The Palestinian Claim
From The Fourth R
Who are the Palestinians? When Golda Meir was Prime Minister of Israel she once said, ‘There is no such thing as a Palestinian people . . . it is not as though there was a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist’. That is one way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; define one’s opponents out of existence. There was a period of years in the state of Israel when one rarely heard the word ‘Palestinian’; Israelis preferred to speak of Arabs or Muslims. Even the name of the ‘Palestinian Museum’, when it came into Israeli hands after 1967, was changed to the John D. Rockefeller Museum.
There is a half-truth in what Golda Meir said. There never has been a Palestinian nation. Until the early part of the twentieth century the word Palestinian simply referred to the inhabitants of the land called Palestine, whether they were Arab, Muslim, Jew, Samaritan, Christian or Druze. And even they did not use the term widely. Only since 1948 has the term come increasingly into use to refer to all the non-Jewish inhabitants of the Holy Land at the time of the establishment of the State of Israel. And now that includes all of their descendants also.
It is quite false, however, to infer from Golda Meir’s statement that the Holy Land was unoccupied when the Jews returned to establish Israel. Yet that inference was nevertheless commonly drawn, as instanced by the much-used slogan, ‘A land without a people for a people without a land’.
The Holy Land has never been a ‘land without a people’. Even back in 1920 the Holy Land was more densely populated than New Zealand is today. So who are the people who have long inhabited it and whose descendants are now called the Palestinians? To answer this we must go back to the first century and take up the story of the Holy Land from the time the Romans expelled the Jews from Jerusalem. The Jews were not excluded from the Holy Land as a whole. Indeed there has never been a time when there have not been at least small numbers of Jews living in that country.
After the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ce a legion was stationed on the site to prevent the Jews from returning. Then Rome began to stamp its own character upon the land by colonizing it with Romans. First, the governor’s residence at Caesarea became a Roman colony. Then a new pagan city, Neapolis (now known as Nablus), was founded at the ancient Canaanite site of Shechem.
In 132 ce the emperor Hadrian began to build a Roman colony on the site of Jerusalem. This provoked much Jewish resentment and provoked a further Jewish revolt, led by Simon Bar Kokhba. His title means ‘Son of the Star’ and he was hailed by some as a Messiah or military deliverer. He recaptured Jerusalem and held out for three years until Julius Severus was recalled from Britain. Severus ruthlessly quelled the revolt and, according to some accounts, destroyed almost 1,000 villages, killing more than half a million people. In Judaea proper the Jews seem to have been virtually exterminated, but they survived in Galilee.
The province of Judaea was renamed Syria Palestina and was later simply called Palestina. But no Jew was thenceforth allowed to set foot in Jerusalem or the surrounding district.
Hadrian proceeded to convert Jerusalem into a Graeco-Roman city — with a circus, an amphitheatre, baths, and a theatre, and with streets conforming to the Roman grid pattern. He also erected temples dedicated both to Jupiter and to himself on the very site of the destroyed Jewish Temple. Since his clan name was Aelia, he called Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina. To repopulate the city, he brought in Graeco-Syrians from the surrounding areas. The urbanization and Hellenization of Palestine was continued by the emperor Septimius Severus (who reigned 193–211), except in Galilee, where the Jewish presence remained strong.
Evidence of Hadrian’s Jerusalem has been remarkably demonstrated by modern archaeology. In an ancient church in the village of Madaba in Jordan there is a wonderful Mosaic floor from the sixth century which portrays a map of the Holy Land. Jerusalem is depicted as having a long double colonnade of pillars running from North to south. This always puzzled modern historians who assumed it must have been the figment of the ancient artist’s imagination. Since 1967 archaeologists have found this very colonnade under the surface of the Old City. It is called ‘The Cardo’, has been re-opened and is now the site of some very high-class shops.
