A Q&A Primer on Hamas – Part 4: Who are the Palestinians?

7 November 2023

5.9 MINS

What is the meaning and significance of the name “Palestine”? And who are the “Palestinians”?

It is impossible to understand Hamas without engaging with the concepts of “Palestine” and “Palestinians”.

The meaning of “Palestine” is complicated. It has changed over the years, and it is disputed and controversial.

The word comes originally from the name of the Philistines of the Old Testament and ancient inscriptions. The Philistines were a people, probably related to the Greeks, who are sometimes referred to as “Sea Peoples”. They occupied territory in the region of present-day Gaza, and ancient Gaza was one of the main Philistine cities.

Like so many other ancient peoples, the Philistines eventually lost their distinct ethnic identity, and disappeared from the pages of history around 2500 years ago.

Six hundred years later, the Romans revived the name “Palestine” to replace “Judea”: at the time, Jews had been residing in the land for over 1400 years. After putting down the Jewish Bar Kokhbar revolt in AD 132-136, the Romans named the province which replaced Judea “Syria Palaestina”. It was bordered to the north by Syria and to the east and south by Arabia Petraea.

We know from rock inscriptions that Arabia Petraea was the main Arabic-speaking region at that time, encompassing Sinai, the Arabah including Petra, the Transjordan (the region to the east of the Jordan River), and northern parts of the Hijaz (now in Saudi Arabia).

In the late fourth century, Syria Palaestina was divided into two smaller provinces: Palaestina Prima and Palaestina Seconda, which now included the Transjordan. The Sinai, Negev and the Arabah, which had formerly been part of Arabia Petraea, became Palestina Salutoris (or Palaestina Tertia). By the time of the Islamic conquests in the 7th century, these three Palestinian provinces were inhabited by a variety of ethnic groups, including Greeks, Aramaic speakers, Jews, settled Arabs and Bedouin Arabs.

After Islamic conquest and the military occupation of the whole of the Levant in the 7th century AD by Muslim Arabs, a process of Arabization replaced Greek and Aramaic with Arabic.

Over the centuries, people came to settle in Palestine from other regions. These included Arabs and Turks, and in the 19th century, Circassian and Chechen refugees. Furthermore, when the local economy was developing in the early twentieth century as a result of the growing Jewish population, this encouraged economic migrants to move to Palestine.

Towards the end of the 19th century, a Pan-Arabism movement developed, in which Christians and Muslims came together. This process was initiated and, at first, led by Christians. (The Middle Eastern Christian community had been traumatised by a series of genocidal massacres of Christians by Muslims over decades, and it was in this context that Middle Eastern Christians sought safety in a shared Arab identity.)

Arabism’s big idea was that the Arabic-speaking peoples of the Middle East shared a single identity and were a single nation with a shared destiny. Its slogan was “one Arab nation with an eternal mission”. This meant that people whose ancestors had been Greeks, Syrians, Egyptians, and a range of other ethnic identities, came to regard themselves as Arabs by virtue of being native speakers of Arabic.

However, Arabic-speaking Jews were excluded from this identity. Indeed, Pan-Arab identity developed in opposition to Jewish identity: a key goal of the Arabist movement in the first half of the 20th century was to block the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

After Islamic conquest, the term “Palestine” had continued to be used in Arabic and European languages. However, under Muslim rule, both as part of the Ottoman Empire and earlier, the region formed the southernmost parts of the province of Sham (Syria), in which different ethnicities lived side by side without a unifying national identity. (The early Islamic texts which referred to the first direction of prayer for Muslims – the kiblah – state that Muslims were praying towards “Sham”; today, this is interpreted to mean Jerusalem.)

Thus, at the start of the 20th century, “Palestinian” was not an ethnicity or a nationality, but a regional designation. It was customary to refer to people who lived in the region as “Palestinians”, a designation which included Muslims, Druze, Jews and Christians. Jews who lived in the area were referred to as “Palestinian Jews”.

For a time, the Mandate for Palestine, administered by the British from c. 1921 to 1946, included the region which is today known as Jordan. This was referred to in Article 25 of the Mandate for Palestine as “the territories in Palestine which lie east of the Jordan”. This region was administered separately under the Mandate from the rest of Palestine, and in 1946, it became a separate state, the “Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan”, which is no longer spoken of as a part of “Palestine”.

Before the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, some Jews had been considering the possibility of calling a Jewish state “Palestine”. However, they ended up choosing the name “Israel”. Thus, for example, the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, founded in 1936, was renamed the Israel Philharmonic in 1948.

