Gaza: And So it Begins
Last month, Gaza was at the center of a struggle between Israel and Palestine that was watched by the entire world. A century ago, however, Gaza was the main battlefield between the British and Ottoman empires in a merciless struggle over the Middle East that was distinctly overshadowed by the war in France and Belgium. The Middle East may have been a secondary theater then, but the conquest of Gaza in 1917 meant the demise of centuries of Ottoman rule and the British takeover of Palestine, which set the stage for today’s conflict. I discuss these important events in my new book, Gaza: A History.
The boundary between the two empires was made official only in 1906. That year, plenipotentiaries representing the Ottoman Empire and Egypt (under British tutelage since 1882) met at the frontier town of Rafah. It was agreed that the administrative border would run right through the town in order to appease the local tribes, since trading and smuggling across the two territories was their main activity. Today, Rafah remains the crossing point between Egypt and Gaza.
This position of Rafah as a neutral ground for both Palestinians and Egyptians was preserved until 1982, when the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt divided the city in two sections with tribes and families torn apart. But back in 1906, the administrative border went straight from Rafah into the desert down to the Gulf of Aqaba, marking the separation between the “Ottoman” Negev in the north and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula in the south.
So things stood until the outbreak of war in August 1914 when the Ottoman Empire, by then ruled by a triumvirate of nationalist Pashas — Enver, Djemal and Talaat — who sided with Germany against the United Kingdom, France, and Russia. Fearing pro-Ottoman protests in Egypt, London decided to impose a full-fledged protectorate on Egypt. This precaution was unnecessary. Egypt had grown increasingly alien to the Turks through the 19th century and the Arab bond was stronger than Muslim solidarity.
Instead, the Ottoman Turks invaded Egypt. In February 1915, Djemal Pasha launched an offensive toward the Suez Canal. His assault was thwarted, forcing him to withdraw his troops back into the Sinai Peninsula — still, of course, on Egyptian territory. The British Empire took a full year to assemble an Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) under the command of General Sir Archibald Murray, with major contributions from Australia and New Zealand. From February to December 1916, the EEF progressively rolled the Ottoman troops back out of the Sinai desert, eventually taking the Egyptian oasis of El Arish, then the border town of Rafah.
Murray established his headquarters in the city of Khan Yunis, just south of the Ottoman stronghold of Gaza. The EEF received reinforcements and supplies through a railway painstakingly constructed from the Suez Canal. For their part, the Turkish troops were officially assisted (but in fact led) by a German officer, Colonel Kress von Kressenstein. They relied on the Turkish-German garrison of Beersheba — today an Israeli city of nearly 200,000 people — southeast of Gaza in the Negev Desert.
The British launched their offensive at dawn on Mar. 26, 1917. However, it was poorly handled, and even included a misdirected artillery barrage. The support from Bersheeba was key to the final success of the Turkish resistance in Gaza. British losses were double those of the Turks. Yet, Murray managed to conceal the extent of his failure from the British general staff and went again on the offensive on Apr. 17. By this time, the Ottomans had thoroughly consolidated Gaza’s defenses at the expense of many monuments and buildings of the besieged city. The Germans also used Zeppelins to adjust their artillery fire. Murray’s results were no better this time.
The “Arab Revolt” opened a second front against the Turks as early as June 1916, with British and French support. Sherif Husayn, the Ottoman governor of Mecca, turned against his masters to promote an Arab kingdom in the liberated Middle East. His guerrilla tribal force fought its way along the Eastern coast of the Gulf of Aqaba. In July 1917, forces took over the very port of Aqaba and quickly established a liaison with the EEF.
In June 1917, Murray was replaced by the recent victor of the Battle of Arras, General Sir Edmund Allenby. The new commander brought in 60 new aircraft in a forceful move to deter the German planes from attacking EEF supply lines. More importantly, Allenby arrived with a new plan. He discarded the idea of a frontal assault on Gaza as Murray had twice tried. Instead, he bet on a pincer move coordinated with the Arab insurgents against Beersheba.
On Oct. 27, 1917, Allenby ordered a massive bombing of Gaza city by land, air, and sea. The bombing went on for four days followed by the British launching simultaneous ground attacks on Gaza and Beersheba. The city of Beersheba and its precious water resources fell to the British troops on Nov. 1, but a full week of fierce fighting was necessary before Allenby’s battalions could conquer Tell al-Muntar, the strategic hill commanding the access to the city.
Meanwhile, on Nov. 9,1917, Allenby entered Gaza, and found it ruined by the combined effects of the British bombardment and the Turkish plundering of local buildings to erect their own defenses. Gaza was devastated. Ironically, some of the first work that took place among the ruins was the construction of two British military cemeteries for their soldiers who fell in Palestine. The British cemetery in Gaza, the larger of the two, which was in use until March 1919, ultimately contained 3,000 graves. The other at Deir al-Balah, south of Gaza City, served as the final resting place for some 700 bodies. Those British service members remain there to this day.
The British victory at Gaza sealed the Ottoman defeat in Palestine, and the Turkish-German alliance. Allenby swiftly moved his EEF north to Jerusalem where he readily expelled the Ottomans and established his headquarters for the Palestine Occupied Enemy Territories Administration.
But on the very day that Allenby entered Gaza, the British press published a letter sent one week earlier by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to the Zionist leadership. The Balfour Declaration, as it came to be known, stated the British support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The battle for Palestine between the British and the Ottomans war was over, but the battle for Palestine, this time between Jews and Arabs, had just begun.
Jean-Pierre Filiu is a professor of history of the contemporary Middle East at Sciences Po, Paris School of International Affairs. He has held visiting professorships both at Columbia and Georgetown universities. He is the author of Apocalypse in Islam and The Arab Revolution. His latest book, Gaza: A History, is being published in this month by Hurst and Oxford University Press.
Photo credit: OTTOMAN PALESTINE 1