Palestine between Israel and Israel

Matthew Gindin
5 min readNov 29, 2022

What happened between the exile of the Jews and the Zionist return?

Photo by Haley Black:

“Palestine” is a very old name for the region that more or less maps onto what Jews called Eretz Yisrael, one that goes back to 12 century BCE Egyptian inscriptions which call the area Paleset. Assyrian inscriptions from the 8th and 7th century BC refer to the same region as “Palshtu” or “Pilistu”, and the ancient Greeks and then Romans gave the area the name Palestine.

These names are rooted in the heavy presence of Philistines in the area, a people little is known about, and who may have originated in the Mediterranean. They have been lost to history, though graveyards and other archaeological evidence in Israel confirms their existence. The Philistines and the tribes of Israel fought for control of the land, according to the Hebrew Bible, for centuries, before the Philistines were defeated by the rising Israeli monarchy.

Throughout history Palestine has been a land of many peoples. The Hebrew Bible relates that Abraham and his family were a small clan which lived amongst at least seven major tribes in Cana’an (as it was then known to Jews). When Jews became numerically and politically superior we became the dominant force in the area and claimed that it had been given to us by our God, YHVH, in order to build a utopian state of justice, kindness and freedom as outlined in our Torah. On the ground, though, the area was always shared with other peoples who had their own historical, cultural and political claims to the land. The Torah itself assumes there will be many non-Jews in Israel and warns us to “love the stranger” and create “one law for the Jew and non-Jew who resides among you.”

After the land we called Israel was reduced, by invasion and colonization, to the Kingdom of Judah and then the Roman Province of Palestine, it became a multicultural province of the Roman Empire. By the 4th century CE it was a polyglot land of people from all over the Empire, including a growing contingent of Christians descended from Arab, Jewish, and other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean roots. Jews were by then a minority, having centred their culture outside the land after the Roman Imperial machine had disempowered them. Palestine became a province of the Byzantine Empire, home to a majority Christian population, from the 4th century until the area fell to Muslim rule in 638 CE. It then became known as Filastin, part of the larger Muslim province of Al-Shab.

The region was culturally Arabized as a consequence of the inclusion of Palestine within the rapidly expanding Arab Empire. Palestine, which had been part of the Byzantine empire and had a large Christian population, came under the political and cultural influence of Arabic-speaking Muslim dynasties. It is interesting to note the result of this: from the 7th century until the 11th century half of the world’s Christians lived under the new Muslim empire. There was no substantial attempt in that period to forcibly convert them, but over time much, but not all of the existing population of Palestine was Arabized and gradually converted to Islam. It should be noted that like other “Arabized” regions the Arab identity of Palestinians is largely based on linguistic and cultural affiliation, not Arabian origins.

During this period Filastin was a culturally rich civilization of mostly Arab Christians and Muslims with a small population of (mostly Mizrahi) Jews. Ahl Filastin and Ard Filastin (‘ people of Palestine’ and ‘land of Palestine’) were used by Palestinian Arab writers in the 10th‒ 18th centuries long before the emergence of a Palestinian national movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The area had a unique regional culture due to its location between major civilizations and the presence of three Abrahamic faiths as well as small communities of other tribes, clans and local religions like Zoroastrians, Sabians, and other non-Abrahamic religions. The city of Al-Quds, formerly Aelia Capitolina, formerly Jerusalem, was an important center for local Muslims, who believed Mohammed had visited there and established a mosque before his famous “night flight” to visit the heavenly realms. The mosque, al-Aqsa, had been built over the ruins of the Jewish temple. As tragic as this was, it should be noted that this was done just as Jews had destroyed and built over the temples of non-Jewish nations when we first came to control the land.

Jerusalem, “The Eternal City Of The Jewish People”?

The phrase above is often repeated by Zionists, especially those of a Religious Zionist bent. Yet how much sense does it make? Bear with me as we look at some history in a bit of detail.

Jerusalem was first settled between 3500 and 4500 BCE by non-Jewish residents of Cana’an. By 1700 BCE it was a well established Canaanite city. In 1000 BCE (according to the Hebrew Bible) King David sacked the city, taking it from the Canaanites. It was under Jewish control for four hundred years before falling to Babylonians, then Persians, then Greeks and then Romans. During the Greek period Jerusalem was again ruled by Jews for 103 years under the Hasmonean Kingdom. Thus we Jews had sovereignty over Jerusalem for a total of about 500 years in ancient times. Jews lived there, however, for around a thousand years until they were expelled by the Romans in 136 CE, after which Jerusalem became the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina for about 500 years.

Muslims lived in and ruled Jerusalem from 638 CE until 1947, apart from an 88 year period where the city was taken by the crusaders. Thus Jerusalem was the Muslim city of al-Quds for almost 1200 years, ruled by Muslims 700 years longer than it was ruled by Jews. Jews historical, mythological and cultural ties to Jerusalem are very real, but we can see that so are Muslim and Christian ties to the city, as well as those of other peoples who have called it home.

For 1700 years, aside from the brutal skirmishes of the crusades, the peoples of Filastin lived more or less at peace with each other. The Ottoman Empire, whose capital was Constantinople, and which was known in the West as the Turkish Empire, controlled much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia and North Africa between the 14th and early 20th centuries.

The province of Filastin was controlled by the Muslim Ottomans from 1516 to 1917, when it was taken from them during WW1 by Britain and France, after the Ottoman Empire allied itself with Germany. For what happened next, see my Early Zionism and The Settling of Palestine.