An April 12 Mercer Island Reporter column on a visit of Islanders to the Middle East had an unusual headline: “Mercer Islanders make pilgrimage to Palestine.” As Executive Director of StandWithUs Northwest, an organization that educates about Israel and fights anti-semitism, and a 12-year Island resident, I was startled, because most of the sites visited by the group were in Israel, not the West Bank or Gaza. With this in mind, I offer a few questions and answers about the names Israel and Palestine.
Which came first: Israel or Palestine?
The answer is Israel. It is the historic name of the Jewish people, who are indigenous to what was then known as Judea, the birthplace of Jewish identity and civilization. With a few interruptions, Jews sustained sovereignty there for over 1,000 years. In 70 CE, the Roman Empire subdued a major Jewish rebellion, destroyed the Jewish Second Temple in Jerusalem, burned the city to the ground, and massacred thousands. After another major Jewish uprising in 135 CE Rome renamed Judea to “Syria Palæstina” intending to detach Jewish identity from their indigenous homeland. Despite centuries of exile, Jews have maintained an unbroken 3,000-year presence in their homeland.
So, the state of Palestine has existed since the year 135? Actually, no. There never was a nation, kingdom or republic called Palestine. The name has always reflected a geographic region controlled by various conquering empires including the Byzantine, Arab Islamic, Crusader or Ottoman. Each seized and colonized the Jewish homeland, making Jews an oppressed minority in their own country.
If there is no historic state of Palestine, who are the Palestinians?
Palestinian national identity crystallized in the 20th century.
Some Palestinians claim ancestry back to the 7th century Arabian Islamic conquest, and even to people already in the region who converted. Others are descendants of Egyptians, Iraqis, Syrians, Algerians, Kurds and others who moved to Palestine more recently.
Between the 14th century until 1918 most of the Middle East and southeastern Europe was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, which divided its territories into vilayets (administrative divisions). Palestine was mostly in the vilayet of Beirut (the current capital of Lebanon). In the 19th century Jerusalem was a tiny backwater with only about 25,000 impoverished residents (over half of whom were Jews) and Palestine’s total population was only about 300,000. By comparison, the city of Jerusalem alone has 850,000 residents today.
In the 19th century Jews initiated a liberation movement called Zionism to free themselves from centuries of oppression by rebuilding their lost sovereignty in their ancestral homeland of Israel. For decades, with anti-semitism increasing rapidly, waves of Jews returned to Israel building cities and farms, reviving Hebrew, and establishing the institutions for statehood.
In 1947, as conflict between Jews and Arabs intensified, the UN recommended a compromise: partition the land into two states – one Jewish and one Arab. Jewish leaders accepted it, but Arab leaders rejected it and launched a war seeking to destroy the Jewish state in its cradle. The two nationalist movements had been in conflict since 1920, and this was the turning point. Tragically, rejectionism remains a major force in Palestinian politics. The best chance for a two-state solution was in 2000, but Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat rejected Israel’s offer for full independence. Instead, in a replay of 1948, Palestinian leaders launched a war primarily targeting Israeli civilians, killing over 1,100 and maiming thousands more. This terror war – also known as the Second Intifada – didn’t “free” an inch of Palestine but set back peace by decades.
So what exactly is Palestine today?
Geographically speaking, it is the region renamed by Rome, that currently includes the State of Israel, the West Bank (aka Judea and Samaria) ruled by the Palestinian Authority, and the Gaza Strip ruled by the Islamist terror group Hamas. It is also a proposed state that has been discussed in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. However, when the name Palestine is used intentionally or unintentionally to describe places that are in the State of Israel, it perpetuates misunderstanding and conflict. Accordingly, I applaud the Mercer Island Reporter for its prompt correction to the headline.
Randy Kessler is the executive director of StandWithUs Northwest. For information about StandWithUs go online to www.standwithus.com.