The conflict between Israel and Gaza has a deep, complex history partially rooted in religion. This article will not seek to unpack all of that but rather to provide a general overview of the Gaza Strip in light of current events.
From a Biblical perspective, God promised the land of Canaan to the descendants of Abraham as an everlasting possession. Canaan includes but is not confined to the land that would be the modern-day State of Israel, as well as what is now Gaza (“strong” or “fierce” due to its fortified walls), which is also referred to as Azzah. Conflicts between Israel and Gaza are longstanding and deeply rooted, as evidenced by the Exodus from Egypt, historical skirmishes over Canaan, and interpersonal relations with the Philistines, who were the only people group to have lived in Gaza historically.
While the Bible makes the historical and spiritual significance of the land clear in no uncertain terms, the Bible also contains many messages pertaining to peace, sar shalom, and reconciliation.
Gaza is also mentioned Biblically, mostly in the Old Testament in reference to the Philistines, but also once in the New Testament when an angel of the Lord told Philip to “go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” (Acts 8:26). Likely because of Gaza’s prime geographical location as a port city, this opened the doors to the gospel going to Africa and Ethiopia. Because of constant conflict with Israel, God warned that Gaza would be judged, abandoned, and destroyed by fire (Amos 1:6-7, Zephaniah 2:4, and Jeremiah 25:17–29), with Ashdod emptied and Ekron uprooted. Gaza has since fallen to Assyrian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Seleucid, and Roman rule over the centuries.
Currently, Gaza, as it was historically known, is technically part of the Gaza Strip under Israel, though the Palestinian National Authority has some jurisdiction, though Hamas maintains political power at this time. Many of the historical conflicts with Israel remain unresolved to this day.
Historically, Gaza referred to an ancient Philistine city referenced in the Tanach as the location of Samson’s death. It was captured by Alexander the Great, went through a few transfers of power after his death, was plundered, pillaged, and destroyed, and then re-established under various factions of the Roman empire. The Jewish people conquered the land during Hasmonean times and began establishing some settlements here, some of which believed it was a Halachic mandate to actually live in this land. By the fourth century, Jewish life in this area was considered relatively prosperous, with established ports for international trade.
However, the Jewish presence in Gaza has started to diminish in ebbs and flows since then. Various tensions between the Jewish people and the Roman Empire, Crusaders, Ottoman Empire, British colonial rule, and Egyptian military rule over the centuries have caused the Jewish people to slowly leave the area, finding living in the area untenable with their values and religion. They found their ability to raise their families in safety and prosperity threatened by the outside forces they were to contend with.
By 1929, the remaining 135 or so Jewish people in Gaza were ordered to leave the area. This is due to violent uprisings occurring by Arabs denouncing the Jewish presence in Gaza. As a result of the violence, the remaining population of 135 Jews was ordered by Great Britain to leave Gaza to quench the uprisings. It seems the Jewish people did indeed leave Gaza at the time, per the directives of Great Britain, though some found their way back a few years later. Some would go on to establish a kibbutz in the area as a safe refuge for the Jewish people to live in, where the British theoretically could not again order them to leave the land they called home.
British rule over the area came to an end in the 1940s, and the United Nations sought a partition plan in 1947 known as Resolution 181 that would designate this strip of land from Yavneh to Rafah along the Mediterranean coastline to be an Arab state that would become part of the Arab League. Meanwhile, the war for independence in Israel also started to brew, and this resulted in over half of the Arab residents of this coastal sliver of land fleeing either voluntarily or forcibly for their lives, many of whom chose to re-settle and re-establish their lives around Gaza City.
As a result of Israel’s war for independence, Israel annexed Gaza, as well as the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but ultimately handed Gaza over to Egypt as part of the negotiation process. Gaza was never formally annexed by Egypt, but Egypt established military rule over Gaza. Life under Egyptian military rule was challenging for some Arab refugees in Gaza due to conditions of homelessness, poverty, and the fact that neither Egypt nor Israel considered them citizens. All-Palestine passports were issued to these people, but life was still complicated by not having a country of citizenship at the time. An influx of refugees further adversely affected the standard of living. Because the Egyptian government limited movement in and out of Gaza, as well as the economic conditions at the time, employment opportunities were sparse, yet the people could not leave the area to pursue better employment opportunities.
