Former Israeli Minister of Defence Moshe Dayan once said, "We run Gaza by day, and Guevara and his comrades run it at night." His words summarise the courage of the people of the Gaza Strip, their steadfastness and their resistance against the occupiers. There is a need to highlight the long history of the place and this steadfastness, as well as the resistance of the people, which has always ended in defeat for the occupiers.
Mohammed Mahmoud Musleh Al-Aswad — "Guevara of Gaza" — is one of the icons of the resistance against the Israeli occupation. He was born on 6 January, 1946 in the city of Haifa and moved with his family after the 1948 Nakba to the Gaza Strip. They lived in Al-Shati refugee camp on the edge of Gaza City. Al-Aswad tried to complete his university studies in Egypt, but his family could not support him, so he abandoned the idea and returned to Gaza after a year, and found employment. He was 13 years old when Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara made a short visit to the Gaza Strip, during which he toured several Palestinian refugee camps.
After the Israeli army occupied Gaza in 1967, Al-Aswad became a leader in the Vanguard for the Popular Liberation War, a group known as As-Sa'iqa, and then a leader in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). He and his colleagues carried out several bold operations in the early days of armed action against the Israeli army.
Mohammed Al-Aswad was arrested on 15 January, 1968 and imprisoned for two and a half years. He was released in July 1970, after which he resumed his struggle within the ranks of the PFLP and was kept busy preparing, training and educating military groups. He became the commander of the PFLP military action in the Gaza Strip until his death just over two years later. "Guevara" was martyred in Gaza on 9 March, 1973, following a confrontation with the Israeli army. Two other martyrs, Kamel Al-'Amsi and Abdelhadi Al-Hayek, were killed with him on that day, turning them into icons of the struggle of the Palestinian people.
The Gaza Strip is an important part of historic Palestine, with an area of 365 square kilometres, it makes up 1.3 per cent of its total area of 27,009 square kilometres. The name Gaza has changed depending on the nations which fought over it: the Persians called it Hazato, the Canaanites called it Hazani, the Egyptians called it Ghazzat, and the Arabs called it Ghazzat Hashem. It is located along the south of the Palestinian coastal plain, bordering the Mediterranean Sea.
Gaza has endured numerous occupations, the most dangerous of which is the ongoing Israeli occupation since 1967. Although the occupation troops and settlers left the territory in 2005, Israel still controls the borders, air space and territorial waters, and is technically and legally still the occupying power. The steadfastness and resistance of the Palestinians in Gaza has been obvious to all throughout this period.
From a demographic point of view, the Gaza Strip is divided into several areas: the northern area includes Jabaliya and Beit Lahiya; the central area, which includes the Gaza governorate and Deir Al-Balah; and the southern area, which includes Khan Yunis and Rafah.
Gaza City was the base of the southern brigade in Palestine during the British Mandate occupation from 1920 to 1948, and it has been the capital of the Gaza Strip since the 1948 Nakba. The administrative authority was based in Gaza City between 1948 and 1967, and included various official departments. On 5 June, 1967, the Israeli army occupied the Gaza Strip, after it had been under Egyptian administration from 1948.
The location of the Gaza Strip gives it special importance, as it is located on the most prominent ancient trade routes that started in Hadhramout and Yemen and ended in India. It also has great strategic military importance, given that it is the link between Egypt and the Levant. Those who control Gaza had control over the military and trade routes between Asia and Africa. Its fertile land, next to the arid Sinai Peninsula made it a natural stop for those coming from Egypt en route to the Levant, or making the return journey.
Despite the Israeli withdrawal and dismantling of its settlements in 2005 after a prolonged occupation, the siege imposed by the occupation authorities, and backed by Egypt, has turned the Gaza Strip into what has been described as an "open-air prison" for more than 2.2 million Palestinians. Over 70 per cent of these Palestinians are refugees who came from Beersheba, Jaffa, Majdal and Ashkelon; they are concentrated in eight miserable refugee camps. All of them face systematic killing, terrorism and destruction on an almost daily basis at the hands of the so-called Israel Defence Forces.
The population in Gaza is very young, with over 50 per cent being children; families have an average of six children each. As such, the territory suffers from the heavy burden placed on family breadwinners at a time of very high unemployment. Two-thirds of the people of Gaza live below the official poverty line. On top of this, the Palestinians face frequent military incursions, bombings and full-scale offensives by the Israelis — 2008/9, 2012 and 2014 — during which tens of thousands of men, women and children were killed and injured, and the infrastructure was destroyed. A large proportion of agricultural land has also been destroyed by Israel in order to create a "security barrier" along the nominal border fence.
All evidence confirms the ability of Palestinian society and resistance forces to persevere and break the will of the enemy, no matter who it is. The people of Gaza have participated in the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation since the very beginning, not least in the First Intifada (1987-1993) and Al-Aqsa Intifada (2000-2005). Thousands of Palestinians in Gaza have been killed, wounded or imprisoned; there were 1,000 martyrs in the territory during the First Intifada, and over 2,000 during the second uprising. Tens of thousands have been wounded, many of them with life-changing injuries.
Despite all of this, the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip persevere and resist the brutal Israeli occupation. They have a long and proud history in the area and refuse to be broken. The spirit of Mohammed Mahmoud Musleh Al-Aswad — "Guevara of Gaza" — and many others like him lives on.
This article first appeared in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 11 January 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.