Who Are the Palestinians?

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Who Are the Palestinians?

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To the Arab nations, the birth of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948 is not a cause for celebration but what they call the Nakba or “Disaster.” Israel’s declaration of statehood was followed immediately by an invasion by surrounding Arab nations who told non-Jewish, Muslim inhabitants of the land that was then called Palestine, mostly Arabs themselves, to join the struggle or temporarily evacuate while the Israelis were conquered—and to then return to a Jew-free country. And many indeed left.

But events didn’t go as planned. The Israeli Jews defeated the invading Arab forces, and the inhabitants who had left became displaced, most relocating to Arab countries where they were not absorbed into the general populace but lived as refugees. A similar situation occurred nearly 20 years later in the 1967 Six-Day War, resulting in many more fleeing or being expelled and joining the refugees in Arab countries.

The non-Jewish inhabitants of the land, including the many of them who scattered as refugees, came to be known as the Palestinians. Most of these people now live in Jordan and in the territories known as the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and in lesser numbers in Syria, Lebanon and other countries.

They often portray themselves as indigenous people of the land they say is properly called Palestine, or Filastin in Arabic. The claim is made that the Zionist Jews who migrated to the land from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s had no legitimate national claim to the land—land they were supposedly stealing from the long-established ancient Palestinians. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently said that Israel is “a colonial enterprise that has nothing to do with Jewishness”—as if the Jews are foreign invaders of “Palestinian” land.

Is that what actually happened 70 years ago and in the decades before and after? To whom does the land actually belong? And just who are the Palestinian people?

Indigenous Canaanites or Arabs from elsewhere?

As history shows, the idea of a “Palestinian” people or nation is an invention. No such ethnically or culturally distinct people of this name has ever existed. It is clear that the Palestinians of today are mostly Arabs, yet from many other areas, along with various other peoples.

Palestinian leaders, however, insist on wild claims. In Mahmoud Abbas’ words: ‘We said to him [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu], when he claimed the Jews have a historical right dating back to 3000 years B.C.E., we say that the nation of Palestine upon the land of Canaan had a 7,000-year history. This is the truth that must be said: Netanyahu, you are incidental in history. We are the people of history. We are the owners of history’” (quoted by David Bukay, “Founding National Myths: Fabricating Palestinian History,” Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2012).

The Palestinian Authority leader prior to Abbas, Yasser Arafat, claimed that the Palestinians are descendants of the Jebusites, the Canaanite people of ancient Jerusalem.

Yet consider these words of the Palestinian Hamas interior and national security minister, Fathi Hammad, in March 2012: “Who are the Palestinians? We have many families called al-Masri [the Egyptian], whose roots are Egyptian! They may be from Alexandria, from Cairo, from Dumietta, from the north, from Aswan, from Upper Egypt. We are Egyptians; we are Arabs. We are Muslims. We are part of you. Egyptians! Personally, half my family is Egyptian—and the other half are Saudis” (quoted by Pinhas Inbari, “Who Are the Palestinians?” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Aug. 7, 2017, emphasis added throughout). Indeed, Palestinian last names show many other national origins.

Note what they are not —a unique people group indigenous to ancient Palestine. In fact, Arafat and his compatriots admitted as much. In a March 31, 1977, interview with the Dutch newspaper Trouw, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee member Zahir Muhsein said:

“The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity. In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct ‘Palestinian people’ to oppose Zionism” (quoted by Joseph Farah, “Palestinian People Do Not Exist,” WND.com, July 11, 2002).

In fact, the first article in the 1964 PLO Charter proclaims, “Palestine is an Arab homeland bound by strong Arab national ties to the rest of the Arab Countries and which together form the great Arab homeland.”

“Palestinian” a designation for the Jews?

Of course, in terms of the land there is quite a problem in this statement—seeing it as an Arab homeland and not a Jewish homeland. In fact, it should be pointed out that the Palestinians do not consider only the West Bank and Gaza Strip as Palestinian territories occupied by Israel. They regard the whole of what is called the land of Israel to be the land of Palestine belonging to the Palestinians, with all of it illegally occupied by the Jewish state.

Ironically the “West Bank” bears this name as denoting territory Jordan annexed and occupied on the west side of the Jordan River after 1948 (rather than being called east Palestine), while the Jews call this territory Judea and Samaria—the very heartland of the ancient Israelite kingdoms of Judah and Israel.