The repopulation of the Holy Land by non-Jewish residents in the second century meant that it followed the fortunes of the Roman Empire thereafter. When the Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the state religion round about 312 ce, Christian interest began to focus on Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth. The emperor himself built a magnificent church on the site of the Holy Sepulchre, the most sacred of Christian holy places. His mother, Helena, built two others — at the cave of the Nativity at Bethlehem and the site of the Ascension in Jerusalem. The church of the Nativity at Bethlehem became the residence for the scholar Jerome, who was given the task by Pope Damasus of translating the whole of the Bible into Latin, from the original Hebrew and Greek. Thus out of fourth century Palestine came the Vulgate, which remained the standard version of the Bible in the Western world for more than a thousand years.
Palestine began to attract floods of pilgrims from all parts of the Roman Empire. It also became a great centre of the early monastic life; men flocked from all quarters to become hermits in the Judaean wilderness, which was soon dotted with monasteries. It began a new era of prosperity for Palestine. When Constantine added part of Arabia, the enlarged Palestine was divided into three provinces: Prima, with its capital at Caesarea; Secunda, with its capital at Scythopolis (Bet Shean); and Salutaris, with its capital at Petra.
After the Fall of Rome in 410 the seat of Roman rule not only shifted Eastward to Constantinople, built on the old Byzantium, but the Roman Empire became increasingly Christian. The Holy Land became an important religious centre of the Byzantine Empire, and the majority of its inhabitants by this time were Christian. The bishop of Caesarea was metropolitan of the province. Then the bishop of Jerusalem began to claim a special prerogative by virtue of where he came from. At the time of the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451, Juvenal, the then bishop of Jerusalem, was recognized as a patriarch.
Palestine, like Syria and Egypt, was troubled by the theological controversies then dividing the church throughout the empire. The Monophysite Controversy was one in which Christians debated whether the person of Jesus Christ comprised two natures — one human and one divine — or only one nature. When Juvenal the Bishop of Jerusalem returned from the Council of Chalcedon, which defined the orthodox position which he had agreed to, the monks of Palestine rose up and elected another bishop, and military force was required to subdue them. After that, Palestine became a stronghold of orthodoxy, whereas the Christians of Egypt adopted monophysitism, eventually becoming the Coptic Church.
In the seventh century disaster struck the Holy Land. First came the Persian invasion in 611. Jerusalem was captured in 614, many churches throughout the land were destroyed and the Persians carried off what had had been claimed to be the True Cross. In 628 the Byzantine forces recaptured Palestine and even restored the True Cross to Jerusalem. Only ten years later, in 638, Jerusalem fell to the Muslim Arabs.
Thus for the four hundred years after the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem, the Holy Land was first Romanized and then Christianized. The arrival of the new religion of Islam brought a dramatic change which was to shape the Holy Land for the next fourteen hundred years.
The new religion of Islam founded by Muhammad spread with lightning speed. Within the short space of forty years it dominated the whole of the Middle East from Egypt to India. This new movement was destined not only to change the character of the Holy Land but to play an important role in human history from then right up until the present.
It is quite misleading to judge Islam by the actions of today’s Muslim terrorists. The original success of Muhammad rests on the fact that he successfully brought the warring tribes of Arabia into a unified people.
Islam is, by its very title, the religion of peace, seeking to bring all nations and peoples into one world-wide brotherhood by a common allegiance to one simple and basic truth — submission to the one and only true God, whose divine will is revealed in the Qur’an.
Islam is closely related to both Judaism and Christianity and claims to be the fulfilment of them both. Muslims assert that Abraham was the very first Muslim, that Jesus was a true prophet in succession to all the Israelite prophets, and that Muhammad was the last of the succession. All Muslims believe in the virgin birth of Jesus; indeed the Qur’an has a lot more to say about the Virgin Mary than the New Testament does.
