Draz tells me. “They just wanted to humiliate us by bringing our hopes up so they could crush them.” An Israeli soldier shouted over a microphone, Draz recounts, ordering anyone who wanted to return to their homes to approach with a raised white flag.

In a similar journey that hundreds of thousands in Gaza have recently traveled, walking for hours toward southern Gaza raising white flags and their identification papers, Draz and his family hurriedly collected white pieces of clothing — such as scarves — and began the march.

“We were very scared,” he says, slowly shaking his head. “We felt like they would kill us at any moment.” Like Abu D’ema, Draz’s family feared for their lives and fled to Jordan. They also ended up in Amman’s Al-Wehdat refugee camp.

Rights groups have documented Israel’s killings of unarmed civilians waving white flags in the past, including during this most recent escalation. A Palestinian woman was shot and killed in Gaza by an Israeli sniper while holding the hand of her small grandson who was waving a white flag and walking along an evacuation route that Israel had declared safe. Israeli soldiers also shot dead three Israeli hostages who were shirtless, screaming in Hebrew, and similarly waving white flags.

After its military victory of 1967, Israel imposed a “very vicious military rule” on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. “It was designed to break the spirit of Gazans and the refugees who became Gazans,” says Bseiso.

The hordes of refugees in Gaza — whose rage over their displacement continued to pass from one generation to the next — turned the small enclave into a “beacon of Palestinian nationalism,” Bseiso adds.

Two decades after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, the first Palestinian intifada erupted from the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza. Jabalia is one of the largest refugee camps in the Palestinian territories and one the most densely populated plots of land in the world. In its latest aggression, Israel has destroyed huge swathes of Jabalia, pummeling the camp with air strikes and killing hundreds.

On December 8, 1987, an Israeli army vehicle crashed into a line of cars transporting Palestinian day laborers from their jobs in Israel back to the Gaza Strip, resulting in the death of four Palestinian men, three of whom were from the Jabalia refugee camp. The incident was perceived by Palestinians as intentional. Within hours, spontaneous protests, demonstrations, and acts of disobedience spread from Jabalia to the rest of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and Israel.

Members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which at the time was led by Yasser Arafat — leader and founder of the Fatah party, who was living in exile in Tunis at the time — would shape the uprising’s political trajectory in the following years. This culminated in the PLO recognizing the state of Israel in 1993 and signing the Oslo Accords, which are still the focus of anger for many Palestinians.

The first intifada, however, also gave birth to Hamas, the Arabic acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya, or the Islamic Resistance Movement. And it was the false promises and failures of peace negotiations that would give the group its strength.

History of Hamas

The name “Hamas” was officially coined in January 1988, a few weeks after the first intifada began. But the group had been developing its social and religious reach for decades as the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood.

“[The brotherhood] functioned as a social and religious movement, building networks in mosques, social clubs, and in various other aspects of [Palestinian] life,” along with establishing educational and medical programs, explains Khaled Hroub, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Northwestern University in Qatar and author of Hamas: Political Thought and Practice. “But they avoided any military resistance to the Israeli occupation.”

In fact, in 1976 Israel granted approval for the establishment of the Islamic Association, which would serve as an umbrella organization to provide legal and administrative cover for the brotherhood. The license application was submitted by Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, a paraplegic man and a 1948 refugee from al-Jura, near what is now Ashkelon. Yassin served as the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas until Israel assassinated him in 2004.

The brotherhood adopted a long-term resistance strategy, primarily focused in Gaza. Their emphasis was on instilling national and religious principles in Palestinian youths, and preparing them for future confrontation with the Israeli occupation. According to Hroub, “their position was that we are not in a state to fight Israel because Israel is very strong and has acquired a mighty military arsenal and we are the weakest party so we need to adequately prepare for the battle.”

“They followed this strategy almost religiously, for many years — to the point that many Palestinian factions accused them of tacitly or indirectly collaborating with the Israeli occupation,” Hroub continues. However, shortly before the first intifada broke out, a “very heated” internal debate arose within the membership. Many members argued that they had prepared sufficiently over several decades and it was now time to take up arms and confront Israel directly.

The eruption of the first intifada provided members with a timely opportunity to shift from nonconfrontation to armed resistance. At the start of the uprising, the group reshaped and restructured itself into a new form, giving birth to Hamas.

“But this is a movement that did not start from scratch,” Hroub explains. “They changed the name and strategy but the network, foundation, membership, and everything that had been in progress for generations were now deployed to the field of resistance. And this is why they started very strong from day one.”

Hamas’s rise on the political scene occurred at the same time the PLO shifted its strategy from armed resistance to peace talks. “After experiencing the armed struggle for many years they came to the conclusion that we need to listen to the peace initiatives that are being presented,” Hroub says.

Shortly after Hamas released its charter in 1988, which underscored its refusal to recognize Israel and the indivisibility of the land of historic Palestine, Arafat delivered a speech in Algiers, declaring the independence of the state of Palestine. He invoked international resolutions that illustrated the PLO’s willingness to accept a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Hamas interpreted this move as the PLO accepting defeat and surrendering to Israel.