Even more ironic is the fact that “before the State of Israel was born, the term ‘Palestinians’ was used by the Jews to refer to themselves and their organizations. ‘The Palestine Post,’ the Palestine Foundation Fund, Palestine Airways, and the Palestine Symphony Orchestra were all purely Jewish enterprises” (Daniel Grynglas, “Debunking the Claim That the ‘Palestinians’ Are the Indigenous People of Israel,” Jerusalem Post blog, May 12, 2015). 

Indeed, “the term Palestine was Western and was regularly used by Jews who immigrated to the country; the Zionists called themselves Palestinians while the Arabs simply identified themselves as Arabs. The Zionist institutions—such as the Anglo-Palestine Bank, the Palestine Post, and so on—were ‘Palestinian’ whereas the Arab institutions, such as the Arab Higher Committee, were simply ‘Arab’” (Inbari).

But terminology later shifted dramatically. “We first hear of Arabs referred to as ‘Palestinians’ when Egypt’s President Nasser, with help from the Russian KGB, established the ‘Palestine Liberation Organization’ in 1964. It was only during the 1970s that the newly minted ‘Palestinians’ began to promote their narrative through murder and assassination. The Arabs have justified their attacks as acts of the indigenous people struggling for national liberation” (Grynglas). But this is utterly contrived—a complete fabrication!

From Canaanite habitation to Jewish dispossession

Let’s briefly examine the history of this land from a biblical perspective. The Bible refers to this ancient land by the name

of Canaan (Genesis 11:31 Genesis 11:31And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter in law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran, and dwelled there.
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; Genesis 12:5 Genesis 12:5And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came.
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; Genesis 13:12 Genesis 13:12Abram dwelled in the land of Canaan, and Lot dwelled in the cities of the plain, and pitched his tent toward Sodom.
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), with Philistines dwelling along the Mediterranean coast before the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendants, the Israelites, settled there. Yet the God of the Bible, who owns the world and everything in it, stated His intention to give this land to His people Israel (Genesis 12:5-7 Genesis 12:5-7 5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came. 6 And Abram passed through the land to the place of Sichem, to the plain of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land. 7 And the LORD appeared to Abram, and said, To your seed will I give this land: and there built he an altar to the LORD, who appeared to him.
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; Genesis 17:8 Genesis 17:8And I will give to you, and to your seed after you, the land wherein you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.
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; Exodus 13:5 Exodus 13:5And it shall be when the LORD shall bring you into the land of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, that you shall keep this service in this month.
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; Exodus 13:11 Exodus 13:11And it shall be when the LORD shall bring you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and to your fathers, and shall give it you,
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). Thus, by divine decree, even if there were still remnants of the indigenous Canaanites here, the land was given to Abraham and his descendants and was taken from the original inhabitants.

The Israelites formed a nation and kingdom that became divided into two—Israel and Judah. After persistent sin, God allowed the northern tribes of Israel to be deported by the Assyrians and the southern people of Judah, the Jews, to be mostly carried away to Babylon, with a few remaining in the land and some later returning to revive a Jewish state under the rule of the Persians and then continuing under Greek and Roman rule.

The Romans crushed two Jewish revolts, in A.D. 70 and 135, and the Jews became mostly scattered—although a significant population of Jews always remained in the land. (The Jews were expelled from Jerusalem in 135, but a number remained in other communities in the Holy Land.)

One might assume that God’s expulsion of Israel and Judah from the land means their claim on it came to an end. But God gave this land to the descendants of Israel forever (see Exodus 32:13 Exodus 32:13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give to your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.
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). And even when He warned of removing them and ultimately did so, He still spoke of regathering them in their homeland. So according to God, no other people has a right to this land. And all would do well to remember this!

History of the term Palestine

Where did the name Palestine come from? When the Romans crushed the Jewish revolt of 135, they merged the Roman province of Judaea into Syria and called the new province Syria Palaestina, presumably to remove its Jewish distinction.

The term Palestine, while derived from the ancient Philistines, previously had become a common geographic distinction for the land well before the renaming. It had been used by Greek and Roman writers such as Herodotus, Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch and others—and even a few times by the first-century Jewish historians Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus.