Thus, many of these individuals were supported by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). This agency, founded in 1949, originally sought to help Palestinian refugees with direct humanitarian relief and employment, but has expanded its goals to also provide education, healthcare, social services, infrastructure assistance, emergency responses, and other practical assistance to Palestinian refugees after the war with Israel in 1948. Out of desperation and not knowing what else to do with their lives, many young men in particular, despite the assistance offered by UNRWA, opted for the life of "fedayeen” - conducting guerrilla warfare against Israel.
In 1956, the process basically repeated itself as Israel and Egypt had some conflicts. Israel once again gained control over Gaza, only to concede the land back to Egyptian control as part of negotiations. In 1967, Israel once again conquered Gaza.
The Jewish people did not really return to the area until further peace treaties were established with Egypt in the early 1980s, but the number of Jewish people in Gaza was few and far between even at this time. What few Jewish settlements did reappear in Gaza tended to be along the coast. These communities included synagogues, Jewish schools, medical facilities with Jewish doctors, stores selling kosher food, aquifers, and fertile farmland for agriculture (cherry tomatoes, herbs, citrus, wheat, olives, etc.), which also contributed to a noteworthy percentage of Israel’s total agricultural output at the time.
Largely, the Jewish and Arab people living in Gaza seemed to live, work, study, and raise their families side-by-side in peace, but things changed somewhat in 1987 when an Israeli person was stabbed in a marketplace in Gaza. That tragedy was compounded by an Israeli truck killing four Arab people at a checkpoint in Gaza, and unfortunately, tensions started to boil over in the form of an intifada.
Peace, though a strained peace, did seem to return to the area (albeit briefly in the grand scheme of history) when most Jewish people willingly left the Gaza Strip following the Oslo Accords. However, tensions have again spiraled in the years since due to military operations between Israel and Gaza, terrorist attacks, and various measures imposed on the everyday people of the Gaza Strip by Israel.
In 2005, Israel evacuated all the Jewish people of Gaza in less than a week, and any evidence of Jewish settlements in the form of synagogues, residential homes, farms, and any Jewish building was destroyed by the army. Since that time, no Jewish people have lived in the Gaza Strip. Despite Jewish people leaving the area, the land is still considered to be ruled by Israel, according to most political scholars, governments around the world, and the United Nations.
Today, both the West Bank and Gaza continue to be considered to be territories of Israel, as well as under some level of jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. To complicate matters further, the current political power of Gaza today is in the hands of Hamas, elected in 2006 and whose power has been cemented in place since 2007. Elections have not occurred since then, either being “indefinitely postponed” or simply never being scheduled.
Most of the population today is comprised of Sunni Muslims, though there is a population of Christians among the residents of Gaza. As for the Christian population of Gaza, it is believed to be about 1,000–1,300 out of a population of slightly over two million. This number is down from what is believed to be about 7,000 Christians who lived in Gaza when Hamas first assumed political power in 2007. Many come from Greek Orthodox subsets of Christianity, though some Roman Catholics do live in Gaza. Much of the population is comprised of children, many of whom suffer from anemia, malnutrition, and stunted growth and development secondary to their malnutrition. Many of the families living in the area are refugees, and many in the area are considered “food insecure.”
The farmland of Gaza is suitable for growing an abundance of produce, such as melons, cucumbers, and tomatoes, yet limited resources, blockades, pollution, and geopolitical tensions have made farming more complicated in the region than if there were peace reigning in the area. Home gardens provide nutrition and bartering abilities for families living in Gaza. The aquifers may not provide the clean water that they used to due to pollution, over-irrigation, and increased salinity levels that render much of the water impotable, and with limited fuel to pump water, it can be hard to access water even if it is clean and potable. Toxic gasses and chemicals from the rockets and missiles launched between Israel and Hamas adversely affect the water supply, soil, air quality, what agriculture there is, and more.