Moreover, Muhammad taught the Arab people to regard themselves as the descendants of Abraham through his son Ishmael, just as Jews have long seen themselves as the descendants of Abraham through his son Isaac. Thus Islam is actually closer to Judaism than it is to Christianity. A Jewish scholar has put it this way. ‘Islam is Judaism transplanted among the Arab people, whereas Christianity is Judaism transformed for the Gentile people’.
It is because of these close connections with Christianity that Islam made deep inroads into Byzantine Christianity. Many Christians converted to Islam, as numbers do even to this day, because Islam is very simple to understand and to practice. It has high ideals for social life and asserts that all people of all nations and of all classes are equal.
This new faith swept out of Arabia like a whirlwind, led by Omar (634–644), the second Caliph or successor to Muhammad, but soon met with resistance. The Byzantine emperor mustered a large army and dispatched it against the Muslims. But he lost the decisive battle which took place in 636 on the Yarmuk river, and by the year 640 the whole of the Holy Land, including Jerusalem and Caesarea, was in Muslim hands. Omar now ruled the whole of Syria and Palestine from his seat of government in Damascus.
Omar lost no time in demonstrating the intense interest which Islam has in the Holy Land. Jerusalem is still the third most holy Muslim spot in the world, next to Mecca and Medina, but at the very beginning of Islam it held the number one slot. Muhammad, following Jewish practice, taught his followers to turn towards Jerusalem when they prayed. Only as late as 623, did Muhammad himself change the qibla (or direction) to Mecca, in disappointment that the Jewish people had not accepted him as the last of their prophets. So when Omar visited the Temple mount in Jerusalem, and found it sadly neglected, he joined his followers in clearing it with his own hands in order to turn it into a sacred place of prayer.
Some fifty years later, in 691, the caliph ‘Abd al-Malik erected the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount on the very site where once stood the Temple of Solomon. In late Jewish tradition this site became associated with Abraham and the story of how he almost sacrificed Isaac his son. This Abrahamic tradition influenced Muhammad also. It gave rise to the popular Islamic tradition that it was from this spot that Gabriel took Muhammad on his famous night-journey into heaven, to view for himself all that had been revealed to him in the Qur’an. The Dome of the Rock is the oldest Muslim monument still extant. It is not a mosque but a monument commemorating past holy events. Nearby, and also on the Temple Mount, is the al-Aqsa mosque, built by ‘Abd al-Malik’s son, al-Walid I (completed ca. 705 ce).
This is how Palestine became incorporated into the Islamic world and how Jerusalem became for Muslims a holy city. During the next 150 years the whole area of the Middle East embraced the Arabic language and became shaped by Islamic culture. The Ummayyad caliph ‘Umar II imposed humiliating restrictions on his non-Muslim subjects, particularly the Christians. That is why many Christians in the Holy Land converted to Islam. These conversions to Islam, together with a steady tribal inflow from the desert, changed the religious character of Palestine’s inhabitants. The mainly Christian population gradually became predominantly Muslim. Some Christian communities, however, remained steadfast in their allegiance and have survived to the present. During the early years of the Muslim control of the city, a small permanent Jewish population returned to Jerusalem after a 500-year absence.
A significant change came from 750 onwards. The rule of the Ummayyad dynasty from Damascus was replaced by the rule of the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad. The next four centuries were to witness the development and flowering of an Islamic civilization which stretched from Spain to India. But the very size of it meant that it could not be wholly ruled from one centre — Baghdad. A new Shi’ite dynasty, known as the Fatimids, rose to power in North Africa, seized Egypt, Palestine and Syria and even threatened Baghdad itself. Once, again, as so often in the past, Palestine became a battlefield and suffered much hardship. The behaviour of the Fatimid ruler was at times erratic and extremely harsh, particularly toward his non-Muslim subjects. He reactivated earlier discriminatory laws imposed upon Christians and Jews and added new ones. In 1009 he even ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Then a new invader came on the scene from the East — the Seljuk Turks. In 1071 the Seljuks captured Jerusalem, and for a while, in spite of great political instability, the Holy Land prospered as pilgrimages to it by Jews, Christians, and Muslims increased. The Fatimids recaptured the city in 1098 only to relinquish it a year later to a new enemy, this time from the West. These were the crusaders from Western Europe, who came at the call of the Pope to rescue the Christian holy sites from the infidel.
The crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099 and on Christmas Day 1100 they established the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. Thereafter they expanded their sphere of influence with no effective check occurring until the sultan Saladin arrived to wage a relentless war against them. In 1187 he dealt the crusaders a crushing blow at the decisive battle of Hattin. Most of Palestine was once again Muslim.
Though the period of the Crusades was less than 200 years, it nevertheless left a permanent mark on the Holy Land. There are still Crusader castles dotted round the countryside, some of them, such as Kerak in Jordan and Krak des Chevaliers in Syria are in remarkably good condition. The crusaders built a chain of castles to protect the Holy Land from eastern invasion and they intended their buildings to last.
The crusaders found themselves as the meat in the sandwich between two opposing forces more powerful than themselves. The Turkish-speaking Mamluks had seized power in Egypt and the Mongols suddenly arrived from the East. To make matters worse, there were incessant quarrels among the crusaders themselves. In 1260 the Mamluks defeated the Mongols in a battle waged in Palestine and thereafter harassed the crusaders until the last of them were driven out of Acre in 1291.
That brought another chapter in the history of Palestine to an end. Yet crusader influence remained. The blood of the crusaders still flows in the Christian communities round Bethlehem and Nazareth. H.V. Morton, the very popular travel writer between the two world wars, wrote a best-seller on Palestine in 1934, called In the Steps of the Master. When he visited Bethlehem he said,
Here the Crusaders are still alive. Although they call themselves Christian Arabs, their faces are Flemish and French and perhaps English. The dress of the Bethlehem woman, which is unique, is also a memory of the Crusades. The married women wear a high headdress covered with a flowing veil. It is the headdress worn by princesses in European fairy tales (p. 120).
As we noted in the first article, Palestine was the natural bridge between Africa and Asia. So it was rarely free for very long from invasions, chiefly from the East. After the Crusaders left, Palestine prospered for a while under the Egyptian Mamluks, especially in Jerusalem.
Then came a second wave of Mongols. It made the name of Tamerlane a symbol of destruction and plunder. Although Palestine was largely spared the pillage of his hordes, it could not escape its disastrous repercussions as the Mamluks moved through in a vain attempt to defend Damascus against the invader. Moreover Tamerlane had so weakened Iran that the way was now open for the next wave of Turks from the East — the Ottomans.
In 1516, the Ottoman sultan routed the Mamluk armies and Palestine began its four centuries under Ottoman domination. This was the period in which Suleiman the Magnificent (1494–1566) built the main walls which exist today round the Old City of Jerusalem. It was he who had the Dome of the Rock faced with the glorious blue and turquoise tiles that make it such an attractive sight.
A Melting Pot
This sketch of the history of the Holy Land over the last 1800 years makes it clear just who the Palestinians are. The Palestinians do not have a common ethnic origin or a common religion. What joins them together is simply the fact that they and their ancestors have lived in the land of Palestine from as far back as any of them can record. In their veins run the blood of the ancient Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders and Turks.
It is somewhat ironic to find that if we go back three thousand years we find a very similar phenomenon. As shown in the first article, the people of ancient Israel, far from being of one ethnic stock, resulted chiefly from the fusion of the indigenous Canaanites and the incoming Aramaean tribes, with a sprinkling of other ethnic groups as well. There were pockets left from the retreating Hittite Empire, as the story of Uriah the Hittite so clearly illustrates. And did not Solomon boast of his many foreign wives? In the case both of the ancient Israelites and of the present day Palestinians, it was land possession which gave them their unity.