When Jews forged their new national identity as Israelis, they left the labels “Palestine” and “Palestinian” to the Arabs, who took these to refer to an Arab identity in opposition to Jewish Israel. The word “Palestine” came to signify the illegitimacy of a Jewish presence.

Over time, the narrative developed that only Arab Palestinians are the indigenous, original inhabitants of Palestine. The PLO leader, Faysal al-Husseini expressed this perspective as follows in 2001:

“If you are asking me as a Pan-Arab nationalist what are the Palestinian borders according to the higher strategy, I will immediately reply: ‘From the river to the sea.’ Palestine in its entirety is an Arab land, the land of the Arab nation …”

This strategy for presenting the Palestinian cause appealed to ideas about decolonisation: the Arabs were claimed to be indigenous, and Jews were said to be alien colonisers.

In an Islamisation of history, Palestinian leaders also projected an Arabic Palestinian identity back in time to assert that today’s Palestinians are the original inhabitants of the region. Several leaders have even asserted that Jews have no historical roots in the region at all, and the Palestinian presence goes back thousands of years.

In an inversion of history, Palestinian leaders have referred to Jesus as a “Palestinian” freedom fighter or martyr, who was persecuted by the occupying Romans, making Jesus a kind of prototype of Palestinian resistance, and his crucifixion an anticipation of present-day Palestinian suffering.

Where do Palestinian Christians fit into all this?

A century ago, Christians in Palestine made up 11% of the Arabic-speaking population. It was an outcome of the Pan-Arabist movement that most of these Christians had come to identify as one nation with Muslim Arabs.

Today, Christians make up only around 1% of the Arab population in the Palestinian territories. There has been a prolonged flight of Christians from the Palestinian Territories throughout the past century. Today, most Palestinian Christians are to be found in the global diaspora.

Christians have also been leaving all the surrounding nations: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. For example, in Jordan, Christians have gone from 20% to 2% of the population over the past century.

In contrast, Christians still make up around 7% of the Arab population of Israel, where, in a number of respects, they are flourishing.

Palestinian identity has now become, in effect, a local expression of the Muslim Umma, the nation of Islam, as Arabism has given way to Islamism.

A Hamas leader recently stated that the Palestinians are the “indigenous” people of Palestine. Is this true?

This is an appeal to Western notions of indigeneity and colonisation: it is meant to convey that Palestinian Arabs were there first, until the Jews arrived to occupy their territory and colonise them. The alien Jews should now leave in a process of “decolonisation”.

This denies the Jews’ long historical connection to the land, including continuous settlement of Jews in the region since before the time of Christ. It also denies the ethnic diversity of Palestinian origins over the course of centuries of Islamic occupation.

Why don’t Palestinians accept that Jews have a historical connection with the land?

First and foremost, the Islamic ideology of conquest demands that a land, once conquered for Islam, belongs in perpetuity to Muslims. After conquest, previous occupants became tolerated clients of the Muslim occupiers, and, according to Islamic law, they were allowed to survive as long as they paid tribute.

Connected to the idea that conquered land belongs to Muslims is the Quranic concept of mustakhlafīn (‘successors’). Sura 24:55 says, “God has promised those of you who believe and do righteous deeds that He will surely make you successors in the land.”

In the Qur’an, “successors” are believers who take over the properties of a people whom Allah has destroyed, including by conquest at the hands of believers. By this logic, Muslims become the “successors” – the rightful owners – of conquered lands. Consistent with this, when conquered Christian and Jewish peoples were allowed to retain ownership of their properties after conquest, they had to pay annual tribute to compensate Muslims.

Furthermore, Islam teaches that Biblical figures like Solomon, David, Abraham and Jesus were all Muslim prophets. By this logic, if Solomon ever built a temple in Jerusalem, it was a mosque, and it is Muslims, not Jews, who are the true inheritors of the Biblical legacy of the Holy Land.


Originally published at Mark Durie’s Substack. Photo by Hurrah Suhail.

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One Comment

  1. Countess Antonia Maria Violetta Scrivanich 7 November 2023 at 9:38 am - Reply

    If this were were not so very serious, the preposterous claims of the Moslem Palestinians about Jesus as a ” Moslem ” prophet and their “right “to Jerusalem (and especially Temple Mount ) would be laughable ! Thank you, Mr Durie for enlightening us with your scholarship. I am tired of the media and UN lies.

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