Palestine and ancient history

Palestine is the cement that holds the Arab world together, or… the explosive that blows it apart.
— Yasser Arafat (1974)

Palestine has been, from the inception of the Arab era in the 7th century AD, the jewel in the crown of the Muslim world. The Palestinians are not, as Zionists maintain, purely Arabic Muslim blow-ins and late-comers to the Holy Land. It should be noted that a substantial minority of Palestinians are Christians. 

 The mosaic map of Jerusalem in the 6th century found in a church in Madaba, Jordan. [Photo: Public domain via  Wikimedia Commons ]

The mosaic map of Jerusalem in the 6th century found in a church in Madaba, Jordan. [Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

It is not commonly recognised but nonetheless true that the Palestinian historical claim to Palestine is older and stronger than the Jewish claim to Israel. One can play silly intellectual games with such claims. So it is important to be precise about what can and can’t be claimed. All such historical claims are relative rather than absolute. The Jews are essentially Europeanised Semites and the Palestinians are Arabised Semites in the land of two peoples. These fraternal peoples, at war in the contemporary era, historically have much in common genetically, religiously and culturally. For most of history they have co-habited in the Holy Land in peace. The modern tragic dispute between them precipitated by Zionist colonialism is very much about land rather than religion.

But basically the Palestinian historical claim, which dates back at least 3500 years to the dawn of civilisation in the fertile crescent known as the cradle of civilisation puts paid to the Zionist slogan 'A land without a people for a people without a land.' This pretence is as racist as Prime Minister Abbott’s claim that Australia was 'unsettled' before European colonisation. Or Golda Meir’s 1969 contention that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.

Even a cursory examination of the biblical era (say 1,000 BC – 400 AD) reminds us that the ancient Hebrews entered the Promised Land as conquerors. Conquerors are preceded by those they conquer. The Jews were preceded in the Holy Land by over two millennia by a complex constellation of proto-Palestinian peoples. (See essay by Ilene Beatty, `The Land of Canaan’ collected in Walid Khalidi (1987), From Haven to Conquest). This complexity reminds us of one of the signal lessons of the Nazi Holocaust of European Jewry: That there is no such thing as a pure race. Some of the mix of Semitic proto-Palestinian peoples are known to us from the antagonistic pages of the Old Testament as Jebusites, Canaanites, Moabites, Edomites and of course, the Phoenicians. Famous enemies of the ancient Hebrews were a Hellenised Semitic race, the Philistines.

There was an independent Jewish state in ancient Palestine for about 80 years only. The historicity of the legendary King David is archeologically moot, despite persistent Zionist effort to prove otherwise. King Herod, of Jewish and Palestinian parentage, reigned from 37 BC to 4 BC. Doubts exist over the historical record regarding the Jewish prophet we call Jesus Christ. He is not mentioned by the contemporary Roman historian Josephus. His first language, as the Pope recently reminded Prime Minister Netanyahu, was Aramaic rather than Hebrew. His modern followers claim to be the inheritors of the Judaic tradition to the consternation of many Jews. In 70 AD the Roman Emperor Titus put down a Jewish national rebellion. The Zealots besieged at Masada were extirpated and the Temple destroyed, never to be rebuilt despite prophecy to this day, although some chiliasts retain their hopes. The Jewish vassal state was suppressed and the dispersal of the Jews to the diaspora commenced. The Romans named the subdued province Palestina, meaning the land of the Philistines. As the Israeli dissident historian Ilan Pappe has emphasised, like Zionism, the Palestinian nationalism of today is a creation of modern times based on ancient heritage, indeed a modernisation of the oldest of traditions.

By Dr David Faber, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Flinders University, 12 August 2014.