Teaching Gaza to sixth graders

If you are a sixth grader who recently started paying attention to world events, you would have seen that the big story this past week has been about a place called the Gaza Strip, which has been battling with Israel for eight days.

A few days ago, a tentative peace agreement was reached, and people in Gaza celebrated, as shown on the front page of the BBC’s web site and on the front of the Washington Post’s website as well.

Here’s the BBC’s “top news story” for this morning:

And here’s the front page of the Washington Post:

So what’s going on?  Let’s take some time to go over some of the basic vocabulary, circled in red above — Israel is a country in the Middle East, about the size of New Jersey, with a population of about 8 million people (six million of those people are Jews).  The modern state of Israel was created in 1948, and after looking at Gaza a bit, I’m guessing students would want to explore the events that led to Israel’s creation after (and in response to) World War II.

Hamas is the leading political group within the Gaza Strip, a piece of land 25 miles long and 6-7 miles wide.  Here’s a map from Google Earth, showing the Gaza Strip and Israel:

Here’s a close-up map of the Gaza Strip, courtesy of Wikipedia:

The front page of the Washington Post also makes reference to a man named Morsi, who apparently earned high praise for helping Israel and Hamas reach a cease-fire.  Mohamed Morsi is the new president of Egypt — he took office on June 30, 2012, after Egypt’s president for 30 years (1981-2011), Hosni Mubarak, was removed from office as part of the uprising in Egypt known as the “Arab Spring” — another term we’d need to unpack in more depth.

Morsi is part of a political group in Egypt called the “Freedom and Justice Party,” or FJP — a new group formed by the Muslim Brotherhood.  Members of the Muslim Brotherhood also created Hamas, the group in power in Gaza.

Confused yet?

Let’s recap — Hamas is the leading group in Gaza, and Morsi (a former Muslim Brotherhood leader) is the leader of the FJP in Egypt, a country that is going through a leadership transition.

What about the leadership in Israel?  Well, the prime minister of Israel is Benjamin Netanyahu.  We’d need to do some background reading on him and on Israel’s position toward Gaza over the years.  Basically, Israel does not like that folks in Gaza are firing rockets at their country.  Makes sense.  Similarly, folks in Gaza are not happy that the people in Israel took their land in 1948.  Here’s some graffiti from a wall in Gaza that captures the sentiment in Gaza pretty well:

For balance, here’s an editorial cartoon that points out that Hamas has been sending missiles into Israel for some time:

And here’s a cartoon with a different perspective about Israel’s attacks on Gaza:

As you can see, the history of the Middle East gets complicated rather quickly, and differs depending on whose perspective one takes [thanks to Terence Gilheany, a teacher at St. Andrew’s School in Delaware, for pointing me to the last cartoon and for pushing my thinking].

The idea at TLC middle school (opening in August 2013) would not be to attempt to discuss the full history of the Middle East in 30 minutes.

Rather, we would aim to pique student interest in the topic, by suggesting how complex the situation is.  A more complete understanding of the regional politics would also require that students look at the history of Iran (the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the taking of US Hostages is the subject of Ben Affleck’s new movie, Argo), as well as a look at how 9/11 and the response to 9/11 reshaped the region.

Here’s a pretty good starting point to learn about Gaza, from the Wikipedia article about the Gaza Strip:

The population of Gaza Strip is about 1.7 million people.[2] While the majority were born in the Gaza Strip, a large percentage identify as Palestinian refugees,[3] fleeing to Gaza as part of the 1948 Palestinian exodus during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The population is predominantly Sunni Muslim. With a yearly growth rate of about 3.2%, the Gaza Strip has the 7th highest population growth rate in the world.[2]

* * *

Israel captured the Gaza Strip from Egypt and occupied it in the Six-Day War in 1967. Pursuant to the Oslo Accords signed in 1993, the Palestinian Authority became the administrative body that governed Palestinian population centres. Israel maintained control of the airspaceterritorial waters and border crossings apart from the land border with Egypt. Israel unilaterally disengaged from Gaza in 2005.

The Gaza Strip forms part of the Palestinian territories.[5][6][7][8] Since July 2007, following the 2006 Palestinian legislative election and following the Battle of GazaHamas has functioned as the de facto ruler in the Gaza Strip, forming an alternative Hamas Government in Gaza.

So clearly we’d want to go back at least as far as 1948, and also look at the 1967 war, when Israel first took over the Gaza Strip.

If students got interested in learning more, we might have them read this piece by NPR.  It does a nice job of explaining why, despite years of violence between Israel and Gaza, the conflict between Hamas and Israel is different this time, largely because we’re living in a post-Arab Spring world.

Here are a few timelines that give background about the history of Gaza — students might want to explore these:

Timeline from the CBC in Canada

Timeline from SBS in Australia

Note that both of those timelines only go up to 2005, which was when Israel pulled its military forces out of Gaza, after having occupied Gaza for 38 years (since the 1967 war).  Here’s a quote from the CBC timeline:

By the end of August 2005, all Israeli settlers have left the [four settlements in the] West Bank. On Sept. 12, 2005, Israeli troops leave the Gaza Strip, ending their 38-year presence in the area. Palestinians celebrate the troop withdrawal. Some of the synagogues remaining in the Strip are set on fire.

In mid-November, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announces that Israeli and Palestinian leaders have reached a deal on Gaza-Egypt border crossings, including a provision for guarded bus convoys between the West Bank and Gaza.

So now we’re wondering what a “settler” might be — probably someone from Israel who “settles” in the occupied Gaza Strip or West Bank (another term we’d need to define — see the video at the end of this blog post).  A synagogue is a place of worship for Jewish people.  And if we look back at the map, we can see that there’s a border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

There is of course a larger border between Israel and Gaza, but that border is extremely well protected.

Based on this brief introduction, student questions would guide the rest of our conversation, and when students blogged about what they’d learned from the discussion (as they will do on a daily basis at TLC middle school), we’d get a sense of what topics to tackle next.  This topic — using Gaza as an entree to the history of the Middle East — would take at least two to three weeks to do in any depth.  And at the end of the project, students would collaborate to create an online resource that would explain the Middle East to sixth graders around the world.

I just made a 4-minute video (embedded below) that gives some Google Earth context and also shows a series of maps from a great NPR resource called The Mideast: A Century of Conflict.  The resource was made by NPR in 2002, so it’s a decade old — but it’s still an excellent way to get a basic background about the Middle East — specifically the area around Israel.

P.S.  One day after I wrote this blog entry, President Morsi has grabbed more power, causing many protests throughout Egypt.  This would be a nice tie-in to the Arab Spring discussion that we would need to have.  Here’s a compelling picture from The Guardian that I’m sure students would ask questions about:

And here’s the front of Friday morning’s New York Times:

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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