The area continued to be called Palaestina later in the Byzantine period, and forms of this name persisted under the Arab caliphates and Turkish Ottoman Empire, though “Southern Syria” was the common distinction. “After World War I [when the Ottomans fell to the western Allies], the name ‘Palestine’ was applied to the territory that was placed under British Mandate; this area included not only present-day Israel but also present-day Jordan … [At that time] it was common for the international press to label Jews, not Arabs, living in the mandate as Palestinians” (Jewish Virtual Library, “Israel: Origins of the Name ‘Palestine’”).

Inhabitants from Byzantine through Islamic periods

What was the makeup of the land of Israel after the Romans crushed the Jewish revolts in A.D. 70 and 135? As mentioned, most of the Jews were forcibly removed or fled, yet many others still remained throughout the land. The Romans would encourage others to settle here, particularly after the Empire became officially Christian.

When the Muslim Arabs took control of the Holy Land from the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire in the seventh century, many of them settled in the conquered land, with the Jews remaining the largest minority. Yet it’s been argued that “many of the native population, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were forcefully converted to Islam and the country was forcefully Arabized … [becoming] an Arab-speaking country.

“That does not mean the people living there were ‘real Arabs’ … They were, in fact, descendants of the original Jewish population and of the Greek-speaking population that the Byzantines imported to Christianize the land” (Schlomo Sherman, “The Myth of the So-Called ‘Palestinians,’” 1994, reproduced at Daniel Pipes Middle East Forum, comments).

Later the Seljuk Turks and Kurds (under Kurdish leader Saladin) fought the European Crusaders in the Holy Land. Many of these non-Arab Muslims were stationed here, and as a result, “numerous Hebron families … are of Kurdish origin. The Kurds also settled in other parts of the country and Transjordan. By now, the Kurds have completely Arabized, and they retain no connection with their origins” (Inbari). 

A desolate land through Ottoman times

In the late 1600s, during Ottoman rule, a geographer and language expert named Hadriani Relandi toured the land, surveying about 2,500 places where people lived that were mentioned in the Bible or Mishnah. He recorded his observations in a book published in 1714. What does the book show?

1. Not one settlement in the Land of Israel has a name that is of Arabic origin … not one Arabic settlement has an original Arabic name …

2. Most of the land was empty, desolate, and the inhabitants few in number and mostly concentrated in the towns Jerusalem, Acco, Tzfat, Jaffa, Tiberius and Gaza. Most of the inhabitants were Jews and the rest Christians. There were few Muslims, mostly nomad Bedouins … who arrived in the area as construction and agricultural labor reinforcement, seasonal workers …

3. The book totally contradicts any post-modern theory claiming a ‘Palestinian heritage,’ or Palestinian nation. The book strengthens the connection, relevance, pertinence, kinship of the Land of Israel to the Jews and the absolute lack of belonging to the Arabs” (Avi Goldreich, “A Tour of Palestine; the Year Is 1695,” Think-Israel.org, Aug. 4, 2007).

The population dwindled as various factors made it increasingly difficult to live here. The ruin of the land had begun with the Roman destruction of Judah, Roman historian Cassius Dio writing at the time that “the whole of Judea became desert” after the destruction of hundreds of towns and villages, yet things became far worse after the Arab conquest and later under Ottoman rule (Joseph Katz, “Palestine, a Land Virtually Laid Waste With Little Population,” EretzYisroel.org, 2001).

In the latter period the land “had become nearly desolate. The Turkish government taxed landowners by the number of trees on their land. The forests were decimated in an effort to avoid the tax. Hills and plains were overgrazed by sheep and goats. Large tracts ceased to be cultivated and lost their fertility. Many cities were abandoned. Swamps and deserts encroached upon the battered landscape. The fabled Holy Land had sunk into a sleeping death” (video presentation The Galilee Experience, 1997).

Visitors to the land in the 1700s and 1800s commented on its forlorn desolation. The British Consul in Palestine reported in 1857, “The country is in a considerable degree empty of inhabitants and therefore its greatest need is that of a body of population” (quoted by Katz).

