Life in Gaza Before—and After—the 1967 War
By Mohammed Omer
Gaza native Mustapha Al Jamal holds his Israeli-issued ID card (Photo M. Omer).
“AYYAM ZAMAN” is Arabic for the “old days”—a time before occupation, checkpoints, dodging bullets from Israeli military snipers, seeking shelter from the steel rain of incoming hellfire missiles or from deafening sonic booms. It was a time when tanks did not prowl the streets or bulldozers crush homes and people to death. A time when fishermen fished freely off Gaza’s coast, farmers grew their crops, children attended school, lovers married, families grew and businesses prospered as they had for thousands of years. Ayyam Zaman describes an era where borders existed without a single checkpoint, razor fence or military unit in sight.
Then, on June 6, 1967 everything changed.
The Israeli people were told they were under “imminent danger,” with a pre-emptive strike against Egypt, Jordan and other Arab nations their only hope. In truth, the Israeli government deliberately lied to its own people; the invasion had been planned years earlier. Declassified American intelligence reports for May and June 1967 prove Israel’s sole threat was the realization of peace with Egypt—because peace kills the Zionist dream of a Jewish-only greater Israel, the driving ideology behind Zionism since 1897. By 1973 several Israeli officials had confirmed that Israel was under no threat. In 1982, as Israeli invaders laid siege to Beirut, Prime Minister and former terrorist Menachem Begin described the 1967 aggression as a war of “choice.”
That the Six-Day War was launched under false pretenses serves as little comfort to the millions of people in the West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights, however, who watched their lives transformed from ones of freedom to oppression in less than a week. Nor could they have known that, 40 years later, most would still be living under apartheid, increasingly at risk of starvation, and enduring an ever-more sadistic and deadly occupation, protected, endorsed and supplied by the one nation founded upon human rights and democratic values—the United States.
Yet even reality cannot steal one’s past. Elderly Gazans remember life under Egyptian rule rather than Israeli occupation. Mustapha Al Jamal, known as Abu Kamal, was born in 1932. The father of eight sons and four daughters witnessed everything from the same home he lives in today. How is his life different, then and now? “Before ‘67 we lived in peace,” Abu Kamal recalled. “All of it [Gaza] was open land. Egypt was open to us. There were no borders, no customs…I could take the train from Gaza to Cairo. We had two trains per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.’
Pausing for a moment, he gazed south, taking a long, deep breath while motioning at the horizon.
“But now,” he lamented, “Gaza is under siege. Wherever you go, anywhere, it’s closed by the Israeli occupation.”
Abu Kamal continued: “Our curriculum was Egyptian before ‘67, as was our currency. Israel eliminated the Egyptian currency and required that we use Israeli currency. Then they imposed a curfew in order to do a census of the Palestinians. We were then issued identification cards by the Israeli Liaison Office.
“Of course, we are still occupied,” Abu Kamal pointed out, sitting in his barber chair—the same one he owned over 40 years ago. “But today the occupation is much more aggressive than it was in 1967, much more aggressive. When Egypt was defeated in ‘67, Israel took the stage, seizing control of Gaza, thus ending both Egypt’s administrative and civil control, including the Palestinian police. Today I fear walking in the streets because of shooting and chaos.”
Like many people who today live in Gaza, Abu Kamal originally came from an area in what is now known as the state of Israel, the village of Yebna. Beginning in December 1947, David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and other Jewish terrorists instituted a campaign of ethnic cleansing designed to remove non-Jews from the land coveted by the Zionists. Many of the refugees ended up in Gaza, which was safe at the time.
Abu Kamal, like most of those displaced 60 years ago, hopes to return to his original home. If not him, then his grandchildren.
Nehad Al Shiekh Khalil, an historian and lecturer at Islamic University, remains ambivalent on the question of before and after. “I can’t say life was better for Palestinians in Gaza prior to or after 1967,” he stated. “However, occupation has created the worst Gaza of all times.”
When asked about major differences between pre- and post-1967, he elaborated, “For me, the most important to mention is the destruction or usurpation of Gaza’s natural resources and thus our self-sufficiency and ability to trade. For example, our water. The [Mediterranean] sea provided the backbone for Gaza’s economy, so Israel instituted policies that removed our ability to live off our resources, such as preventing fishing and refusing to allow Palestinians to trade or sell goods to other countries.” (Palestinian goods must pass through Israel by Israeli law, and Palestinians must accept whatever Israel decides is “fair market value.”)
In addition to limiting freedom of movement, restricting trade and destroying Gaza’s natural resources or access to them, Israel also has decimated a thriving economy over the past four decades. Prior to 1967 Gaza exported citrus, carpets, pottery, embroidery, textiles and woven fabric throughout the world. The elimination of Gaza’s industries transformed the small coastal strip from a wholly independent into a dependent society.
“After ‘67,” Khalil explained, “Israel controlled Gaza’s economy and all trade, within and out. By doing so it forced Palestinians to live on foreign aid. I can state that before ’67 there existed for Palestinians civil laws defining the relationship between different authorities in Gaza City. We had an economy and civilized culture that suited the population at the time. All of this was torn down by the occupation.”
Recalled 62-year-old Umm Al Abed Abu Sada, a mother of 14, one of whom is currently in jail: “Before ‘67 we had peace of mind. My husband used to build houses of mud. Life was much cheaper. Even the dowry required for marriage was less. Now everything is so expensive and the roads are closed. I am unable to go to Egypt for medication. Before, I could go anywhere.”
On a practical note, she added, “In the past, we used to cook daily. Now, one day we cook an okay meal. During the rest of the week we eat leftovers or a meal not so good.”
Asked before leaving his barber shop if he thought life will ever return to what it was before, Abu Kamal responded by opening his hands with both palms to the sky. “Inshallah (God willing),” he replied. “I hope so.”