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What is Palestine? Who are the Palestinians?
What is Palestine?
Who are the Palestinians?

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PostWed Oct 19, 2016 6:41 am     Special: What is Palestine? Who are the Palestinians? Whose land is it anyway?    

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What is Palestine? Who are the Palestinians? Whose land is it anyway?

By Lior Ben-Ami
October 18, 2016

Let's start with the facts, once and for all.

It doesn't matter what your political views are. If you think Israel should leave Judea and Samaria (The West Bank) or not; if you think the settlements are an obstacle for peace, or not. No matter what, it's always a good idea to know the historic facts.


Historically, "Palestine" is the name of a region and did not refer to a specific country. The name "Palestine" was given by the Romans to what was the Land of Israel and Judea. The Bible never uses the term "Palestine" or "Palestinians" and refers to the land as "Israel" and "Judea."

Before conquering Jerusalem, the Romans, as everyone else, called the land "Judea."

In 70 A.D., the Romans conquered ancient Israel and destroyed the second Jewish Temple. The Roman empire issued a coin with the phrase “Judaea Capta” -- "Judea has been conquered."

'Judea Capta' sestertius of Vespasian, struck in 71 to celebrate the victory in the Jewish Revolt.
The legend on the reverse says: IVDEA CAPTA, "Judaea conquered". More on the Judaea Capta coinage

Close up of relief showing spoils from the Siege of Jerusalem (70 A.D.) Arch of Titus, Rome.

Most of Judea's Jewish population were either killed, enslaved, or exiled. Still, some Jews stayed in the land.

In 135 A.D., after the failed Bar Kokhba revolt, the Roman emperor Hadrian, in an attempt to erase any memory of Judea or Ancient Israel and in order to humiliate the defeated Jews, renamed the land of Israel and Judea as "Syria Palaestina" (later to be called "Palestine".) The name came from the Jews' ancient enemies - the Philistines - who were not Semites, but rather redheaded seafarers, closely related to the Greeks.

This is the origin of the name "Palestine." There was never an independent state, Arabic or not, in any territory, that was called "Palestine."

Despite the harsh conditions after the failed uprising, it was not the end of Jewish existence in Israel. Jewish communities continued to write the Mishna and the Talmud in Israel. With the destruction of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life moved to the town of Yavne and later the town of Tiberias, in the Galilee. Jews had a consistent presence in the land of Israel continuously, since Biblical times, through the Bar Kochba revolt, and through today.

Throughout the centuries, the exiled Jewish people continued to maintain ties to its historic homeland, and repeatedly returned to their land in small numbers.

Over the years, many foreign invaders fought over and ruled in the land of Israel (Palestine), amongst them the Seljuk Turks, Richard the Lionhearted of England, France's Napoleon and rulers from the Ottoman Empire.

In 1860, the first Jewish neighborhood (Mishkenot Sha'ananim) was built outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Mishkenot Sha'ananim, 1860

Between 1882 to 1903, about 30,000 Jewish people immigrated to Israel in what is called the First Aliyah.

In August 1897, the First Zionist Congress was held in Basel, Switzerland. At this conference, the World Zionist Organization was founded and the Basel Declaration was approved which stated that the Zionist movement's ultimate aim is to establish and secure a homeland for the Jewish people. This homeland was to be located in the Biblical region dubbed variously "The Holy Land" or "Palestine" by the European Christians during the Catholic and later secular Enlightenment.

The delegates at the First Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland (1897)

In 1898, German Kaiser Wilhelm visited Jerusalem met Theodore Herzl outside the city's walls.

In 1901, at the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel, the Jewish National Fund was founded, with the aim of buying and developing land in the southern region of Ottoman Syria for Jewish settlement.

About 40 years earlier, in 1857, the British Consul to Palestine reported:
"The country is in a considerable degree empty of inhabitants and therefore its greatest need is that of a body of population."

in 1867, American writer Mark Twain (the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens) visited the Holy Land and wrote a book about his journey - "The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims' Progress."

Some quotes and pictures from Twain's book:

". . . A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds-a silent mournful expanse. . . . A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action. . . . We never saw a human being on the whole route. . . . There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country."

". . . Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent. The Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee sleep in the midst of a vast stretch of hill and plain wherein the eye rests upon no pleasant tint, no striking object, no soft picture dreaming in a purple haze or mottled with the shadows of the clouds. Every outline is harsh, every feature is distinct, there is no perspective--distance works no enchantment here. It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land."

". . . Jericho the accursed lies a moldering ruin today, even as Joshua’s miracle left it more than three thousand years ago. . . . [Bethlehem,] the hallowed spot where the shepherds watched their flocks by night, and where the angels sand "Peace on earth, good will to men," is untenanted by any living creature."

