Mosaic flooring in a 6th century synagogue in Gaza
With rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel once again topping the news headlines, it is as well to recall that Gaza has not always been an Arab city: Jews have lived there for centuries.
As Dr Shaul Zadka reminded us in a talk in London last night, one of Gaza's notable Jewish inhabitants was the 17th century Nathan of Gaza. He can best be described as spin-doctor for Shabbetai Zvi, who wreaked mayhem across the Jewish and non-Jewish world, proclaiming himself the Messiah.
Since 2006, not a single Jew has lived in Gaza, after Israel pulled out 8,000 Israeli civilians from the territory. It looks like there may not be many Christians left there either, following harassment and forced conversions after Hamas took over control.
Here is a potted history of the Jewish roots of Gaza, from the Jewish Virtual Library:
"Gaza is within the boundaries of Shevet Yehuda in Biblical Israel (see Genesis 15, Joshua 15:47, Kings 15:47 and Judges 1:18) and therefore some have argued that there is a Halachic requirement to live in this land. The earliest settlement of the area is by Avraham and Yitzhak, both of whom lived in the Gerar area of Gaza. In the fourth century Gaza was the primary Jewish port of Israel for international trade and commerce.
"Great medieval rabbis such as Rabbi Yisrael Najara, author of Kah Ribon Olam, the popular Shabbat song, and renowned Mekubal Rabbi Avraham Azoulai, were rabbanim in Gaza Jewish communities.
The periodic removal of Jews from Gaza goes back at least to the Romans in 61 CE, followed much later by the Crusaders, Napoleon, the Ottoman Turks, the British and the contemporary Egyptians. However, Jews definitely lived in Gaza throughout the centuries, with a stronger presence in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
"Jews were present in Gaza until 1929, when they were forced to leave the area due to violent riots against them by the Arabs. Following these riots, and the death of nearly 135 Jews in all, the British prohibited Jews from living in Gaza to quell tension and appease the Arabs. Some Jews returned, however, and, in 1946, kibbutz Kfar Darom was established to prevent the British from separating the Negev from the Jewish state.
"The United Nations 1947 partition plan allotted the coastal strip from Yavneh to Rafiah on the Egyptian border to be an Arab state. In Israel's war for independence, most Arab inhabitants in this region fled or were expelled, settling around Gaza City. Israeli forces conquered Gaza, and proceeded south to El-Arish, but subsequently gave control of the area to Egypt in negotiations, keeping Ashdod and Ashkelon. In 1956, Israel went to war with Egypt, conquered Gaza again, only to return it again.