“Palestine” and “Palestinians” – What Do These Terms Really Mean?

The word “Palestinian” now describes an Arab who comes from the region that used to be called Palestine. But it wasn’t always the case. Lets spin the wheel of time more than a hundred years back, all the way to 1920.

The Mandatory Palestine: 1920-1947

In 1920, there was no State of Israel and no State of Palestine. In fact, we are talking about the year at which the Mandatory Palestine was formed. Mandatory Palestine was a geopolitical entity, that existed between 1920 and 1948 in the region of Palestine. The word “Palestinian” used to describe all of the people that lived in that area. In fact, in numerous sources, we can see that the word didn’t quite mean what it means today. For example, the word “Palestina” in Hebrew, was simply used to describe Eretz Israel (The land of Israel), as it can be seen in the coins from that period. In Hebrew, it says “Palestina (EI)” – Eretz Israel.

Here is a book by Eliezer Spector, published in 1947 by Lion the Printer. It reads “Characteristics of Palestine Youth”, and the image on the book doesn’t leave a lot of space for interpretation to what youth the author refers to.

Mark Twain: 1867

We go back another 80 years, to 1867. Mark Twain, the famous author who wrote the “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876) and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884), visits the Land of Israel. He travels in the area for 6 months with a group of pilgrims, whom he sarcastically calls “The Innocents”, and writes a series of short articles about his journey, called “The Innocents Abroad”. Here you can see the 1884 edition of the book:

You can read the book here, courtesy of the Gutenberg project: https://gutenberg.org/ebooks/3176

In order to get to Palestine, he had to get a visa from the Turks, who ruled the area back then. The visa was printed in Constantinople, and was both in French and Arabic.

Throughout the whole book, Mark Twain uses the word “Palestine” and “Holy Land” interchangeably. The word “Israel” is mostly used to describe the Jews in the area: “men of Israel”, “brethren of Israel”, “children of Israel”.

Throughout the book, the word “Jew” is mentioned 59 times, “Arab” 112 times, “Israel” 31 times, “Palestine” 54 times.

Mark Twain is not using the word “Palestinians” at all, but rather “Arabs”:

I do not mind Bedouins,—I am not afraid of them; because neither Bedouins nor ordinary Arabs have shown any disposition to harm us, but I do feel afraid of my own comrades.

In his own sarcastic way, Mark Twain writes:

It was a very short day’s run, but the dragoman does not want to go further, and has invented a plausible lie about the country beyond this being infested by ferocious Arabs, who would make sleeping in their midst a dangerous pastime. Well, they ought to be dangerous. They carry a rusty old weather-beaten flint-lock gun, with a barrel that is longer than themselves; it has no sights on it, it will not carry farther than a brickbat, and is not half so certain. And the great sash they wear in many a fold around their waists has two or three absurd old horse-pistols in it that are rusty from eternal disuse—weapons that would hang fire just about long enough for you to walk out of range, and then burst and blow the Arab’s head off. Exceedingly dangerous these sons of the desert are.

Origin of the word “Palestine”

The English term “Palestine” is derived from the Latin “Palestina”. Interestingly, in Hebrew the land is also called “Palestina”. It is derived from the Greek “Palaistine”, which is used by the world’s first known historian, Herodotus, in the 5th century BCE. The name likely comes from a proto-Semitic word, which in Hebrew bears the same meaning as “Israel”.

Scholars believe that the term is cognate with the Bibilcal Hebrew Plishtim, which are mentioned 10 times in the Torah (the first 5 books of the Old Testament).

When the Romans conquered the area in the first century BCE, the used the name Judaea and Syria Palestina to describe the area between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea. Later on, following the Bar Kokhba revolt, the emperor Hadrian ordered to start using only Syria Palestina, to disassociate Jews from the land.

Following the 1948 establishment of Israel, the application of the word Palestine and Palestinian towards the Palestinian Jews largely dropped from use. For example, the newspaper “The Palestine Post”, found in 1932 by Jews in 1932, was renamed to 1950 to “The Jerusalem Post”.

A genetic study, that was published in 2020, claims that most of today’s Jewish and Arab-speaking populations share a strong genetic link to the ancient Canaanites. The study concludes that modern-day groups in Lebanon, Israel and Jordan share a large part of their ancestry, in most cases more than half, with the people who lived in the Levant during the Bronze Age, more than 3,000 years ago.

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