CanaanMap Philistines

Map of Canaan - Philistines area marked out.

The term Palestine and the related term Palestinian have several overlapping (and occasionally contradictory) definitions.


Origin of the term

See also: Palestine – Boundaries and name

The term Palestine is derived from Greek: Παλαιστινη/Latin: Palaestina, which refers to the biblical Philistines, a people of Aegean origin who settled in the southern coastal plains of Canaan, in the 12th century BC, their territory being named Philistia.

After crushing Bar Kochba's revolt in 132-135, the Romans applied the name to the entire region that had formerly included Iudaea Province,[1] in an attempt to suppress Jewish national feelings.[2][3] The Arabic toponym Filasteen (Arabic: فلسطين‎) is also derived from the Latin name.

"The name Palestine, which the Romans had bestowed on the conquered and subjugated land of Judea, had been retained for a time by the Arab conquerors to designate an administrative subdivision of their Syrian province." The name had disappeared from the region prior to the arrival of the Crusaders. The term was rediscovered in Europe at the time of the Renaissance and used to refer to what "European Christians ... previously called the Holy Land." "The name was not used officially, and had no precise territorial definition until it was adopted by the British to designate the area which they acquired by conquest at the end of World War I and ruled under mandate from the League of Nations."[4]

Palestine in history and geography

First century palestine

Roman Province of Iudaea. Notice the coastal province of Philistia, which the Greeks called Palaistina and the Romans Palaestina.

In historical contexts predating the British mandate of Palestine, Palestine was mostly a geographical term, particularly used in the Roman Latin and Greek, and also other languages taking their geographical vocabulary from them. The Romans united Iudaea with the Galilee to form the Roman sub-province of Syria Palaestina (encapsulating territories of ancient Canaan, Kingdom of Israel, Judah, Moab, Ammon, and Philistia) and thus included much of the land on both sides of the Jordan River although with further political sub-divisions along the Jordan River valley.

See also: History of Palestine.

Also in geographical contexts, "Palestine" is often used, as it is a distinctly unique natural unit. Rivers, vegetation and bird migration have ignored political boundaries, while contributing to the development of the natural character of the land.

See also: Geography of the Palestinian territories and Geography of Israel

Jordan and Palestine

See also: Middle Eastern theatre of World War I

Sykes-Picot Agreement, Partitioning of the Ottoman Empire among France and Britain

Prior to the Allied Powers victory in World War I and the Partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, which created the British mandate in the Levant, most of the northern area of what is today Jordan formed part of the Ottoman Vilayet of Damascus (Syria), while the southern part of Jordan was part of the Vilayet of Hejaz. What later became part of British Mandate Palestine was in Ottoman times divided between the Vilayet of Beirut (Lebanon) and the Sanjak of Jerusalem.[5]

The Jordan Rift Valley (comprising Wadi Arabah, the Dead Sea and River Jordan) has at times formed a political and administrative frontier, even within empires that have controlled both territories. At other times, such as during the rule of the Kingdom of Israel and the Hasmonean state for example, territories on both sides of the river formed part of the same administrative unit. Alternatively, during the Arab Caliphate period, parts of southern Lebanon and the northern highland areas of Palestine and Jordan were administered as Al Jund al Urdun, while the southern parts of the latter two formed part of Jund Dimashq, which after the ninth century was attached to the administrative unit of Jund Filasteen (Arabic: جند فلسطين‎).[6]

In 1920, most of modern-day Jordan was at first incorporated into the planned League of Nations mandate territory of Palestine. However, the Transjordan was made into a separate political unit on April 11, 1921, and its separate Mandate came into force in September 1923 as the Emirate of Transjordan.

Nineteenth century sources refer to Palestine as extending from the sea to the caravan route, presumably the Hejaz-Damascus route east of the Jordan River valley. Others refer to it as extending from the sea to the desert.

British Mandate of Palestine


Palestine and Transjordan under the British Mandate

Between 1922 and 1948, the term Palestine referred to the portion of the British Mandate of Palestine lying to the west of the Jordan River; that is, all of what is now Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip. During the period of the British Mandate of Palestine, the term "Palestinian" referred to all people residing there, regardless of religion, and those granted citizenship by the Mandatory authorities were granted "Palestinian citizenship".[7] The term was used without any ethnic connotations. For example, the The Jerusalem Post, an Israeli newspaper, was called The Palestine Post from its founding in 1932 until 1950.

Palestine as a region

Sometimes people use the term Palestine in a limited sense to refer to lands currently under the administrative control of the Palestinian Authority, a quasi-governmental entity which governs but lacks full sovereignty. Since the late 1990s, this has included the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank. However in colloquial everyday usage residents of all parts of Palestine continue using the name for the entire region of Historic Palestine (as defined before the creation of the State of Israel). Palestinian citizens of Israel (who are officially referred to by Israel as "Israeli Arabs") generally make a distinction between the land (Palestine) and the political structures governing it (Israel, Palestinian Authority). Thus, many Palestinians in Israel, the Occupied Territories and in dispersion use the word "Palestine" to refer to Historic Palestine, even when they recognize Israel's existence and affirm its right to continue to exist; for such people, Palestine and Israel are one and the same territory.

