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Most Read of 2021: “Israel” and “Palestine”: Where Should History Begin, and Should it Matter?

06 Jan 2022
By Dr Daniel Miller
The 16th century walls of Jerusalem, with the Jerusalem Citadel minaret. Source: Oleg Moro

The geographic terms “Israel” and “Palestine” have a long history and specific connotations for Jews and Arabs with respect to their competing claims to the same land. The only way forward for Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs is to cease looking backwards.

In her 14 May “Looking Forward” newsletter, Jodi Rudoren, New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief during the last two Israel-Hamas wars in 2012 and 2014 (there have been four since 2008), wrote: “It does not, actually, help to examine what specifically started this conflagration, or the one before or the one before that, because it does, in so many ways, end up at ‘Abraham had two sons: there was Isaac, and there was Ishmael’”—a reference to the Genesis account that the Patriarch Abraham engendered one son said to be the ancestor of Arabs (Ishmael) and another considered to be the ancestor of Jews (Isaac).

Sadly, Rudoren is correct: investigating the particular events that culminated in the latest Israel-Hamas war can provide only an imperfect, fragmentary understanding of a conflict that began well over a century ago and is rooted in issues of territory that predate the Common Era. Still, given that one side claims fervently that the land is “Israel” and the other equally passionately that it’s “Palestine,” a potentially worthwhile avenue of enquiry for understanding the conflict, at least to some degree, is to look at what each of those terms has historically denoted with respect to geography.


In the last decade of the 13th century BCE, Pharaoh Merneptah recorded that his military forces had decisively defeated an entity called “Israel” in the central highlands of what was then known as “Canaan.” A few centuries later, that region would be the location for two kingdoms: “Israel” and a weaker sister kingdom called “Judah,” the ultimate origin of the term “Jew,” to its south. The biblical tradition holds that there had previously been a united monarchy, apparently under the name “Israel.” The kingdom of Israel was overthrown in ca. 722 BCE by the Neo-Assyrian empire, centred in what is now Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia), and “Israel” ceased to be a geographic entity of the ancient Middle East.


In the sixth century BCE, Judah and its capital Jerusalem were conquered by the Neo-Babylonians, another Mesopotamian empire. Following the Babylonian Exile, the territory of the former kingdom would serve as the geographic centre of Jewish existence until 135 CE when, following a disastrous Jewish uprising, Roman emperor Hadrian expelled the Jews from Jerusalem and decreed that the territory surrounding the city be part of a larger entity called “Syria-Palestina.” Thenceforth, it would be primarily Jews in the Diaspora who would carry the traditions of Judaism forward. “Palestina” had as its ultimate referent the name and traditional territory of the Philistines, mortal enemies of the Israelites (forerunners of the Jews).

As part of the Islamic conquest of the Middle East in the seventh century, Arab peoples began to settle in significant numbers in the land. Apart from a relatively brief period of Crusader control, Palestine remained under Muslim control for just under 12 centuries, its population overwhelmingly Arab.

Zionism and Jewish return

In the second half of the 19th century, Jews’ yearning to return to their ancestral land was given concrete expression in the form of the Jewish nationalistic movement Zionism. Zionism arose in response to mounting virulent Jew hatred in Europe and czarist Russia. As Jews began to trickle back into the land, they encountered a sizeable Arab population that had been there for centuries.

Under the Turkish Ottoman empire, the land comprised three administrative regions, none of which bore the name “Palestine”. World War I saw the collapse of the Ottomans, and in 1917 the land fell under British rule. “Mandatory Palestine”—comprising also the current state of Jordan—came into existence in 1923. Until that time, the Arabs living there saw themselves primarily not as “Palestinians” in the sense of a nationhood but as Arabs living in Palestine (or to be precise, “Greater Syria”).

