By Ashley Church…
There were two topics that I hated at school – math and history. I was no big fan of most of the others, either – but math and history stood out as areas of study that no sane person should ever engage in. And then something happened in my Fifth Form Year (year 11 for those of you under 30). About 3 weeks before the November School Certificate exams I realised that, in order to pass School Certificate, I would need to pass School C History. So, I grudgingly spent the night before the exam swotting the study booklets of a topic I thought I hated. And guess what – I found that I loved history and even managed to pass the exam!
Over the next 43 years I’ve become passionate about history – starting with Brit history and gradually expanding my knowledge to take in a cursory understanding of the major empires around the world and most of the periods of history dating back to Mesopotamia in what we now call the Middle East and up into Asia Minor.
It’s a fascinating region with a rich history and – like Europe – has been ruled over by various different dynasties and power blocs going back thousands of years. The most recent of these was the Ottoman Empire – the last of a succession of Islamic Caliphates which had ruled the region until they were defeated by the Allies in 1918 at the end of WW1. The former territories of the Ottomans were then partitioned through a series of Treaties where the terms were dictated by the Allies and divvied up, according to the whims and political dictates of the Brits and the French. This led to the creation of several new nations, including a State of Israel in 1948 within part of an area which, for almost two thousand years, was an administrative district with indistinct borders – and the rest is history (no pun intended).
And that really leads me to the point of this article. Given the longevity of Palestine as a territorial entity – what happened to its proud history over the two thousand years of its existence? Over that same period of time the nations of Europe and Asia have a rich tapestry of history which includes evolving national borders, continual wars, and the changing dynasties of Kings and Queens against a backdrop of constant intrigue and hubris. In like manner, surely the proud nation of Palestine has an equally impressive history spanning back over a period which begins at around the time of Christ? Surely museums are replete with the stories of Palestinian rulers and groaning under the weight of Palestinian artefacts and a written record of the proud history of the Palestinian people?
Well, no. There are certainly artefacts and records from that region – but they’re almost all Hebrew and, in most cases, predate Christ. Try as you might, you won’t find any historical record of the ‘Palestinians’ beyond simple stories of migration into, and out of, that area by nomadic Arab peoples. There are no records of great Palestinian leaders, great Palestinian battles, or great Palestinian structures. Don’t take my word for it – Google it. They’re not there.
Oh, there are certainly historical records of great battles over the territory starting in the 7th Century – but they were between the European Crusaders and the Islamic Caliphates – neither of which were actually based in Palestine. No actual ‘Palestinians were harmed in the making of those battles! (sorry, couldn’t resist).
So if there’s no history or historical remnant of a ‘Palestinian’ people – where did Palestine come from? What were the Arabic origins of this territorial designation which now features so prominently in international affairs and causes so much anxiety for members of the UN?
Well, that’s the thing. ‘Palestine’ isn’t an Arabic entity. The people to whom it refers weren’t Arabic – and the word itself isn’t an Arabic word (there’s no ‘P’ in the Arabic language). The word ‘Palestine’ derives from the word ‘Philistia’ which was the name given to the land of the Philistines who occupied a small pocket of land between Tel Aviv and Gaza in the 12th Century BC. Those people have long since disappeared from history but the name was revived by the Romans, in the 2nd Century AD, primarily as an insult to the Jewish occupants of the land at that time.
So what does this all mean? Is there really a ‘Palestinian’ nationality? Yes, of course. There have been Arabs living alongside Jews, in that region, for hundreds of years – and an emerging Arabic nationalism since the 19th Century – comparable to the European presence in New Zealand over a similar period of time which has led to the development of a ‘kiwi’ culture as distinct from a British culture.
For this reason we shouldn’t just dismiss ‘Palestinian’ aspirations to statehood – but we also shouldn’t attribute, to them, a fictitious history going back over millennia. The ‘aboriginal’ people of Israel are the Jews – and acceptance of that fact must always be the starting point for any solution to the issues facing that region of the world.
Ashley Church is a director of the Israel Institute of NZ.