MYTH – “Palestine was always an Arab country.”


Palestine was always an Arab country.


The term “Palestine” is believed to be derived from the Philistines, an Aegean people who, in the twelfth century BCE, settled along the Mediterranean coastal plain — now Israel and the Gaza Strip.

In the second century CE, after crushing the last Jewish revolt, the Romans first applied the name Palaestina to Judaea (the southern portion of what is now commonly called the West Bank) in an attempt to minimize Jewish identification with the Land of Israel.  The Arabic word Filastin is derived from this Latin name (Yehoshua Porath, The Emergence of the Palestinian-Arab National Movement, 1918–1929, London: Frank Cass, 1974, p. 4).

The Hebrews entered the Land of Israel about 1300 BCE, living under a tribal confederation until being united under the first monarch, King Saul.

The second king, David, established Jerusalem as the capital around 1000 BCE. David’s son, Solomon, built the Temple soon thereafter and consolidated the military, administrative, and religious functions of the kingdom.

The nation was divided under Solomon’s son, with the northern kingdom (Israel) lasting until 722 BCE, when the Assyrians destroyed it, and the southern kingdom (Judah) surviving until the Babylonian conquest in 586 BCE.

The Jewish people enjoyed brief periods of sovereignty afterwards until most Jews were finally driven from their homeland in 135 CE.

Jewish independence in the Land of Israel lasted for more than four hundred years. This is much longer than Americans have enjoyed independence in what has become known as the United States (Max Dimont, Jews, God, and History, NY: Signet, 1962, pp. 49–53).

In fact, if not for foreign conquerors, Israel would be more than three thousand years old today.

The boundaries of Palestine changed over the centuries. While a Roman province, it was attached to Syria.

In the medieval period, Filastin was a subdistrict of Syria (the land of Sham in Arabic).

The Crusaders established the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, which ultimately extended from north of Beirut to the Sinai Desert, and along both sides of the Jordan River.  The area was then referred to as the Holy Land.

According to the eminent historian Bernard Lewis, Jews never used the name Filastin or Palestine, referring to the area from the time of the Exodus as Eretz Israel.

Muslims stopped using either name after reconquering the land from the Crusaders.

Saladin, the Mamluks and the Ottomans subsequently divided the area into subdistricts.

Lewis observed that the name Palestine became popular in the Christian world around the time of the Renaissance.

After becoming the common designation in Europe, the name spread to Arabic-speaking Christians. In 1911, an Arab Christian edited a newspaper in Palestine called Filastin.

“Palestine became the official name of a definite territory for the first time since the early Middle Ages,” according to Lewis, only after the creation of the British mandate (Bernard Lewis, “On the History and Geography of a Name,” The International History Review, Vol. 2, No. 1, January 1980, pp. 1-12).

Map of Palestine and Transjordan (1922) credit:Jewish Virtual Library

Following the defeat of the Turks in World War I, France and Britain carved up the Ottoman Empire and set the boundaries for Palestine. For example, Palestine initially included both sides of the Jordan River until Churchill arbitrarily severed more than three-fourths of the area to create Transjordan.  In addition, part of the Golan Heights was transferred from Palestine to Syria.

Palestine was never an exclusively Arab country, although Arabic gradually became the language of most of the population after the Muslim invasions of the seventh century. No independent Arab or Palestinian state ever existed in Palestine.

When the distinguished Arab- American historian, Princeton University professor Philip Hitti, testified against partition before the Anglo-American Committee in 1946, he said, “There is no such thing as ‘Palestine’ in history, absolutely not” (Moshe Kohn, “The Arabs’ ‘Lie’ of the Land,” Jerusalem Post, October 18, 1991).

Prior to partition, Palestinian Arabs did not view themselves as having a separate identity. They usually identified themselves by their clans and villages. When the First Congress of Muslim-Christian Associations met in Jerusalem in February 1919 to choose Palestinian representatives for the Paris Peace Conference, they adopted the following resolution:

We consider Palestine as part of Arab Syria, as it has never been separated from it at any time. We are connected with it by national, religious, linguistic, natural, economic, and geographical bonds (Randall Price, Fast Facts on the Middle East Conflict, Harvest House Publishers: 2003, p. 25).

Similarly, the King-Crane Commission found that Christian and Muslim Arabs opposed any plan to create a country called “Palestine,” because it was viewed as recognition of Zionist claims (Allen Z. Hertz, “Aboriginal Rights of the Jewish People,” American Thinker, October 30, 2011).