As Israel considered Hamas to be a hostile entity, there have subsequently been some land, sea, and air blockades of Gaza, as well as the Israeli military having control over Gaza’s airspace and waters, supported by Israel and Egypt pretty much since the time that Hamas assumed political power over the region. The goal was to try to cut off Hamas’ ability to smuggle weapons into Gaza and isolate them from the world.
These blockades have affected international trade as well as the flow of food, water, fuel, medical supplies, humanitarian aid, telecommunications, economic opportunities, and the overall flow of people in and out of the Gaza Strip. The sanctions were first officially established in 2007 and intensified somewhat after some rocket attacks in 2008. Some evidence suggests that since the blockade was imposed, nearly 80 percent of the residents of Gaza are living below the poverty line. UNRWA has expressed its concerns about the accessibility of clean water for upwards of 95 percent of the population of Gaza. Many of the residents have been dependent on humanitarian assistance to sustain life, especially recently with the rising costs of commodities and everyday goods that are affecting all of us worldwide.
During times of peace, people living in Gaza were permitted to travel to Israel for employment, though they were not permitted to remain in Israel overnight. Tensions between Hamas and Israel have complicated employment opportunities for such individuals, as they were not permitted to travel to Israel to work their jobs during times of unrest. The struggle to remain gainfully and consistently employed for some of these individuals has resulted in desperation as many have turned to such things as smuggling, not only such things as weapons but life’s necessities—food, water, medicine, etc.—through tunnels into Gaza from Egypt.
In 2018, Israel began to loosen some aspects of the blockade and other restrictions on travel and trade in an attempt to seek peace, or at least "understanding,” with Hamas. This has allowed for a greater influx of goods and services flowing into Gaza starting in 2019, changes in such things as permitted fishing zones for the residents of Gaza, and changes in work requirements that allowed more residents of Gaza to seek gainful employment in Israel to fulfill their dreams of providing for their families and their children. That said, upwards of 70–80 percent of Gaza’s youth still struggle to find gainful employment, whether in Gaza or in Israel, with the overall employment rate at about half the workforce.
May we never shy away from abhorring evil and calling evil by its name, weeping for those who weep, whether they live in Israel or Gaza (as families and their livelihoods are being decimated on both sides), praying for the peace of Jerusalem, and praying for our enemies and their salvation. May we not take vengeance into our own hands, for vengeance is mine, says the Lord. May we pray for all those affected by trauma-related nervous system dysregulation, regardless of where they live or their citizenship. Warzones, poverty, and limited medical infrastructure may render it difficult for those affected by trauma to receive the mental health care and healing they may need.
The only hope of peace between Hamas and Israel is Yeshua, our Messiah, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace. We do not want our rhetoric or actions, whether intentionally or unintentionally out of ignorance or naivety or spoken in a moment of emotionality, to close doors to peace, reconciliation, and future opportunities to share Biblical truths with people living in Israel and Gaza. Every resident of Gaza and the Arab world has been fearfully and wonderfully created in the Image of God, just as every Israeli and Jewish person has been fearfully and wonderfully created in the Image of God, many of whom are perishing on both sides of this conflict without knowing their Messiah.
May we continue to pray for God to reveal Himself as a Comforter for everyone involved—Jews, Arabs, Palestinians, Gentiles, Hamas, tourists, civilians, world leaders and government officials, hostages, and all people from all walks of life—for the peace of Jerusalem and for the gospel to reach all the world. Not all the world except for Gaza, Hamas, or those we deem unworthy, corrupt, violent, or too far gone to be redeemed from our limited, feeble human perception—but all the world, meaning all people. The Jewish people. The Gentiles. The people of Gaza. Even Hamas. Even our political enemies. Even those who wish us to be beheaded. Yeshua died for us all and cannot return until the gospel goes to all the world. Then the end will come.