Gaza Strip by David Douglas Duncan, 1956

A great photoessay from 1956 shows how much and how little things have changed on the tiny strip of land bordering Israel and Egypt in seventy years.

David Douglas Duncan first went to the Middle East after World War II. For LIFE, he covered fighting between Arabs and Jews in 1946, before the creation of the State of Israel. That fighting would eventually culminate in the forces of the new Israeli army encircling the Egyptian troops onto a tiny sliver of land, now known as Gaza Strip (a larger crescent-shaped Gaza was proposed in the 1947 UN plan for two states solution). Until 1967, when Israel occupanied it in the Six-Day War, Gaza would be ruled by Egypt in various forms of protectorate status.

In early 1956, Duncan resigned from LIFE and became a special correspondent for Collier’s magazine (which would fold within a year and make Duncan an independent photojournalist). He had befriended the Egyptian president Gamal Nasser during his various assignments for LIFE, and he went back to Cairo to say goodbye to Nasser. Nasser then gave him access to photograph the deposed King Farouk and also do a stroy on Gaza. Gaza was closed to all but the Egyptian military, and the resulting photoessay, which appeared in Collier’s on 3rd August 1956, was considered one of the great photographic insights into Bedouin and Palestine lives in those days.

Colliers was one of the first American magazines to feature color photography and was once considered a liberal competitor to LIFE, due to its advocacy for social reforms. By the time Duncan’s essay appeared, it was fast losing audience. In 1953, it became a bi-weekly, and finally closed down a few months after the Gaza essay in 1957.

In an echo of later, more recent controversities, the magazine received equal praise (for presenting the issue from the Palestinian perspective) and condemnation for fuelling anti-Israeli and Arabist viewpoints, in a time when a large part of the American press and public opinion strongly supported Israel.

The accompanying text Colliers wrote was sombering:

An area brought into being in the truce lines of the Arab-Israeli armistice of 1949, the Gaza Strip is only 25 miles long, an average of five miles wide. Its Egyptian military government rules an Arab population of around 312,000. Only 95,000 are original settlers. The rest are refugees driven into Gaza’s sandy and desolate embrace by war in the Holy Land.

Gaza as an arena of man’s violence toward man goes back to earliest record. The Philistines operated from it against the Israelites. Here Samson brought down the temple in an epic finale. The Gaza road, an easy corridor between north and south, echoed to the pounding legions of the Pharaohs, of Babylon, Persia, Assyria, Alexander the Great, the Crusaders, the Turks and the British.

Nothing is wasted in the Gaza Strip—nothing, that is, but life itself. Of all the troubles in this troubled land, none is worse than the dilemma of the people: not only the refugees, torn from their moorings, still—after eight years—awaiting the day when they can “go home,” but also the original Gaza residents whose meager country they must now share.

The prolonged idleness of the able-bodied will remain perhaps the greatest single threat to peace in the Middle East.

Gaza Strip now contains 2 million people, but its status remained as intractable as ever.

Collier’s photoessay is reproduced below. Apologies for poor quality, as I cannot access hi-res color plates (black and white microfilm versions are of higher resolution, and you maybe able to read the articles). The photo reproduced above are from Duncan’s The World of Allah (1982), a great book of photos taken between the Forties and the Seventies on ordinary people’s lives across the Muslim world.

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