“You have this crucial point where there are two curves moving in opposite directions — the PLO moving from resistance to peace talks and Hamas moving from a nonconfrontational strategy with Israel to resistance,” Hroub explains. “There is one party in the Palestinian scene coming out of the resistance ideology and another entering into it.”

Hamas’s language of resistance could not have diverged more from the PLO’s softening stance. From the start, the group proclaimed its commitment to “jihad” in its battle to liberate all of historic Palestine.

“Hamas rose to articulate an alternative path for liberation,” writes Tareq Baconi, president of the board of Al-Shabaka, in Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance. “Jihad was defined not as a tactic but rather as a holistic strategy around which the Palestinian community could rally.”

“Waging jihad was understood as a way of being, as existing in a state of war or espousing a belligerent relationship with the enemy,” Baconi states. “Jihad was not limited to armed struggle, although this did comprise a central element of Hamas’ mission. Even in the absence of military operations, evoking jihad conjured a sense of identity and purpose that reaffirmed the Palestinian rejection of Israeli control.” Already by the 1990s, Hamas had grown in popularity and had situated itself as a powerful player within the Palestinian territories.

Oslo’s False Promise

Despite Arafat ceding 78 percent of Palestinian lands lost in 1948, his signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 brought hope to many Palestinians who were tired of living under a prolonged military occupation. According to Hroub, Hamas’s popularity declined at this time.

After years of exile, some Palestinians, such as Arafat, were permitted to return to the occupied Palestinian territories. The Palestinian Authority (PA) was established in 1994 as a temporary administrative authority that could govern portions of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for an interim period of five years. Palestinians were promised their own sovereign and independent state on the 1967 borders after this period.

But five years passed without the emergence of a Palestinian state. Instead, Israeli settlements, considered illegal under international law, expanded on Palestinian territory, with the number of settlers doubling from two hundred thousand to four hundred thousand between 1993 and 2000. Israel’s military occupation deepened year by year, and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, promised to Palestinians as part of their future capital, seemed increasingly out of reach.

From the outset, Hamas was convinced that Oslo, like all of Palestine’s peace talks with Israel, would fail. It prepared itself to serve as a powerful channel for the frustrations that would inevitably rise as these failures became more apparent.

In 1991, Hamas consolidated its previously decentralized military cells into a single armed wing, naming it after Izz ad-Din al-Qassam. Al-Qassam, a Syrian fighter, advocated for jihad and engaged in armed resistance in historic Palestine during the 1930s against European powers, Zionist forces, and incoming Jewish settlers. Hamas regards him as the movement’s ideological ancestor.

Like the PLO before it, Hamas began its military operations by targeting Israeli army posts and settler communities as it detonated car bombs within the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. But on April 6, 1994, forty-one days after Baruch Goldstein — a US-born Jewish settler — shot and killed twenty-nine Palestinians in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, Hamas carried out its first suicide bombing in Israel, expanding its attacks to target civilians in Israel.

After years of enduring a stalled peace process, the initial hope around Oslo dissolved into resentment. Israel’s policies continued to degrade Palestinian life, while the Palestinian territories became increasingly fragmented — isolated from one another by ever expanding Israeli settlements.

In 2000, Ariel Sharon, the leader of the opposition Likud party who later became Israel’s prime minister in 2001, provocatively visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. The site holds great importance in both Islam and Judaism. Sharon’s visit sparked the second intifada, or what Palestinians refer to as the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

The first few weeks of the uprising, which began in Jerusalem and quickly spread to the West Bank and Gaza, were marked by mass demonstrations that included civil disobedience and some stone-throwing. Israel responded with excessive force. Within the first month, Israel fired 1.3 million bullets, averaging forty thousand bullets per day, at the demonstrators.

Military incursions involving helicopters and tanks soon engulfed heavily populated Palestinian areas. The uprising rapidly grew into an armed rebellion, which included the frequent occurrence of suicide bombings. Over the course of the uprising, nearly five thousand Palestinians and about one thousand Israelis were killed.

In 2002, Israel initiated the construction of the separation wall, an imposing eight-meter-high structure spanning more than seven hundred kilometers. While ostensibly built to isolate Israel from the West Bank and protect it from suicide bombings, 85 percent of the structure is built inside the Palestinian territory, appropriating more than 13 percent of Palestinian lands in the West Bank.

Around the same time, Sharon declared his willingness to disengage from Palestinian areas, beginning with the withdrawal of eight thousand Jewish settlers residing in the Gaza Strip. By September 2005, Israel had dismantled its settlements from Gaza.

“More important than security was Sharon’s plan to remove these Palestinian inhabitants from Israel’s direct jurisdiction,” writes Baconi. “This allowed the state to maintain its control over the territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with their 2.5 million non-Jewish inhabitants.”