Palestine as a state

Modern usage of the term Palestine usually refers to a prospective Palestinian state, incorporating both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Some who oppose the existence of a Jewish state in the region regard all the land west of the Jordan River as the territory of a Palestinian state "from the river to the sea," in denial of Israel's existence or right to exist in the future.

The term is also used to convey the sense that Palestine is already a state, either (a) consisting only of Gaza & West Bank or (b) including as well all land held by Israel. Since the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence, the UN General Assembly has recognized the PLO mission there under the name "Palestine."[8]


This section describes several viewpoints of what makes a person a "Palestinian".

By place of birth

A "Palestinian" can mean a person who is born in the geographical area known prior to 1918 as "Palestine", or a former citizen of the British Mandate territory called Palestine, or an institution related to either of these. Using this definition, both Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews were called "Palestinians".

Before the establishment of the State of Israel, the meaning of the word "Palestinian" didn't discriminate on ethnic grounds, but rather referred to anything associated with the region. The local newspaper, founded in 1932 by Gershon Agron, was called The Palestine Post. In 1950 its name was changed to The Jerusalem Post.

In 1923, Pinhas Rutenberg founded the Palestine Electric Company, Ltd. (later to become the Israel Electric Corporation, Ltd.) There was a [Jewish] Palestine Symphony Orchestra, and in World War II, the British assembled a Jewish Brigade, to fight the Axis powers, that was known as the Palestine regiment.

Since the establishment of Israel, its citizens are called Israelis, while the term Palestinians usually refers to the Palestinian Arabs.

Mandate definition

Britain used the term "Palestinian" to refer to all persons legally residing in or born in the boundaries of the British Mandate of Palestine without regard to their ethnicity, religion, or place of origin.

By place of origin

In its common usage today, the term "Palestinian" refers to a person whose ancestors had lived in the territory corresponding to British Mandate Palestine for some length of time prior to 1948. This definition includes the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (including Dom and Samaritans, but excluding Israeli settlers and most Armenians), the Israeli Arabs (including Druze and Bedouin), the Israeli Jews whose families moved there prior to The founding of the State of Israel, and the Non-Jewish Arab refugees and émigrés from 1948 and their descendants (though not the pre-Israeli Independence (1948) non-Bedouin population of Jordan.)

The Jewish Virtual Library uses a similar but slightly narrower definition: "Although anyone with roots in the land that is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza is technically a Palestinian, the term is now more commonly used to refer to Non-Jew Arabs with such roots ... Most of the world's Palestinian population is concentrated in Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jordan, although many Palestinians live in Lebanon, Syria and other Arab countries."[9]

By citizenship

A more specific widespread usage of "Palestinian" sometimes heard is to refer to native residents of historic Palestine.

By ethnic origin

Referring to the Arab subculture of the southern Levant

The word "Palestinian" is occasionally used by ethnographers and linguists to denote the specific Arab subculture of the southern Levant; in that sense, it includes not only the Arabs of British Mandate Palestine, but also those inhabitants of Jordan who are originally from Palestine and the Druze, while excluding both Bedouin (who culturally and linguistically group with Arabia) and ethnic minorities such as the Dom and Samaritans. However, some of this definition is not accepted. The Samaritans of the West Bank are usually referred to as Palestinian.[10]

Referring to Jews in an ethnic rather than religious sense

The term "Palestinian" used to refer to Jews in Europe who were regarded as an alien presence. For example, Immanuel Kant referred to European Jews as "the Palestinians living among us."[11]

See also


  1. The Bar-Kokhba Revolt (132-135 C.E.) by Shira Schoenberg, The Jewish Virtual Library
  2. 'The Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered' By Peter Schäfer, ISBN 3161480767
  3. 'The Name “Palestine”, The Jewish Virtual Library
  4. Bernard Lewis (1999). Semites and Anti-Semites, An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice. W.W. Norton and Company. pp. 169. ISBN 0-393-31839-7. 
  5. "Palestinim, Am Behivatsrut," by Kimmerling, Baruch, and Joel S. Migdal - Keter Publishing, ISBN 965-07-0797-2
  6. Kamal Suleiman Salibi (1993). The Modern History of Jordan. I.B.Tauris. pp. 17–18. ISBN 1860643310. 
  7. Government of the United Kingdom (December 31, 1930). REPORT by His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the Council of the League of Nations on the Administration of PALESTINE AND TRANS-JORDAN FOR THE YEAR 1930. League of Nations.!OpenDocument. Retrieved 2007-05-29. 
  8. Eric Suy, Karel Wellens (1998). International Law: Theory and Practice : Essays in Honour of Eric Suy. Martinus Nijhoff. p. 378. ISBN 9041105824.,M1. 
  9. Definition of Palestinian (Jewish Virtual Library)
  10. Amid conflict, Samaritans keep unique identity by Dana Rosenblatt (CNN)
  11. Kant, Immanuel (1974): Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Translated by Mary J. Gregor. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, cited in Chad Alan Goldberg, Politicide Revisited. University of Wisconsin-Madison

External links

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