". . . At the portion of the ancient wall of Solomon's Temple which is called the Jew's Place of Wailing, and where the Hebrews assemble every Friday to kiss the venerated stones and weep over the fallen greatness of Zion, any one can see a part of the unquestioned and undisputed Temple of Solomon, the same consisting of three or four stones lying one upon the other, each of which is about twice as long as a seven-octave piano, and about as thick as such a piano is high."

Also, see the online archive, "First Photos of the Holy Land" - a vast treasure of photographs that show the Holy Land between 1831-1910. Most of the land was completely empty, and the Arab immigrants who arrived were migrant workers looking for a better standard of living.

Also, see a map prepared by a British research mission, who conducted a survey of the Land of Israel during the period 1871 to 1878 - "The Big Map of the Empty Land."

Tel-Aviv was founded in 1909. The Jewish community continued to grow consistently.

On 11 April 1909, 66 Jewish families gathered on a desolate sand dune to parcel out the land by lottery using seashells.
This gathering is considered the official date of the establishment of Tel Aviv.

Mandatory Palestine

On November 2, 1917, after the British Empire defeated the Ottoman Empire and took over the territory that includes today's Israel, Judea and Samaria and Jordan, the Balfour Declaration was published. In the Balfour Declaration, the British Government declared its support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in the Jewish historic homeland, which was to become Mandatory Palestine and includes today Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

Lord Balfour and the Balfour Declaration

In 1918, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann met with the son of the Sharif of Mecca, Hashemite Prince Faisal, in Aqaba. They agreed to establish relations between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East.

1918. Emir Faisal I and Chaim Weizmann (left, wearing Arab headdress as a sign of friendship)

1920: The San Remo conference was held in Italy (April 19-26, 1920). The prime ministers of three of the four allied countries attended (Britain, France and Italy), along with the ambassador of Japan. The Post World War I allied Supreme Council adopted the San Remo Resolution on April 24, 1920, which incorporated the Balfour Declaration in its text. The Jews were again promised the establishment of an independent state in their historic homeland.

Watch: San Remo's Mandate: Israel's 'Magna Carta'

In 1922, the League of Nations declared that the Jews were legally entitled to their historic homeland of Palestine.

From the Council of the League of Nations document:
". . . Whereas the Principal Allied Powers have also agreed that the Mandatory should be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 2nd, 1917, by the Government of His Britannic Majesty, and adopted by the said Powers, in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country; and

Whereas recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country. . . ."

However, the Jews had to satisfy themselves with a sliver of land which constituted about 20 percent of the mandatory territory designated as a Jewish homeland, as the land east of the Jordan river was given to create the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan, now Jordan.

In blue: the mandatory territory designated as a Jewish homeland, before and after

The UN, when it was established, declared that it would adopt and recognize all resolutions of the League of Nations. Therefore, the 1922 League of Nations decision -- that the Jews legally own all territory west of the Jordan -- is legally still binding today.

Around the same time, Arabs from Egypt, today's Syria, Iraq and other Arab territories came to Palestine as immigrants looking for labor and opportunity. The word was spreading that the Jews were starting to make the desert bloom. Thus, in an ironic twist, the Zionist movement brought not only Jews, but also Arab immigrants to the land of Israel.

The Palestinians

During the British Mandate, all official documents, such as birth certificates and identification cards, as well as coins, bills and stamps, had the word Palestine in three languages: English, Hebrew and Arabic. The Hebrew followed with א"י - initials for Eretz Israel (the land of Israel.) Back then, the word "Palestinians" referred to both Jews and Arabs who lived in Mandatory Palestine.

On November 29, 1947, the U.N. voted on the partition of Palestine to two nation states: two states for two peoples -- one Jewish, one Arab.

The resolution (181) was adopted at the 128th plenary meeting:

In favour: 33
Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Byelorussian S.S.R., Canada, Costa Rica, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Guatemala, Haiti, Iceland, Liberia, Luxemburg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Sweden, Ukrainian S.S.R., Union of South Africa, U.S.A., U.S.S.R., Uruguay, Venezuela.

Against: 13
Afghanistan, Cuba, Egypt, Greece, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Yemen.

Abstained: 10
Argentina, Chile, China, Colombia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Honduras, Mexico, United Kingdom, Yugoslavia.

The Jewish leadership in Palestine approved the UN partition plan and the Jewish people supported it. 

The Arab leadership violently opposed the resolution, as it opposed any resolution for an Arab state next to a Jewish state before that, and still opposes such a resolution today.

