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What Happened When Israel Didn’t Occupy Gaza

What happened during those years offers some insight as to what to expect if Gaza returns to self-rule after this war.
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October 19, 2023
Ghaza in 1949. Pontuse/Getty Images

Palestinian Arab terrorists from Gaza slipped into the Israeli village and approached the synagogue, which they saw was crowded with children. One of the terrorists cut the electricity wires, plunging the rooms into darkness. His comrades kicked in the main door and unleashed a torrent of gunfire. Five boys and a teacher were slaughtered, and five more were wounded.

“The children who had died and a number of others who had been wounded seriously, mostly in the upper parts of their bodies, were lying in one huge pool of blood when rescuers arrived,” according to a news account. “The blood stained their clothing, their [yarmulkes] and the prayer books they had been reading.”

From this description, one might have thought that the attack on the synagogue in Kfar Chabad took place last week. Indeed, the attackers were part of a force of 200 terrorists who divided up into small groups and fanned out across southern Israel, invading numerous small towns for the purpose of murdering and pillaging. But that invasion actually took place back in April 1956—during the first years that Israel did not occupy Gaza.

What happened during those years offers some insight as to what to expect if Gaza returns to self-rule after this war.

When Israel’s 1948 War of Independence ended, Egypt was occupied the Gaza Strip. In the years that followed, the Egyptians financed thousands of attacks on Israel by Gaza-based Palestinian Arab terrorists, known as the fedayeen. There were fourteen separate terrorist training ce centers in the Gaza Strip.

“Egypt has decided to dispatch her heroes, the disciples of Pharaoh and the sons of Islam, and they will clean the land of Palestine,” the government declared. In addition, there were some terrorist groups in Gaza sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood and the exiled Mutfi of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini.

The Gaza-based terrorists “came in and out of Israel every day on their missions of murder and plunder,” Israeli ambassador Abba Eban complained at the United Nations. Jews were “subjected to savage and relentless hostility,” and southern Israel had become “an inferno of insecurity and danger.”

In his book Israel’s Border Wars, Benny Morris described how Jews living near Gaza “suffered persistently and often grievously from the infiltrators. For months on end, [the Jews] lived in fear, shut in their homes after dusk, a constant prey to theft and sabotage.” The terror was so overwhelming that six Israeli towns “emptied completely,” as the residents fled, and “many others were partially abandoned.”

Morris noted that there were “a dozen or more infiltrator gangs” operating out of Gaza. Some of the gangs were “chiefly ‘political’, and mainly interested in killing and raping Jews.” Others were “economic gangs,” which “specialized in stealing farm animals [or] irrigation pipes and motors.” But they, too, “would carry out sabotage and the occasional murder on the side.”

Of the thousands of attacks from Gaza, several stood out for their exceptional brutality.

There was the Scorpions Pass massacre, in March 1954, when terrorists from Gaza boarded an Israeli passenger bus and slaughtered eleven passengers. (A twelfth lingered, paralyzed and partly-conscious, for 32 years before dying.)

There was the mass attack in August 1955, when twelve squads of fedayeen from Gaza invaded numerous Israeli towns simultaneously. With automatic rifles, mines, and grenades, they murdered twelve Israelis and wounded 14 in ten different towns. A senior UN official in the region, General E. L.M. Burns, compared the terrorists’ savagery to that of the Nazis.

There was another mass assault in April 1956. Two hundred fedayeen, in groups of four to seven, attacked Israeli communities with guns, explosives, mines, and grenades. Over the course of five days, they murdered eleven Israelis and wounded 49. The aforementioned Kfar Chabad synagogue was one of the targets.

Statistics for casualties inflicted by Gaza terrorists during that period are less than precise, but historians estimate that several hundred Jews were murdered, and as many as 1,000 wounded.

In addition, Morris wrote, “property worth hundreds of  thousands of US dollars was stolen or destroyed by infiltrators each year,” and additional hardships were caused by the terrorists sabotaging Israeli water supplies, cutting telephone wires, and planting mines in farmers’ fields.

A senior Egyptian official said bluntly: “There is no reason why the faithful fedayeen, hating their enemy, should not penetrate into Israel and transform the lives of its citizens into a hell.” And that is exactly what they did, week after week, year after year, until the autumn of 1956, when Israel finally sent in its troops to crush the fedayeen during its Sinai Campaign.

It’s noteworthy that in the 1950s, there were no issues of “settlements” or “occupied territories.” This was Israel within the pre-1967 lines. There were no alleged “provocations,” such as Israelis visiting the Temple Mount, because that part of Jerusalem was under Arab occupation, and no Jews were allowed to step foot there. The Jews were guilty of only one offense, Ambassador Eban said: “Israel had committed the dark sin of survival.”

Does this history of Gaza-based terrorism mean that Israel should re-occupy the territory? That’s for the Israelis to decide. But certainly it’s important to remember what history shows will happen when Gaza is left in the hands of terrorists and their supporters.


Dr. Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. His latest is America and the Holocaust: A Documentary History, published by the Jewish Publication Society & University of Nebraska Press.

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