The most famous to speak of the land’s condition was the American author Mark Twain in his book The Innocents Abroad after his visit in 1867. Joseph Katz summarizes what Twain found:

“In one location after another, Twain registered gloom at his findings: ‘Stirring scenes … occur in the valley [Jezreel] no more. There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent—not for thirty miles in either direction …’ [He further wrote of] ‘… these unpeopled deserts, these rusty mounds of barrenness … that melancholy ruin of Capernaum … We reached Tabor safely … We never saw a human being on the whole route.’”

Other peoples joined in a hodgepodge

Even so, there had been an influx of some people earlier in the 1830s with the invasion and temporary occupation of Syria and Palestine by the Egyptian general Ibrahim Pasha. He left behind a number of permanent Egyptian colonies. And with Jewish people returning to the land in the later 1800s, the Ottomans brought in other people to the land as well.

A major step came with the Bosnians. The Balkan country of Bosnia was invaded and by force converted to Islam by the Ottomans in the 1300s. Starting in the late 1600s the Ottomans began to lose European territories. Then “in 1878, at the Congress of Berlin … Turkey lost Bosnia to Austria. The result was a stream of Moslem refugees pouring out of Bosnia looking for haven in the Ottoman Empire…

“This migration of Moslem refugees marked a very important historic milestone in the history of Palestine. The Ottoman rulers adopted a policy of Moslem colonization … In the Carmel region, in the Galilee, in the Plain of Sharon and in Caesarea, lands were distributed to the Moslem refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The refugees were further attracted by 12-year tax exemptions and exemption from military service” (Manfred Lehmann, “Bosnia—Motherland of ‘Palestinians’”).

“The same colonization policy … was also directed toward Moslem refugees from Russia—particularly from Georgia, the Crimea and the Caucasus, [a diverse people group] called Circassians and Turkmenians—leading to their settling in Abu Gosh, near Jerusalem, and in the Golan Heights. Refugees from Algeria and Egypt were also settled in Jaffa, Gaza, Jericho and the Golan” (ibid.).

All these and other immigrants of widely disparate and mixed heritage formed part of the basis for the later so-called Palestinian people. Among those counted as “indigenous” Palestinians today are peoples actually springing from all over Europe, Russia, South Asia, North Africa, a host of Arab countries and some Jews—in short, “the greatest human agglomeration drawn together in one small area of the globe” (John of Wurzburg, quoted by Katz, “Palestine Inhabited by a Mixed Population,” EretzYisroel.org).

Some of the European elements were those who came to the Holy Land during the Crusades while others came as slaves during centuries of Islamic slave trade. Yet most of the varied people groups mentioned on this list make up a very small part of today’s Palestinians, the major exception being the Arabs.

Arabs swarm in—the real colonizers

The Jews returning to the land in the late 1800s and early 1900s as part of the Zionist movement and during the time of the British Mandate sparked further immigration from surrounding Arab countries. This migration was so large as to overwhelm and assimilate the earlier non-Jewish immigrants, leading to all being essentially Arabized and regarded as Arab. “The ‘indigenous’ 4.3% comprised many non-Arab nationalities. [But] all of them were swamped by the Arab immigrants and within a few generations largely lost their identity” (Grynglas).

What prompted this large influx of Arabs into the land? “Records show that it was 19th and 20th century Jewish settlement and the resulting employment opportunities that drew successive waves of Arab immigrants to Palestine. ‘The Arab population shows a remarkable increase … partly due to the import of Jewish capital into Palestine and other factors associated with the growth of the [Jewish] National Home’ (the Peel Commission Report, 1937).

“[It’s earlier reported that] ‘in the Jewish settlement Rishon l’Tsion [First to Zion] founded in 1882, by the year 1889, the forty Jewish families settled there had attracted more than four hundred Arab families … Many other Arab villages had sprouted in the same fashion’ (Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial, p. 252 …). “British PM Winston Churchill said [of Palestine] in 1939: ‘… far from being persecuted, the Arabs have crowded into the country’” (Grynglas).

This large-scale migration into the land continued up to the formation of the Israeli state, when “most Muslims living in Palestine … had been living there for fewer than 60 years” (Ezequiel Doiny, “The Muslim Colonists,” Gatestone Institute, Aug. 15, 2014).

Mideast expert Daniel Pipes, in reviewing Joan Peters’ 1984 book From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine, states: “The data unearthed by Joan Peters indicate that Arabs benefited economically so much by the presence of Jewish settlers from Europe that they traveled hundreds of miles to get closer to them. In turn, this explains why the definition of a refugee from Palestine in 1948 is a person who lived there for just two years [ two years! ]: because many Arab residents in 1948 had immigrated so recently.”

