by: By Ilse Strauss, News Bureau Chief
Israel often draws a disproportionate share of media coverage and worldwide censure. The tide of attention—and criticism—rarely occurs in a vacuum. Israel’s actions, decisions and even existence are habitually judged in the context of another people group: the Palestinians. In fact, Israel’s position on the world stage cannot be fully comprehended without factoring in the Palestinians. But who exactly are the Palestinians? What are their origins? Are they, like Israel, an ancient people dating back to biblical days? And are their roots, like that of Israel, deep in the soil of the Promised Land?
Roughly 3,000 years ago, a shepherd armed with a slingshot faced a giant warrior. The clash between David and Goliath wasn’t the first battle between Israel and the Philistines. Throughout the history of the kingdom, the Philistines often featured as one of Israel’s archenemies. But do we see a continuation of that ancient enmity in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict? If modern-day Israelis are David’s offspring, are the Palestinians Goliath’s posterity?
Palestinian leaders routinely describe their people as descendants from the Canaanites who originally populated the land. The fable has been repeated so often and with such conviction that many accept it as fact. While the word Palestinian does derive from the word Philistine, don’t let semantics fool you.
The Philistines weren’t indigenous to Canaan, but rather seafaring invaders from southern Europe who conquered parts of Israel in the 12th century BC. The word Philistine derives from the Hebrew word palash, meaning invader. After festering as a thorn in the Israelites’ side, the Philistines were destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar II and disappeared from history in the 5th century BC. The bottom line? The Philistines—and by implication their posterity—ceased to exist some 2,500 years ago. The fable of a connection between the biblical Philistines and the modern-day Palestinians therefore remains that: fictitious.
But if the Palestinians cannot trace their roots to the invading Philistines, where exactly did they originate?
The journey of discovery dates back to AD 135—more than two millennia after God pledged the Promised Land to Abraham’s posterity—and the failed Jewish revolt against the Romans. As punishment, the Roman Emperor Hadrian sought to erase Jewish history and strip the Land of its Jewish identity. He revived the name of Israel’s ancient enemy, the Philistines, and renamed Judea, the Jewish homeland, Syria Palaestina. This is the first time in history the area carried that name, a name that over the next two millennia would be adapted into the modern word Palestine, perpetuating a denial of the Land’s Jewish roots.
The conquering armies that came after Rome simply adopted the name, with some derivative of Palaestina carried from the Byzantines, Islamic dynasties, the Ottomans and finally to the British—to be picked up and misappropriated by the Palestinians in modern times.
During the 7th century AD, a new religion emerged in the Arabian Peninsula. Islam spread steadily to neighboring regions, courtesy of Arab Muslim invaders carrying their beliefs, culture and language with them and forcefully imposing it wherever they settled. The Promised Land was no different. In AD 638, Jerusalem fell to Islam for the first time. The Ottoman Empire was next in line to conquer, ruling the region from 1516 to the end of World War I in 1918.
Under these consecutive foreign rulers, the territory carrying the name of Israel’s archenemy never had defined borders but remained an inexact geographic region. More importantly, for nearly 2,000 years, it was never an independent, sovereign entity but always part of larger empires. The takeaway? As Palestinian historian Muhammad Y. Muslih puts it, “There was no political unit known as Palestine.” And if there was no sovereign Palestine, there could be no self-identifying Palestinian people.
The nearly 1,500 years of largely Islamic rule saw an influx and outflow of Muslims to and from the Promised Land. The descendants of those who stayed would one day refer to themselves as Palestinians. Then, as the 18th century turned into the 19th, the scattered Jews began returning to the Land of their promise. As the Land blossomed, the prospect of economic prosperity lured Arabs from across the region. Their descendants would also one day refer to themselves as Palestinians.
Until the early 19th century, the residents of the Middle East identified primarily in terms of tribe and religion. Politics were local; nationalism unheard of. Then came the rise of a collective Arab nationalism across the region, with residents still identifying tribally and according to religion but now also primarily as Arab, unified by language, culture and tradition. National identity emerged at the end of World War I with the carving out of individual countries in the vast swatch of land formerly under Ottoman rule. People no longer merely identified as part of one larger Arab nation, but also as Iraqi, Lebanese, Syrian and so forth.
The same holds true for the residents of British Mandate Palestine. For the first time in history, those living on the strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea began referring to themselves as Palestinians. Yet the name applied to both Arabs and Jews. Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir famously called herself a Palestinian, saying, “From 1921 to 1948, I carried a Palestinian passport. There were no such things…as Jews and Arabs and Palestinians. There were Jews and Arabs.”
The crux? For Palestinians to claim self-identification as Palestinians, a national people group with a unique identity, for thousands or even hundreds of years is absurd because national identity did not exist in the Middle East until the end of World War I. Moreover, when national identity did emerge, the term Palestinian applied to both Jew and Arab. In fact, the entity we know today as the Palestinian people was solidified and then emerged as a self-identifying group around the time of the rebirth of the State of Israel and to a larger degree after Israel regained Judea and Samaria in the 1967 Six Day War.
Some argue that the Palestinians were born in response to Zionism. To a certain extent, that’s true. Yet as with nearly everything in this troubled region, the question of the Palestinians, their origin and historic connection to the Land is complicated. Perhaps the fable of the Palestinian people is not so much their claim to self-identification as a nation, but rather the claim that they have done so for centuries. Maybe the fallacy is not so much their claim of roots in the Promised Land, but rather the claim that their roots go the deepest or are the only ones. Perhaps the delusion is not so much about a name, but rather about what that name means.
Israel is nearly as old as history itself, with the footsteps of the Jewish patriarchs crisscrossing the Land for nearly 4,000 years. In comparison, the Palestinians are virtually the new kids on the block, a modern role-player in the latest chapter of the chronicles of Israel.
Photo Credit: Map-Andrey Kuzmin/Pen-cobalt88/Flag-Puwadol Jaturawutthichai/shutterstock.com
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