By David Kurlander

Israel and Hamas announced a ceasefire on Thursday, a day after President Biden called for an immediate de-escalation in the 11-day conflict. Biden’s ultimatum—an unusually blunt American demand—underscores the sharp humanitarian disagreements over Israel’s military response to Hamas’s rocket attacks from Gaza. In Washington, the recent strife has triggered scathing criticism from a progressive alliance upset by the asymmetry of Israel’s military might and has awakened equally assured advocates of Israel’s mandate for self-defense. These fault lines are tragically familiar. A look at the interplay between Israel and Gaza half a century ago—during the pivotal year of 1971—offers a stark reminder of the competing ideologies that have long defined this wrenching violence.

The majority of the over 400,000 refugees in 1971 Gaza had fled to the dense sliver of land in May 1948, during the war between the fledgling Israel and its neighbors that established the Jewish state. Over the next 20 years, administration of the increasingly impoverished region cycled between Egypt and Israel. After the 1967 Six Day War, however, Israel took formal control of the area. The next four years were punctuated by occasional battles between IDF soldiers and resistance fighters, but a general policy of non-intervention by Israeli combat forces. 

That changed on January 2, 1971. Bob and Preeti Aroyo, recent British immigrants to Israel, drove through Gaza City with their two young children on their way back to their new home in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. A 15-year-old Palestinian boy who had been recruited by Fatah—the largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—threw a grenade through the Aroyos’ car window, killing the children and severely wounding the parents. Bob, a successful advertising executive, had used 5-year-old Abigail and 7-year-old Marco in a series of national ads and their faces were familiar to many Israelis. Tens of thousands of mourners attended the funerals of the children at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. 

Ariel Sharon, a General and ex-commando who had conducted raids in Gaza dating back to the early days of Israel, had been arguing for more Israeli intervention for over a year. Following the killings, as Sharon wrote in his memoir, Warrior, he took aside Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and said, “Moshe, if we don’t take action now, we are going to lose control there.” Dayan, who had fiercely resisted Sharon’s earlier requests for intervention, simply said, “You can start.” 

Over the following days, Sharon’s operatives began to raze homes and widen roads in Gaza’s refugee camps, where they knew PLO command headquarters were hidden. He ultimately evicted at least 1,200 families and oversaw some of their resettlements in newer camps.  

Sharon utilized secret military units that he trained in “anti-terrorist guerilla warfare” and instituted curfews in several camps. He divided Gaza into small squares and told his forces, “It is your job to know this square inside and out, and it is your job to kill every terrorist within it.” Within two weeks, Sharon had captured the perpetrator of the Aroyo killings and had uncovered a broader network of Fatah affiliates. By 1972, Sharon’s teams had killed 104 terrorists and arrested 742 others. 

From Sharon’s perspective, the actions allowed Gazans to live more normal lives. He noted that many attacks in Gaza were directed at moderates, and particularly those who had agreed to work in Israel through a work busing program. These attacks all but vanished by early 1972. In his memoir, Sharon wrote of the strategy: “It proved, to me at least, that terrorism was neither inevitable nor unresolvable, that a population upon whom the worst horrors were being visited could be freed from the hold of the PLO organizations that look on terror as their standard tool of policy.” 

 Some voices within the Israeli military establishment, however, sharply disagreed with Sharon’s methods, and particularly his program of evictions and refugee camp infiltration. General Shlomo Gazit, who oversaw military affairs in the territories captured in the Six Day War, later said, “There is no other way to describe this act than ethnic cleansing and a war crime.”  

The chasm in how Israel and the PLO viewed the Aroyo killings and Sharon’s subsequent incursions mushroomed into an all-out publicity war. The PLO positioned Sharon’s actions as a major escalation in the conflict. In an official PLO pamphlet, author Arlette Tessier quoted what she ascribed as a prevailing sentiment among Gazans: “We all regretted and deplored the incident, the death of the two Israeli children. But Gaza is at war. We realize, and the Israeli authorities, realize, that it was not a premeditated, planned attack.” Tessier went on to editorialize that the killings “could not possibly justify the weeks of terror, indiscriminate brutality to which thousands of Gaza people were subjected.” 

Meanwhile, the IDF tried to convince Gazans to ignore the PLO polemics. In August 1971, the Jerusalem Post republished leaflets that Israeli forces distributed in Gaza: “History is unfortunately repeating itself. Putting their trust in words, people blindly follow leaders who exploit the sentiments of the people to the utmost in order to further their personal ambitions…only by a cessation of bloodshed and by mutual respect—on your side and on ours—can a quiet, peaceful and prosperous life be attained.”

The carnage played out amid deteriorating diplomatic efforts by the Nixon administration to craft a comprehensive peace plan between Israel and Egypt. The ongoing battles between Sharon’s forces and terrorists provided an increasingly gloomy backdrop to Secretary of State William Rogers’ high-wire act between Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meier and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. In a nationwide address in September, Sadat praised the “heroes of the Gaza strip.” “Be patient,” Sadat said. “Our hearts are with you.” Sadat further argued that no peace would be possible until Israeli forces fully withdrew from Gaza and other Arab-majority territories. The Rogers Plan fell apart, and Israel and Egypt plunged into war again in 1973. 

 Ariel Sharon’s legacy in Gaza would twist and turn several more times before his death. As Prime Minister in 2004, Sharon oversaw the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza—a move that shocked Israeli conservatives who had once seen Sharon as an ally. The withdrawal, however, clearly did not create a humanitarian solution to the continued suffering in Gaza nor build a lasting bridge between Israeli and Palestinian voices.  

As the current ceasefire takes hold, the pain and rancor of 1971 emanates through the debates in the United States, in the global human rights community, and in the raw words of advocates for both Israeli and Palestinian defenses.  

Much of the information on the Aroyo murders came from historian Ronen Bergman’s remarkable Rise First and Kill: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. For more on Sharon’s legacy, read David Landau’s Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon. For a sweeping view of Gaza’s history and identity, check out Jean-Pierre Filiu’s Gaza: A History. And to read about perspectives from within Gaza, look at Cate Malek and Mateo Hoke’s collection Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation

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