In 2004, five volunteers from the Ashkelon dig rented a car to go tour some archaeological sites in the Negev. We were barely outside Ashkelon’s city limits when we made a wrong turn and found ourselves approaching a heavily militarized crossing between Israel and the Palestinian territory called the Gaza Strip. Needless to say, we turned around and got out of the area as quickly as possible.
Today Gaza is frequently in our news feeds because of its clashes with the modern state of Israel, but it also appears in the Bible several times. It was a Canaanite stronghold before it became one of the Philistines’ five capital cities, but it is probably most famous as the site of Samson’s demise.
During the Late Bronze Age, Israel had been under Philistine oppression for a generation when their newest judge, Samson, arose. He was supposed to be a Nazirite, meaning he should never drink wine, cut his hair, or touch anything unclean (such as foreign women and dead things). But Samson married a Philistine, abandoned her, got mad when she remarried, and then killed 1,000 Philistines with nothing but a dead donkey’s jawbone (Judges 14-15).
At some point and for some unknown reason, Samson was in Gaza one day and decided to visit a brothel. The Philistine men plotted to murder him, but Samson slipped out of the brothel at midnight, picked up their city gate, and moved it from the edge of the city where it had been of use to the very center of the city. The Philistines knew he was a tough guy, but now they had witnessed his superhuman strength (Judges 16:1-3).
One last time, Samson “touched” a foreign woman. This time it was Delilah from the Valley of Sorek (the border between Israel’s tribe of Dan and Philistia). Philistines bribed her to find out the source of Samson’s strength–which was his uncut hair that resulted from his Nazirite vows–so they could capture him, torture him, and take him down to Gaza. The Philistines celebrated his capture at the temple of their god, Dagon, where Samson then killed them all (Judges 16:6-30).
No tumbled columns, collapsed Bronze-Age temples, or ill-placed gates have been found in Gaza yet. There are no well-funded, university-led archaeological expeditions to the area, as you will find in the other 4 cities of the ancient Philistine Pentapolis. Any artifacts that have been uncovered (too often by bulldozers) find their way onto the black market or are stored by history-loving Gazans who hope for a day when they can be properly studied and displayed. Archaeologists can’t even get the excavating tools they need through Israeli security and into Gaza for fear that militants would turn them into weapons.
The lack of archaeological excavation in Gaza is a result of complex and emotionally-charged political conflicts that have persisted for centuries. In brief, the 1994 Oslo Accords created the Palestinian Authority, which was intended to govern both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as one Palestinian nation. But the territories are physically separated by Israeli land, and the PA did not exercise its political power or serve its citizens in remote Gaza as it did in the West Bank where it is headquartered. A power vacuum developed in Gaza, where over 1.8 million people live in an area that is only 130 square miles. (That’s like taking the entire population of Phoenix and cramming everyone into one-quarter of the city limits.) As Gazans struggled with failing or absent infrastructure that the PA was not addressing, Hamas seized political power by doing the civic projects the PA had ignored. In 2007, Hamas was officially elected to power in the Gaza Strip. Today there is concern that they might win wider elections in the West Bank and gain control of the entire PA.
In addition to being cramped and poverty-ridden, the Gaza Strip is physically and militarily blocked off from the rest of the world. Situated only 13 kilometers south of Ashkelon, Hamas’s rockets can (and frequently do) hit the Israeli city, but Gaza’s citizens cannot so easily go to Ashkelon themselves to shop, work, vacation, or worship.
Today Gaza is rich in archaeological artifacts but poor in livable space, so the city leaders and developers continue to level tels in favor of new construction. Preserving and improving the lives of the living takes precedence (as it should), but valuable information and historical context about the Canaanites, Philistines, Israelites, and later inhabitants are being permanently lost so long as Gaza is isolated.