The Spielberg Jewish Film Archive - Day of Decision

Had the resolution been supported by the Arabs and had they agreed to peace with the Jews instead of trying to annihilate them, there would be no suffering, no refugees, no "occupation.”

A few interesting facts about U.N. resolution 181 of November 29, 1947:

The term "Jewish State" appears in the resolution 30 times.

The term "Palestinian State" or even the word "Palestinians" does not appear in the resolution even once

Again, back then and until the 1960s, the word “Palestinians” referred to both Jews and Arabs who lived in Mandatory Palestine. The resolution explicitly mentions the "two Palestinian peoples”: Jews and Arabs.

This is why the UN partition plan is about separating the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state.

Arab-Palestinians only started to call themselves "Palestinians" in the mid-1960s.

These facts can be seen clearly and vividly with Google Books Ngram Viewer

The program scans millions of books and other texts, from 1800 until today. Notice the results of the query Jews versus Palestinians (Jews in red, Palestinians in blue.) Using this tool, one can search every word from all the millions of scanned books and have results in seconds. The scan can be done in several languages, including Hebrew. The results are very telling.

The results of the query Jews versus Palestinians (Jews in red, Palestinians in blue)

In 2012, Israeli journalist Zeev Galili, did a query and found that between 1800 and 1920, there is no mention of the term "Palestinians" in five million books. This is the case in English as well as half a dozen other languages, including Hebrew. The term started to appear only at the beginning of the British mandate over the Land of Israel, and again, during this time the term referred to all people who lived there -- Jews, Arabs, Druze and others.


Between 1948 to 1967 Jordan controlled Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and Egypt controlled Gaza. Jordan and Egypt had no legal status in the territories because these were non-binding armistice lines.

During those years, the Arab-Palestinians did not have autonomy in Judea, Samaria and/or Gaza (or in any other area, for that matter). They didn’t start an uprising against Egypt or Jordan, nor demand independence from them.

The PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) was founded in 1964 -- three years before Israel acquired the West Bank and Gaza during the Six Day War. Its goal was the destruction of the State of Israel (notice map in PLO’s emblem.)

The PLO emblem
Notice the map of Israel

Today the Arab-Palestinian people are recognized worldwide, but historically they are a new people.

The following are quotes from Arab-Palestinians only. Notice how their version of their "ancient history" changes.

Yasser Arafat: "Our forefathers, the Canaanites and Jebusites."

Arafat's advisor, Faisal Husseini: "First of all, I am a Palestinian. I am a descendant of the Jebusites, the ones who came before King David. This [Jerusalem] was one of the most important Jebusite cities in the area. . . . Yes, it’s true. We are the descendants of the Jebusites."

Supreme Shari’ah Judge and Mahmoud Abbas’ Advisor on Religious and Islamic Affairs, Mahmoud Al-Habbash: "Our forefathers and historical lineage, the Jebusite Canaanites, built Jebus, Jerusalem, the City of Peace – the Canaanites called it the City of Peace – 5,000 years ago. Our presence in Jerusalem has not ceased for 5,000 years. Nations and occupations have passed through, and colonialism, whether brief or long. It came and left, but the people of Jerusalem stayed. These transients will move on, while the people of Jerusalem will stay. They have no place in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is ours, not theirs."

The head of the PLO’s negotiations department, Saeb Erekat: "I am the son of Jericho. I am 10,000 years old … I am the proud son of the Netufians and the Canaanites. I’ve been there for 5,500 years before Joshua Bin Nun came and burned my hometown Jericho. I’m not going to change my narrative."

Erekat's latest lie: "My family was in Palestine for 9000 years". They are really from Arabia.

Saeb Erekat admits he is a Jordanian Bedouin, not a "Canaanite."

"Moses was a Muslim who led Palestinian Muslims
out of Egypt and liberated Palestine."

As you can see, the Arab-Palestinians are not completely consistent about their invented history. Sometimes they are "Canaanites and Jebusites" - which is amusing for two reasons, as the blogger Elder of Ziyon mentioned in his blog:
"The only confirmed mention of the historic Jebusites is in the Hebrew Bible. That's the only source that says that the Jebusites lived around Jerusalem. This exact same source says that one of their leaders, Araunah, offered to give the Temple Mount to King David; David insisted that he pay for it, and he did - for the amount of fifty silver shekels.

So if you believe that the Palestinian Arabs are actually Jebusites, you must believe that they sold the Temple Mount to the Jews in a legal transaction.

(Since such a sale to a Jew would get Araunah the death penalty today, perhaps the Palestinians should atone for their sin!)

