A Q&A Primer on Hamas – Part 4

A Q&A Primer on Hamas – Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of daily posts for one week on the following topics:

  1. What is Hamas?
  2. Why does Hamas think it will win?
  3. Who supports Hamas?
  4. Who are the Palestinians? – This is today’s post.
  5. What is the occupation?
  6. Is antisemitism part of the problem?
  7. What are the rules of war?
  8. Some concluding thoughts about the future.


Part 4 Who are the Palestinians?

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 ethic identity, and disappeared from the pages of history around 2500 years ago.

Six hundred year later, the Romans revived the name “Palestine” to replace “Judea”: at the time Jews had been residing the land for over 1400 years. After putting down the Jewish Bar Kokhbar revolt in 132-136 CE 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 has 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 CE 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 East Christian community had been traumatized 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 decolonization: the Arabs were claimed to be indigenous, and Jews were said to be alien colonizers.

In an Islamization of history, Palestinian leaders also projected an Arab 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 colonization: it is meant to convey that Palestinian Arabs were there first, until the Jews arrived to occupy their territory and colonize them. The alien Jews should now leave in a process of “decolonization”.

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.

Tomorrow’s installment will address the question: What is the occupation?

  • Demitri Coryton
    Posted at 05:54h, 27 October Reply

    An interesting article. You state: “For a time, the Mandate of Palestine, administered by the British from c. 1921 to 1946, included the region which is today known as Jordan. This became a separate state in 1946, the “Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,” and is no longer spoken of a part of “Palestine.”” Jordan was never part of the British mandate of Palestine. It was always a separate Mandate territory.

    When the British conquered Palestine in 1918, the collection of Ottoman Turkish administrative units in the area between modern Egypt and Turkey did not include a place called Palestine. Palestine was a Western, not a Turkish, construct. In the British Command Paper Cmd. 5957, “Correspondence Between Sir Henry McMahon H M High Commissioner at Cairo, and the Sherif Hussein of Mecca, July 1915 to March 1916”, published in 1939, there is a British Foreign Office map at the end from before the First World War that is titled “Pre-War Turkish Administrative Districts comprised in Syria and Palestine”,. While Syria is a Turkish Vilayet, there is no corresponding administrative unit called Palestine. The British Foreign Office clearly regarded Palestine as being somewhere among the Turkish units on the Mediterranean coast, in the Vilayet of Beirut and the Independent Sanjak of Jerusalem. Modern Jordan and part of Israel/Palestine was in Syria, which in British thinking was clearly not part of Palestine.

    For a short period from the British conquest of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 until the granting of League of Nations mandates in the Middle East on 29 September 1923. Palestine and Trans-Jordan, (as the British re-named southern Syria) were administered as one unit called Palestine, but this was for reasons of British imperial administrative convenience only. The border of southern Syria at this time went down as far as Egypt, and included part of what would become Mandate Palestine. With the exception of this territory that was transferred from southern Syria to Mandate Palestine, it is clear that southern Syria/Trans-Jordan/Jordan was excluded from the area of Palestine and therefore from Jewish immigration.

    The period between 1918 and the establishment of Mandates in 1923 was taken up with settling administrative arrangements, including the settlement of the border between the British and French empires in the area. (See British Command Paper 1910, “Agreement between H M Government and the French Government respecting the Boundary Line between Syria and Palestine from the Mediterranean to El Hamme” .published in 1923. Another issue was what to call southern Syria. Some Arab opinion favoured Southern Syria, although in the end the British preferred Trans-Jordan. Once the boundary between the British and French areas had been agreed, the British could then divide up its Palestine into the Mandates of Palestine and Trans-Jordan.

  • Peter Anastasiadis
    Posted at 09:20h, 29 October Reply

    Palaestinus (Ancient Greek: Παλαιστῖνος) was in Greek mythology a son of Poseidon and father of Haliacmon. From grief at the death of his son, Palaestinus threw himself into the river, which was called after him Palaestinus, and subsequently.

    The term “Palestine” first appeared in the 5th century BCE when the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote of a “district of Syria, called Palestine” between Phoenicia and Egypt.

  • Mark Durie
    Posted at 22:31h, 30 October Reply

    Demitri, I agree with part of what you say. However I added a quote from the Mandate for Palestine document which referred to the Transjordan as “the territories in Palestine which lie east of the Jordan”. So the Transjordan WAS sometimes referred to as part of Palestine.

  • Mark Durie
    Posted at 22:37h, 30 October Reply

    Thanks Peter – I was aware of the ancient Greek references to “palaistinos”. This also was surely was borrowed from the term for the region attested in ancient Egyptian (Peleset), Hebrew (Peleshet) and Assyrian (Palastu/Pilishti) sources. The legend in Greek mythology was just that: a legend explaining the origin of an established place name.

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