The founding of the modern state of Israel

During the era of Mandatory Palestine, the Zionist leadership in Palestine (the Yishuv) strove to increase Jewish numbers in the land to solidify Jewish claims to statehood, an initiative that was ultimately blocked by British limits placed upon Jewish immigration. It would be horrified world reaction to the Holocaust that would push the Zionist project over the finish line. In November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 181, partitioning the territory into “Independent Arab and Jewish States.” The Resolution received immediate Arab rejection, and Palestinian militias attacked Jewish settlements. On 14 May, 1948, the Yishuv declared the founding of the state of Israel, immediately recognised by the United States.

 On the morrow of Israel’s founding, the new Jewish state was invaded by a military force comprising multiple Arab armies plus Palestinian militia forces. By the time the fighting ended in 1949, the Palestinians had lost 78 percent of what the UN had allotted to them, and 700,000 Palestinians had been uprooted from their homes with no right of return to the present day. For Israelis, it was the “War of Independence.” For Palestinians, it’s al-Nakba — “the Catastrophe.”

Following decades of military and diplomatic setbacks, the Palestinian National Council issued a declaration of independence on 15 November, 1988, which was recognised a month later by the General Assembly as Resolution 43/177. Currently, about three quarters of the UN’s membership recognises the statehood of Palestine, which has “non-member observer status” in the UN.

Since its founding and despite multiple wars with Arab states and non-state actors, Israel has flourished as a formidable Middle Eastern power. By contrast, the Palestinians have striven fruitlessly to establish a viable state and any real, sustained economic success.

The seizure by Israel of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza during its overwhelming victory in the Six-Day War of 1967—in which Israel faced a true existential threat to its existence from a combined Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian military force—has left the majority of Palestinians under various forms of Israeli occupation or control. Since the 1990s, there have been several unsuccessful attempts to achieve a two-state solution. Under former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, considered illegal by much of the world, increased dramatically. Those Arabs who do have Israeli citizenship, about a fifth of Israel’s population, are far too often treated as second-class citizens within Israel. The 13 June ouster of Netanyahu from power could alleviate this somewhat—for the first time, an Arab Israeli party is part of a government coalition.

Jewish Israelis, meanwhile, have experienced the violent fury of two Palestinian Intifadas (1987–1993; 2001–2005), the second of which featured a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings and ambushes that killed over 1,000 Israelis and wounded about 3,000. This was the catalyst for Israel’s Security Barrier, which has further exacerbated Palestinian distress.

Where should history begin, and should it matter?

“Israel” and “Palestine.” One land, two names. Both Jews and Arabs have claimed it as theirs alone. From a purely historical perspective, “Israel” predates “Palestine” by more than a millennium. But, with the Jewish people then dispersed from their homeland, “Palestine” became home to a substantial Arab population, again for more than a millennium. From a perspective of justice and equity, both peoples have a legitimate claim to the land.

The wrongs and brutalities done by each side to the other have become too numerous to count. It does no good to try to assign blame for the latest war between Israel and Hamas. The war and the specific events that led up to it are just more entries in a ledger written in blood and tears. The stark fact is that there is now no act of vengeance or retribution that Jews and Arabs could do to the other party in the conflict that would allow them to say that accounts had been settled on their side.

The ledger must, therefore, be discarded. As Jodi Rudoren has written: “[A]ny hope of ending the conflict…requires Palestinians and Israeli Jews to either acknowledge each other’s versions of history without trying to determine which is more legitimate, or to just ignore them. The only possible peace agreement is one that looks forward.” In a reversal of the transformation of the Nile in Exodus 7, the rivers of blood spilled must, somehow, become water under the bridge.

This article originally published on 19 June 2021. It is one of the top ten most read articles published in Australian Outlook in 2021. 

Dr Daniel Miller is Chair of the Dept. of Religion, Society and Culture at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke (Quebec), Canada. He received his PhD in Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan. His areas of academic interest are Canaanite-Israelite cultic practices, ancient West Semitic magic and, more recently, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. He has taught courses in Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), comparative world religions, politics and religion, ancient Near Eastern magic and divination, apocalypticism, New Religious Movements and Biblical Hebrew.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.