There is another problem, though.

The Constitution of Palestine refers numerous times to the "Arab Palestinian people" and that "Palestine is part of the large Arab World, and the Palestinian people are part of the Arab Nation." The PLO Charter similarly states "Palestine is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people; it is an indivisible part of the Arab homeland, and the Palestinian people are an integral part of the Arab nation."

But Jebusites were not Arabs. They were not even Semites! No self-respecting Jebusite (if any had still existed) would identify with the Arab hordes who overran his homeland in the seventh century. He would probably want to behead the infidel invaders.

Is the constitution and charter wrong? When they call themselves Arab, are they all lying?"

It is amusing to see how Yasser Arafat, former PLO leader and the Palestinian Authority's chairman, who was born in Egypt, contradicted himself about the history of his own people:

In 1993, Arafat declared that:
"The question of borders doesn’t interest us. . . . From the Arab standpoint, we mustn’t talk about borders. Palestine is nothing but a drop in an enormous ocean. Our nation is the Arabic nation that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea and beyond it. . . . The P.L.O. is fighting Israel in the name of Pan-Arabism. What you call “Jordan” is nothing more than Palestine."

Later on, he had other "historic" narratives about the "Palestinian people."

At one point, he describes the Arab-Palestinians as "descendants of the Jebusites" -- who were not Semites; later, he refers to them as "descendants of the Philistines," who were another non-Semitic people. Finally, he made the priceless declaration that "Jesus was a Palestinian", which is, of course, bizzare for so many reasons, including the fact that Jesus was definitely not a Jebusite, nor a Philistine but rather, as any person who ever read the New Testament knows, a Jew.

Mahmoud Abbas, today's Palestinian Authority's chairman, has repeated that nonsense about "Jesus, the Palestinian."

But sometimes the Arab-Palestinians let the truth out. Deliberately or not. Here are just a few examples:

In the very first PLO meeting, when it was founded in 1964, the only flag that appeared in the room was a Jordanian flag:

Some quotes:

Former PLO terrorist Walid Shoebat:
"We considered ourselves Jordanian until the Jews returned to Jerusalem. Then all of the sudden we were Palestinians - they removed the star from the Jordanian flag and all at once we had a Palestinian flag."

In 1976, the late Syrian President Hafez Assad addressing the PLO, explained to Arafat:
"You do not represent Palestine as much as we do. Never forget this one point: There is no such thing as a Palestinian people, there is no Palestinian entity, there is only Syria. You are an integral part of the Syrian people, Palestine is an integral part of Syria. Therefore it is we, the Syrian authorities, who are the true representatives of the Palestinian people."

In 1980, Prime Minister of Jordan Hamid Sharif declared:
"The Palestinians and Jordanians do not belong to different nationalities. They hold the same Jordanian passports, are Arabs and have the same Jordanian culture."

In 1981, the late King Hussein of Jordan declared:
"The truth is that Jordan is Palestine and Palestine is Jordan."

Anti-Zionist and former Israeli Parliament member Azmi Bishara interviewed on Israel TV, said that "There is no 'Palestinian People' and never was."

Hamas Interior Minister accidentally admitted that there is no such thing as a "Palestinian people," indicating that half are Egyptian and half are Saudis.

But perhaps the most revealing quote was made by the leader of the pro-Syria faction of the PLO during the 1970s, Zuheir Mohsen. In an interview to Dutch newspaper Trouw (March 1977), Mohsen said:
"Between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese there are no differences. We are all part of ONE people, the Arab nation. Look, I have family members with Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Syrian citizenship. We are ONE people. Just for political reasons we carefully underwrite our Palestinian identity. Because it is of national interest for the Arabs to advocate the existence of Palestinians to balance Zionism. Yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity exists only for tactical reasons. The establishment of a Palestinian state is a new tool to continue the fight against Israel and for Arab unity."

The historic truth always comes out eventually.

To conclude, the term "Palestine" historically refers to a region and not a specific country, which has never actually existed. The name "Palestine" was given by the Romans to what was the Land of Israel and Judea. All people who lived in the land were called "Palestinians" - Jews, Arabs and others.

"Palestinian" never referred to a nationality until the 1960s.

These days, when international organizations like UNESCO are participating in a farcical Orwellian re-writing of history, it is crucial to establish the facts regarding the timeline of Jewish and Palestinian national identities in the land of Israel and mandatory Palestine. Ignoring them will not help promote peace or co-existence. Regardless of how you may see the future of the region and the conflict, the historical facts remain and should be clearly stated and understood.

Lior Ben-Ami is the founder and director of MidEastTruth.com



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