by mai abdul rahman August 4, 2014
Gaza is one of the longest inhabited cities in the world. It was specifically mentioned by name at the beginning of Bible (Genesis 10:19). Gaza’s name has many meanings: “strong”, “the treasure,” “the chosen place,” “strength and prevalence”, and “the ruler’s prize”. Mark the Deacon described Gaza as “a city of Palestine that is on the borders of Egypt; and it is of no small account, being a populous city and notable” (Mark the Deacon: Life of Porphyry, Bishop of Gaza). Gaza is where Paul the Apostle wrote an epistle; and where Mark the Deacon wrote the biography of his Gaza teacher Persophious; and where the church Persophious built in 407 A. D. still stands.
Gaza’s scholars were major contributors to the spread of Christianity across Palestine, Asia Minor and Europe, yet their work remains largely unappreciated. Gaza’s Christian theologians were the first to develop the Catena (Biblical commentaries), and composed countless of epistles are still in circulation. Aeneas of Gaza (518 A.D.) wrote the Theophrastus or “A Tract on the Immortality of the Soul”, and many epistles (25 still remain). Their work and scholarship are recognized for its attentive devotion to the Scripture, lucidity, and originality. Procopius (456-588 A.D.) biblical commentaries used the “catenic chain” system, which consist of a series of extracts from the fathers, arranged, with independent additions, to elucidate specific portions of Scripture.
Douglas Burton-Christie of Oxford University published, “The Word in the Desert” expounding on the work and teachings of Abba Isaiah of Gaza. He described Abba Isaiah’s work to be marked by “A deep knowledge of Scripture, faithfulness to tradition, and insights distinctive to fifth-century Gaza.” He portrays Isaiah’s practical guide as “intimate” evoking the “personal relationship between Christ and the Christians, which lies at the core of each believer’s life.” Burton-Christie argues that the contribution of early Palestinian theologians remains largely overlooked. “Both the people and the spiritual fathers who speak through Abba Isaiah’s writings are part of an ancient tradition in a Church that has only recently emerged” (Douglas Burton-Christie, 1993).
In 1999 Palestinian archaeologists discovered the remains of a sixth-century Byzantine church dedicated to John the Baptist. Under Gaza’s sand dunes the church remains well preserved, with its extensive marble floor tiles, Greek inscriptions, multicolored mosaics, geometric shapes and floral motifs. The remains of the church provides concrete evidence of Gaza’s thriving and well-established Christian communities, whose descendants still reside in Gaza, and worship in Gaza’s ancient churches.
Gaza’s centers of learning dealt with the art of practical rhetoric and philosophy. For example Theodore of Gaza (75 B. C.), and Johannes Argyropoulos (90 A. D.) contributed major translations of Aristotle. Palestinians of Gaza espoused a unique philosophical perspective. They defined civil society as one that is not chiefly concerned with wealth, power or possessions, but rather with the education of the human mind and the refinement of the human psyche. According to Gaza’s philosophers and scholars, the richest state in the world, and nations of unlimited wealth and comfort would still not be considered ‘civilized’ unless their people are educated. Their unique conviction and perspective on civil citizenry and society spread throughout Palestine, and fueled generations of well-educated Palestinians.
Interestingly, Gaza’s traditional dalmatic embroidery and dress that date back to 1500 B. C. was frequently depicted in early Christian paintings, and Byzantine mosaics; and still graces countless of cathedrals, churches, and monasteries. In fact, Gaza’s dress and embroidery still endures in the ecclesiastical vestments worn in present day churches by Protestant, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Latin, and Coptic clergy.
Since 2005, most associate Gaza with the Israeli Siege, and Israel’s three major wars on the people of Gaza-during Christmas 2008, November 2012, and this most recent war in July 2014. In each of these wars, Israel unleashed its military destroying Gaza, its infrastructure, and displacing tens of thousands of its refugees, yet again. Consistently, Israel insists it bears no blame for the consequences of its military actions, and shoulders no liability for administering Israel’s suffocating Gaza Siege.
It is important to note here that during the 1980’s Israel and the U.S. encouraged and funded Hamas to counter the secular Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which represented the various Palestinian nationalist factions, including Fatah and left leaning Palestinian groups. According to foreign policy analyst and chair of the Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco Stephen Zunes U.S. officials “periodically” met with Hamas leaders, and avoided any official or non-official contact with the PLO. Furthermore, Israel and the U.S. were well aware of Hamas’s charter, which they have recently contested and called into question. In short Israel and the US were instrumental in the establishment, funding, and growth of Hamas.
Stephen Zunes illustrates: “While supporters of the secular PLO were denied their own media or right to hold political gatherings, the Israeli occupation authorities allowed radical Islamic groups to hold rallies, publish uncensored newspapers and even have their own radio station. For example, in the occupied Palestinian city of Gaza in 1981, Israeli soldiers — who had shown no hesitation in brutally suppressing peaceful pro-PLO demonstrations — stood by when a group of Islamic extremists attacked and burned a PLO-affiliated health clinic in Gaza for offering family-planning services for women.”