Strangling Gaza

In January 2006, Hamas participated in the Palestinian legislative elections, which were considered a model of democracy by foreign observers, including former US president Jimmy Carter. To the shock of Israel, the United States, and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas achieved a sweeping victory, winning 76 of the 132 seats of the legislative council compared to Fatah’s 43.

Following the election, an international financial blockade was instituted against the Palestinian government, and Israel immediately imposed severe restrictions on the movement of goods or persons in or out of the coastal enclave. Relations between Hamas and Fatah dramatically soured, with violent clashes erupting on the streets of Gaza.

According to Baconi, the Bush administration initiated a secretive “train and equip” program to enhance Fatah’s arms and capabilities for a potential clash with Hamas. A clandestine security committee was also established, bringing together Israelis, members of the Palestinian security forces, and American advisers, to address the security challenge presented by Hamas.

Despite Hamas agreeing to difficult ideological concessions and even consenting to relinquish domestic power to lift the blockade and end the lawlessness that was boiling over into a potential civil war, the unity agreements the group attempted to forge with Abbas continued to unravel.

In June, several months after its election victory, Hamas mobilized all its forces and moved to wrestle full control of the Gaza Strip. Carrying out brutal acts of violence against its opponents, Hamas succeeded in this goal in just a few weeks.

All five crossings leading into the territory from Israel were shut, along with the Rafah crossing into Egypt, completely sealing the territory and severing it from the West Bank and the outside world. Israel and the PA also withheld revenue that would have normally been redirected to the government’s branches in Gaza.

Israel halved fuel shipments and limited imports into Gaza to only essential food and medical supplies. Employing a carrot-and-stick strategy, Israel and the international community embraced and empowered Abbas’s leadership, while making life for Palestinians in Gaza miserable, hoping to foster discontent and encourage them to revolt against Hamas.

This crippling blockade, which saw Israel tightly control the strip by land, air, and sea, was “absolutely humiliating,” remembers Bseiso, who lived in Gaza at the time. “Chocolate was banned. Fruits were banned. Coriander was banned. Magazines and newspapers were banned. Books were banned.”

Gaza’s economy fell into ruins, and unemployment soared. The population’s only lifeline became Hamas’s tunnels that ran underneath the Rafah crossing, through which could be smuggled basic food items and supplies, along with weapons.

Despite Israel easing some aspects of the siege, such as permitting exports of flowers and strawberries from Gaza, the besieged territory’s economy continued to be systematically strangled for seventeen years, earning it the reputation of the world’s largest open-air prison. Throughout this period, Israel has attacked the Gaza Strip on numerous occasions, killing thousands in air strikes.

“Israel’s policies against the Gazans have always involved very systematic destruction,” Bseiso tells me. “What parts of Gaza they didn’t destroy in one round, they would destroy in the next round.”

But years of torment under siege and intermittent military assaults did not yield the result that Israel and the international community had hoped. Instead, it provided the Qassam Brigades with steady recruits. Abu Obeida, the spokesman for the Qassam Brigades, says that 85 percent of their recruits are orphans whose parents were killed by the Israeli army in previous episodes of violence.

“The siege, wars, and assaults did not work to break Gaza, so the next stage for Israel is genocide,” Bseiso says.

Since October 7, Israel has destroyed Gaza’s main courthouse, parliament building, and central archives. Despite Israel repeatedly vowing to “eliminate Hamas,” the group’s popularity has surged in the West Bank and throughout the Arab world.

“We’ve seen thirty years of the so-called peace process, peace talks, and peace strategy,” explains Hroub. “There is a whole generation that was born and raised under and within the Oslo process. All of the failures of Oslo and its deepening of the occupation have turned into gains for Hamas.”

“Hamas was becoming stronger day by day as Oslo, the PA, the PLO, and Israel were failing the Palestinians,” he continues. “So many Palestinians — religious and nonreligious — have grown frustrated about everything and see military resistance as their only hope.”

Dreams of Gaza

Not a day passes without Draz thinking about Gaza. But he has no memories of the uprisings that swept across Gaza’s streets or the devastating siege that turned peoples’ lives upside down. He only remembers life in Gaza before Israel replaced its beauty with misery.

Protests for Palestine in Amman, Jordan. (Jaclynn Ashly)

“Planting cucumbers, tomatoes, and eating straight from the land and trees — that was our lives in Gaza,” Draz tells me, a slight grin appearing on his solemn face. “Oh and the fish! There was so much fish . . .”

When Draz reflects on the events since October 7, tears fill his eyes as he contemplates the catastrophic death toll in Gaza, which includes several of his own relatives. But like many across the Arab world, he views the October 7 attacks as a legitimate act of resistance. He dreams that one day his family might return to Gaza to once again breathe in its humid and salty air.

“I have forty-three grandchildren,” Draz says, with pride. “The moment they are born I make sure they are nourished with the milk of Palestine. The key to our return is hung outside each of their doors.”

“It’s our duty to pass down the knowledge of Palestine and our love for our land to the next generation. And one day, if God wills, a generation will come that will free Palestine. And on that day all the refugees will finally return home.”