Gaza is located within the boundaries of Shevet Yehuda. Avraham and Yitzchak lived in Gerar, located near Gaza. In the fourth century, Gaza was the primary Jewish port of Eretz Yisrael for international trade and commerce. Yonatan the Hasmonean (the brother of Yehuda HaMaccabi) conquered Gaza and settled there in 145 bce. At various times throughout the centuries, Gaza was a center of Jewish learning (a yeshivah in Gaza is mentioned in the Talmud), life and commerce. King David is featured with his harp in an elaborate mosaic in an ancient synagogue in Gaza (see the article on the Gush Katif Museum in this issue).
Rabbi Yisrael Najara, author of “Kah Ribon Olam,” served as Gaza’s chief rabbi in the middle of the seventeenth century. Rabbi Avraham Azoulay of Fez wrote his mystical work Chesed l’Avraham in Gaza. Other well-known scholars and mystics lived there in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The Jewish presence in Gaza was cut short in 1929, when Jews were forced to leave the area due to Arab riots, after which the British prohibited them from living in Gaza. Some Jews returned, however, and, in 1946, established the religious kibbutz Kfar Darom. A Jewish village by the same name existed there in the times of the Mishnah.
During Israel’s War of Independence, after a long siege, the settlers of Kfar Darom were evacuated and the kibbutz fell to the Egyptians. There was a brief attempt to reestablish the kibbutz following the Sinai Campaign in 1956, but in 1957 it was again evacuated when Israel exited the Gaza Strip.
Following the Six-Day War, in the early 1970s, the first settlements in Gaza were established by the Labor government, the first being Kfar Darom.
In subsequent years, Israel’s governments encouraged Jews to move to Gaza, viewing it as a strategic asset to the State of Israel. Ultimately, more than twenty communities were built there. The settlements in the main cluster, known as Gush Katif, were mostly populated by National Religious families, and four communities in the northern part of the Gaza Strip were populated primarily by secular farmers and fishermen. There was also the more isolated community of Netzarim, which had begun as a secular army outpost in 1972 and became a religious kibbutz in 1984 and later, a religious community settlement.
Following the Six-Day War, Israel established the Yamit bloc of settlements in the northeast Sinai Peninsula with the encouragement of Moshe Dayan; the settlements were meant to be a buffer zone between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. In 1982, Yamit was destroyed as part of the peace agreement signed with Egypt. Some of its residents left the area forever; others transplanted themselves to Gush Katif, and rebuilt new homes and new dreams.
They were assured that they would never be uprooted again.
Among a number of sources used for the historical information were: www.gushkatif.co.il, www.mkatif.org and two excellent chapters on the history of Jewish life in Gaza by Sara Bedein, published in the book The Expulsion from Gush Katif, ed. Naomi Grossman (2008).
Toby Klein Greenwald covered Gush Katif extensively before, during and after the disengagement and was commissioned by the Center For Near East Policy Research to write a series of reports post-disengagement that were used by journalists, ministers and Israel’s state ombudsman. She is the translator of In the Land of Prayer: Personal Tefillot from Israel in Turbulent Times (Jerusalem, 2006) and contributed two chapters to The Expulsion from Gush Katif (2008). She taught creative writing to women and children in Gush Katif and is an award-winning theater director who directed a therapeutic drama project with the students of Ulpana Neve Dekalim from 2006 to 2008.