Thus, as Daniel Greenfield states, “The ‘Palestinians’ are what they always were: a foreign Islamic Arab colony inside Israel.” And he poignantly answers Mahmoud Abbas’ claim of a Zionist colonial enterprise at the outset of our examination, declaring: “The ‘Palestinians’ are not the victims of colonialism. They are its perpetrators.”

Bible prophecy indicts Edom

Now, all of this being said, there does seem to be—in consideration of what Scripture tells us on the issue—more to the identity of the Palestinian Arabs beyond their just being part of the general mass of Arab people.

The Arabs are not monolithic in their heritage. They consider themselves to be descended mainly from Ishmael, the first son of Abraham and half-brother of Isaac, and this is evidently the case. Yet among the Arabs are also some elements from other early tribes, including that of Jacob’s brother Esau, who was renamed Edom. Esau intermarried with daughters of Ishmael and the Canaanites. And we should further realize that Esau’s descendants, the Edomites, are not limited to Arab tribes but include various other peoples.

Why focus on Edom here in regard to the Palestinian Arabs? The answer is found in a remarkable prophecy in the book of Obadiah, which concerns what will happen to the Edomites in the end time.

Obadiah 1:19 Obadiah 1:19And they of the south shall possess the mount of Esau; and they of the plain the Philistines: and they shall possess the fields of Ephraim, and the fields of Samaria: and Benjamin shall possess Gilead.
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is speaking of territories—stating that those who control particular territories in the Holy Land will come to possess additional territories there. In context, we can see that Israelites in this verse are retaking areas that the Edomites have appropriated as their own.

Fascinatingly, the areas listed as doing the taking here are areas that are today populated by Jews. The areas being taken back are now populated by Palestinians—thus apparently identifying the Palestinians as Edomites, at least in significant measure.

It could be that some of the disparate peoples making up the non-Jewish, non-Arab inhabitants of the Holy Land prior to the more recent Arab influx are also made up of Edomites to some degree (for more details, see our online commentary at bible.ucg.org/bible-commentary/Obadiah/ ).

God further prophesies against Edom in Ezekiel 3536. He warns in chapter 35 that “Mount Seir,” the land of Edom, because of its inhabitants’ lust for the lands of Israel and Judah, will be judged and made desolate (Ezekiel 35:10-15 Ezekiel 35:10-15 10 Because you have said, These two nations and these two countries shall be mine, and we will possess it; whereas the LORD was there: 11 Therefore, as I live, said the Lord GOD, I will even do according to your anger, and according to your envy which you have used out of your hatred against them; and I will make myself known among them, when I have judged you. 12 And you shall know that I am the LORD, and that I have heard all your blasphemies which you have spoken against the mountains of Israel, saying, They are laid desolate, they are given us to consume. 13 Thus with your mouth you have boasted against me, and have multiplied your words against me: I have heard them. 14 Thus said the Lord GOD; When the whole earth rejoices, I will make you desolate. 15 As you did rejoice at the inheritance of the house of Israel, because it was desolate, so will I do to you: you shall be desolate, O mount Seir, and all Idumea, even all of it: and they shall know that I am the LORD.
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).

God gives a similar warning in Ezekiel 36:5 Ezekiel 36:5Therefore thus said the Lord GOD; Surely in the fire of my jealousy have I spoken against the residue of the heathen, and against all Idumea, which have appointed my land into their possession with the joy of all their heart, with despiteful minds, to cast it out for a prey.
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, and then says He will end the shame His land has borne and bring back the people of Israel to at last make abundant use of it.

Amazingly, through many prophecies we learn that the return of the Jewish people today is only a small foretaste of a far greater return of all Israel to the Promised Land under the coming reign of the Jewish Messiah, the Savior of all peoples, Jesus Christ.

It will shock many to learn that Palestinian Arabs are now occupying much of the land God gave to the rightful occupiers, the people of Israel, forever. Rest assured, He will not allow things to go on as they are indefinitely. All will come to pass just as He promises.

Keep looking to His Word and to the clear facts of history to understand your world. And trust in God’s plan to ultimately set all things right!