Regardless, during the 1990’s Hamas emerged as a credible Palestinian political group through the establishment of health care clinics, and a variety of social service organizations that served the needs of Palestinians.
Gaza’s recent struggles and complex political landscape, while difficult, are hic-coughs compared to Gaza’s deep roots and ancient history. During the Hellenic, Roman, Christian, and Islamic periods Gaza was well known for it’s flourishing learning centers, where philosophy, history, the sciences, and theology (Christian, Muslim, and Jewish) were concurrently taught and studied. Famous Jewish theologians lived and thrived in Gaza. Medieval liturgical poet Israel ibin Musa Najara is buried in Gaza’s local cemetery, and the famous Jewish theologian Sabbatean prophet Nathan of Gaza also lived and died in Gaza. The arrival of Islam in 637 A.D. did not change Gaza’s unique character.
Many Jewish scholars flocked to Gaza during that period. Israeli historian, diplomat and deputy prime minister Abba Eban confirms: “Under Muslim rule, world Jewry entered into a new period of physical and intellectual expansion. The rejuvenation of the [Jewish] community in Palestine under Muslim rule… Jewish community in Palestine now rose to such heights that it seemed ready to regain its authority over world Jewry. Jews were allowed to return in large numbers to Jerusalem for the first time in centuries.” As a matter of fact, Abba Eban names Gaza in particular “Jerusalem was not the only city to experience a [Jewish] renaissance under the Muslims…. Other centers of [Jewish] learning were Gaza, Askalan, and Haifa.”
Gaza today is the home of more than 1.8 million refugees who became homeless in 1948 after the establishment of the state of Israel. Many of the Palestinian refugees living in Gaza were former homeowners and landowners in Askalan (Ashkelon), as well as bordering Israeli towns and settlements. Today, most of these displaced Palestinians live in refugee camps run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), a stone’s throw away from their ancestral lands and properties. They live in closely clustered cement shelters, in an area not larger than 4 square meters or 43.06 square feet without the basic minimum infrastructure. UNRWA’s sanitation laborers collect their solid waste, and UNRWA trucks supply them with water. Most of Gaza’s refugee camps are separated and connected by one-meter alleys (3 feet). These narrow winding pathways serve as make shift playgrounds for young Palestinian children.
The recent historical experience of a large number of Palestinians living in Gaza is shaped by their 1948 forced political displacement, homeless status, and poverty; and it is also shaped by Israel’s occupation, Siege, confinement, and recurring wars. As a result 45% of the Gaza population is unemployed. Gaza’s poverty and poor economic conditions are a consequence of Israel’s harsh administrative policies and its extensive and various military actions such as closures, blockade, military incursions, and destruction of assets. Israel prevents Gaza farmers from accessing their lands, and also limits its fishermen from accessing their Mediterranean shores. Israel also controls and rations Gaza’s food, medicine, fuel, and water. Soaring fuel and food prices, falling incomes, and high unemployment are jeopardizing Gaza’s livelihood, emotional, and mental well-being. According to experts Gaza children exhibit the highest-levels of psychiatric distress in the world. Gaza’s young have also suffered three consecutive Israeli wars in a span of six years -2008, 2012, and 2014. December 31, 2008, on New Year’s Eve and the Muslim Eid, Reverend Alex Awad of Bethlehem Bible College and pastor of East Jerusalem Baptist Church wrote this reflection on Gaza:
One hundred tons of bombs are Israel ’s way of saying to the captive citizens of Gaza, Merry Christmas, Happy Eid (feast) and Happy New Year. These “gifts” that were showered from US-made F-16 fighter jets demolished government buildings, mosques, a university, hundreds of homes and snuffed out many lives – among them scores of children.
Unable to escape their political and economic plight generations of self-reliant Palestinians living in Gaza are progressively falling into the poverty trap. The absence of job opportunities has forced many to reluctantly depend on foreign handouts. Yet despite Gaza’s dismal employment prospects, poverty, and the absence of adequate educational resources Palestinians of Gaza continue to value their education. Gaza’s numerous colleges and educational institutions are filled to the brim with young students eager to attain a college education. In fact the literacy rate in Gaza rivals that of the Israel’s whose students enjoy social, and economic stability, and well-endowed universities.
While violence and human suffering has been unjustly imposed on the people of Gaza, they will persevere, much like Gaza’s coat of arms that has graced their city for more than 5,000 years. Today the Palestinians of Gaza are still committed to reviving and fulfilling Antonius Martyr’s description of their city, which he evoked a century and half After Divinity with three simple words “civitas splendida deliciosa”-an exotic city of splendor.