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Many people have questions due to the war in Israel that began in the fall of 2023. Is Palestine a legitimate nation? Are Palestinian indigenous people being pushed out or occupied by the Israelis? Does Israel have any valid claims to the land it currently calls “home”? We hope to offer informed answers to these questions (and more!). Away from all the bluster of mainstream media and politically correct pundits, let’s journey deeper into the historical, biblical, and political realities surrounding the word, “Palestine.”
In light of the events of October 7th, the term “Palestine” has featured prominently in news headlines and personal conversations. There is a lot of passion surrounding this subject, so let’s take a closer look at “Palestine” and what it represents. “Palestine” refers to an area of the eastern Mediterranean region, now comprising the modern state of Israel. In the Arab narrative, this area is Occupied Historic Palestine. It includes the Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip (along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea) and the West Bank (west of the Jordan River), which some refer to as the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Key to all of this is the term “Occupation.” Israel’s critics intentionally use the word to denote an illegal act of violence. So, let us first examine the “historic” claim, and then we can investigate the “occupied.”
Associations of the term Palestine with this small region have been varied and sometimes controversial, as some have asserted it also includes the nation of Jordan. The geographic area designated by this name and its political status have changed frequently over three millennia. A significant part of the region is known as the “Holy Land” and is held sacred among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. But from a strictly historical perspective, the territory was originally Canaanite.
Within this largely Canaanite land was a Greek coastal settlement, Pentapolis. The Greeks called it Phulistinoi. The Hebrews would refer to it as Philistim. In modern English, we know it as Philistia. A unified Israelite nation-state emerged within this region under the reign of King Saul. It became a consolidated kingdom under King David and enjoyed relative peace under his son, Solomon. The Israelite kingdom finally split following a civil war under David’s grandson, King Rehoboam. This war resulted in a “Northern Kingdom”—known throughout much of the Hebrew Bible as Israel—and a “Southern Kingdom”—known as Judah (from which the modern word Jew comes). Following the Assyrian conquest in the 8th century BCE, this Northern Kingdom would be called Samaria. It is important to note that while the inhabitants of this land, Judeans and Samaritans, have at various times been conquered (and indeed occupied) by Babylonians, Seleucid Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, various Arabic Empires, Crusaders, etc., they have never left the land, their ancestral home, despite being incentivized to do so, and forcibly converted to other religions.
The Philistines, however, as a distinct people group—either genetically or culturally—did not survive the Babylonian conquests of the Nebuchadnezzar II over this region early in the 6th century BCE. The invaders so thoroughly removed the Philistines from the area that archeologists were unable to locate even a single cemetery until 2016. These historical details raise critical questions about the integrity of “Historical Palestine.” How can one refer to this land after the name of a people group that disappeared from the face of the earth more than 2,500 years ago?
This is where things take a fascinating turn. The Roman Empire fought three exceedingly costly wars with the Jewish people, ending with the Bar Kochba revolt. In 135, the Roman Emperor Hadrian was determined not to fight another battle in the region. He issued a decree expelling Jews from Jerusalem. He also renamed the area “Syria Palaestina” or simply “Palestina,” a Latin revival of the Greek term. Hadrian did this with considerable forethought. He sought to insult the Jews by naming their homeland after their biblical and historical enemies. Secondly, this was an intentional attempt to erase Jewish identity. Finally, of all of the Jew’s ancient enemies, Hadrian specifically chose the Philistines because they no longer existed. Remember: he wanted to end wars with people who could claim the land.
After the Roman era, the area had no official status until after World War I and the termination of the Ottoman Empire’s rule. At the time, what we now know as Israel was one of the regions mandated to Great Britain. You may be surprised to learn that this “mandate” also included the territory east of the Jordan River, which currently comprises the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. However, it is crucial to note that the term “Palestine” still had no official status then. It would be much like a person from the Southern states of the U.S. claiming they are a unique people group.
Even in modern times, the terms Palestinian and Palestine were not exclusive to a particular people group until very recently and did not refer to an Arabic people. The Jerusalem Post, for instance, was originally named the Palestinian Post. “Palestine” and “Palestinian” are historical designations for a region, much like Byzantium and Byzantine. For example, the Romans (Eastern or Western) never referred to the Eastern Roman Empire as “Byzantium.” Still, it is a general designator for the region and things that took place there during a specific historical era. As recently as the Six-Day War (1967), Jews born in the modern state of Israel were called “Palestinians,” while the Arab population was made up of “Palestinian Arabs.” This terminology didn’t entirely shift until 1968.
With the understanding that Palestine was just a general geographical region, which the U.N. decided in 1948 to carve into an Arab state (Jordan) and a Jewish state (Israel), we can now address the question of “occupation.” Webster’s dictionary defines this sort of occupation as: “the holding and control of an area by a foreign military force” (emphasis added). One cannot logically consider the inhabitants of this land—who were recognized as “Palestinian” until 1968—a foreign military force simply because they are ethnically or religiously Jewish. In the U.S., there is a word for people who say those of other ethnicities are “foreigners” and don’t belong: “racist.” We should ask what makes it any different when applied to Israel.
Continue the conversation, more on the Israel-Hamas War Here
 See 1Samuel 2Samuel and 1Kings for a more detailed history.
 2 Kings 17
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