It must be fully conceded that the Palestinians are a very mixed group of people. Although the Palestinians all speak Arabic that is simply because that has been the language of the whole area from Egypt to Iraq from about the eighth century. Each group of Palestinians traces its ancestry over differing lengths of time. The majority of Palestinians, of course, are Muslim and date their occupation of the land from the Islamic conquest onwards.
But going even much further back are the Samaritans. They claim to be the descendants of the ancient Kingdom of Israel, which established their capital at Samaria. When the Jews returned from the Babylonian Exile there was a century or so in which the returning Jews developed an association with them, just as they did with the Jewish peasantry round Jerusalem, who had never gone into exile. This is shown by the fact that the Samaritan Bible consists simply of the Pentateuch or Five books of Moses, which was at that time the sum-total of the Jewish Holy Scripture. The Samaritans also have synagogues and celebrate the Passover.
But in the fourth century bce a schism developed between the Jews and Samaritans. That is why we read in the New Testament (John 4:9) that ‘the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans’. It is this fact that adds poignancy to the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. It is quite strange that this group have been able to retain their identity all through the Roman, Byzantine, Crusader and Muslim periods right down to the present even though they now number only about five hundred. This is partly because they live in semi-isolation, marrying only within their own community. They are mainly to be found at Nablus but also reside just south of Tel Aviv.
A much larger minority group of Palestinians are the Christians. They are chiefly around Bethlehem, Nazareth and in the northern villages. Altogether they may make up about ten per cent of the Palestinian population. Christians of every variety are now there. Some, as we have seen, have the blood of the crusaders in their veins. But the oldest of them trace their ancestry back to the Byzantine period when the whole of Palestine was Christian.
Another interesting minority of Palestinians are the Druzes. These belong to an offshoot of mainline Islam, which formed in the eleventh century. There are about 200,000 altogether and although they are confined to a relatively small geographical area, they now find they are separated from one another by being forced to be citizens of four different countries — Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel. This is simply because the present national boundaries were placed there by western powers after two world wars.
What joins all these disparate groups together is the fact that they are descendants of people who have long inhabited the Holy Land and they now find that they have been dispossessed of the land which they took to be rightfully theirs.
When the Jews were at last able to return from their Dispersion to establish the new state of Israel, it should have been something to rejoice in. The sad and painful irony is this: the overcoming of one dispersion was at the expense of causing another — that of the Palestinians. Many wealthy Palestinian merchants from Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem fled to Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan, while the middle class tended to move to all-Arab towns such as Nablus and Nazareth. The majority of peasants ended up in refugee camps. More than 350 Arab villages just disappeared, along with all Arab life in Jaffa and along the coast. Before 1947 there were about 1,300,000 non-Jewish Palestinians in Palestine. 150,000 remained in the state of Israel. The West Bank swelled from 400,000 to 700,000. About 190,000 fled to the Gaza Strip. About 300,000 left Palestine altogether, 100,000 going to Lebanon, 100,000 to Jordan, 80,000 to Syria, 8,000 to Egypt, and 4,000 to Iraq.
Since the June war in 1967 the plight of the Palestinians has grown much worse. Natural increase has raised their number to about 3 million. Some remain in forced exile abroad. Some are in refugee camps in Jordan in quite intolerable conditions. Some live within Israel but often complain of being treated as second-class citizens. The majority live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under conditions of occupation by a foreign power. The Palestinians now feel they have been completely dispossessed in the land to which they thought they had a natural right by birth and ancestry.
How did this situation arise? How is it that two peoples — Israelis and Palestinians — are now in competition for possession of the same piece of territory, each believing its rights are both legitimate and strong? Who, if anybody, must bear chief responsibility for this almost insoluble conflict? That is what we shall explore in the next article.[one_half]
Morton, H. V. In the Steps of the Master. London: Rich & Cowan Ltd., 1934.
Lloyd Geering is Foundation Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington and the author of several books including Christian Faith at the Crossroads and Tomorrow’s God. His new book, Christianity without God, appeared in 2002.
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