In 1937, a local Arab leader, Auni Bey Abdul Hadi, told the Peel Commission, which ultimately suggested the partition of Palestine:

“There is no such country as Palestine! ‘Palestine’ is a term the Zionists invented! There is no Palestine in the Bible. Our country was for centuries part of Syria” (Kohn).

The representative of the Arab Higher Committee to the United Nations echoed this view in a statement to the General Assembly in May 1947, which said Palestine was part of the Province of Syria and the Arabs of Palestine did not comprise a separate political entity. A few years later, Ahmed Shuqeiri, later the chairman of the PLO, told the Security Council: “It is common knowledge that Palestine is nothing but southern Syria” (Avner Yaniv, PLO, (Jerusalem: Israel Universities Study Group of Middle Eastern Affairs, August 1974, p. 5).

Palestinian Arab nationalism is largely a post–World War I phenomenon that did not become a significant political movement until after the Six- Day War. For the duration of the Jordanian occupation of the West Bank and Egyptian control of the Gaza Strip, Palestinian nationalists were silent about their desire for an independent state. In fact, the PLO was created by the Arab League to advance the interests of Arab governments interested in driving the Jews into the sea, not to create a Palestinian state.

Today, the Palestinian people have international recognition and claim the right to self- determination; however, their definition of Palestine does not comport with the historical borders. Rhetorically, at least, their current leaders no longer claim that Palestine is part of Syria or demand the territory now under Jordanian rule. They are now only interested in areas claimed by the Jewish people, stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, encompassing what is now Israel, Gaza, and Judaea and Samaria. In the short-run, they have demanded the creation of a state based on the 1949 Armistice Lines with East Jerusalem as its capital as the first stage toward the liberation of all of “Palestine.”


Posted in Myths & Facts on line exclusives –Jewish Virtual Library

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  1. Larry Langman

    I note that at the time of writing this comment to Dr. Bard’s piece 132 people have looked at it….possibly read it and that no one has thought to comment on it…….possibly I would suggest out of embarrassment at the treatment of history presented.

    While the proposition “Palestine was always an Arab country” is by any reckoning incorrect and must be corrected at every turn……to promote the line of argument proposed here by Dr. Bard opens one up to a charge of ignorance of history and an awkward interpretation of that history.

    A few minutes search of the web will show that Herodotus first used the place descriptor, “Palestine”, in the 5th century BCE “These Phoenicians dwelt in old time, as they themselves say, by the Red Sea; passing over from thence, they now inhabit the sea‑coast of Syria; that part of Syria and as much of it as reaches to Egypt, is all called Palestine.” (Histories Book 7 Ch 89)

    The term Palestine was well known to Josephus even to the extent that Josephus thought to correct Herodotus about mistaking Palestinians for Jews in reference to those who circumcise.

    Hadrian’s renaming of the 5 provinces, including Judaea to the “old name” of Syria Palaestina….the subsequent retention of that name through Byzantine and Islamic usage eg as Palaestina Prima and as Jund Filastin within the Bilal al-Sham, Syria, is also well attested right through to modern times….hence the reference to terms such as “greater Syria” and “southern Syria” when referring to Palestine. To suggest that the term Palestine is therefore a recent invention is perhaps not all that accurate a statement.

    Maps of the region – even those from Byzantine times through to the Ottoman empire refer to Palaestina. Maps of the Ottoman empire of 1803 and 1903 refer to the “Arz-i-filistin” – Land of Palestine……..long before the grant of a Mandate to Britain to an area then known as “Palestine”

    I would therefore suggest that Palestine, as a place has been known to us since antiquity and that people who come from that place might reasonably call themselves Palestinians. Jews or not.

    We claim Israel….not because we are Palestinians….but because we are Jews….and that is the real substance of the matter.

    It must be remembered that in the days before the Declaration of Independence, we chose the name Israel for Israel and not Palestine…the correspondence notes that in all likelihood our non-Israeli brethren would want to call themselves Palestinian……it would be interesting to conjecture that had we in 1947 chosen retained the name Palestine…..what would our non-Palestinian brethren be calling themselves today ??

  2. Leon Poddebsky

    The Palestine Mandate that was granted to Britain encompassed the territory both west AND EAST of the Jordan River. Article 25 of the Mandate refers to “Palestine EAST of the Jordan River…”
    Any map which labels only Western Palestine as Palestine is misleading.
    That Britain doublecrossed the Jews by forbidding any Jew to live in Eastern Palestine does not alter the geographical extent of Palestine.
    Eastern Palestine constitutes 80% of the territory of Palestine.

    BTW Britain also doublecrossed the Arabs by not creating the Arab state which they had been promised.
    That promise , however, had explicitly EXCLUDED Palestine from the envisioned Arab state.