On Friday, December 9, presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich was interviewed on cable TV’s The Jewish Channel, where he made the unexpected comment that the Palestinians are an invented people with no apparent right to their own state. His remarks, summarized in the Washington Post, were promptly condemned; but is he correct?
The name “Palestine” derives from the Philistines, who originated from the Eastern Mediterranean (perhaps Greece or Crete) and invaded the region in the eleventh and twelfth centuries B.C. Related to the Bronze Age Greeks, they spoke a language akin to Mycenaean Greek. Their area of habitation on the Eastern Mediterranean littoral became known as “Philistia.”
When Romans arrived a thousand years later they corrupted “Philistia” to “Palestina,” from whence “Palestine.” Six hundred years later, the Arab invaders corrupted “Palestina” to “Falastin.”
Throughout all subsequent history there was never a nation of “Palestine,” never a people known as the “Palestinians,” nor any notion of “historic Palestine.” The region remained under successive foreign rulers, from the Umayyads and Abbasids and Ayyubids to the Fatimids, Ottomans and British. During these millennia the term “Falastin” referred to an undefined geographical region, much like “Appalachia” or “the great Southwest” in modern U.S. geography.
In 1695 a Dutch orientalist, Hadrian Reland, conducted a geographical survey of the region. He found that none of the known settlements, ancient or contemporary, bore Arabic names. Most names were Hebrew, Greek, or Latin in origin. Moreover, the land was almost empty of inhabitants, desolate, the few towns (Jerusalem, Acre, Safed, Jaffa, Tiberius and Gaza) inhabited mostly by Christians and Jews, with Muslims present only in very small number, mostly Bedouin in the hinterland.
His book, Palaestina ex monumentis veteribus illustrata (Utrecht, 1714), offers no evidence for a “Palestinian people,” “Palestinian heritage,” “Palestinian nation” or “Palestinian homeland” in ancient times; and it provides a powerful argument against the outrageous and transparently false assertions by some modern Arab spokespersons that what most people know to be Jewish history is in fact “Palestinian” history. Today’s defenders of the “Palestinian cause” are reduced to stealing Jewish history and heritage precisely because the so-called “Palestinians” have none of their own.
Today’s “Palestinians” are indeed an invented people. But how did they get invented? Arabs themselves answer that question for us.
The term “Palestine” was given a political meaning for the first time in history by the British after World War I, when they took the region from the Turks and termed it “British Mandatory Palestine.” At that time (1920) Arab political and intellectual leaders spoke out vehemently against the creation of this new “Palestine” because the region was, in their minds, inextricably connected to Syria. The Arabs of the area had their own designation for the region: Balad esh-Sham (the province of Damascus), or as-Suriya al-Janubiya (southern Syria). In fact, Arab nationalists protested the use of the term “Palestine” because for them “Palestine” was really southern Syria. Even the most vitriolic and vociferous Arab nationalist, the Hajj Amin el-Husseini, opposed creating “Palestine” separate from Syria. For documentation see Marie Syrkin’s “Palestinian Nationalism: Its Development and Goal,” in Curtis, Michael, Neyer, Joseph, Waxman, Chaim, and Pollack, Allen, The Palestinians: People, History, Politics (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1975), p. 200.
The General Syrian Congress of 1919 stressed an exclusively Syrian identity for the Arabs of “southern Syria”: “We ask that there should be no separation of the southern part of Syria, known as Palestine . . .” (Ibid, Syrkin, Supra). George Antonius, the father of modern Arab nationalist history, documented in The Arab Awakening (1938. P. 312) the upheaval created among the Arabs of “Greater Syria” and Iraq as they flocked to the streets of Syrian cities, including Jerusalem, in armed uprisings to protest the British imposition of a separate political entity known as “Palestine,” carved out of what was traditionally a part of Syria.