So, just how were the Palestinians lost to the Jewish people? Gradually - and tragically - says Tsvi Misinai. In his book, Brother Shall Not Lift Sword Against Brother, based on research he has done among the Palestinians and from the historical record, Misinai cites figures that indicate that there were anywhere between 10 million and 30 million people in the ancient world of "Jewish extraction" - practicing Jews, Samaritans, Jewish believers in Jesus and descendants of the converts of the Moabite, Edomites and other nations that became attached to the Jewish people over the generations. More than six million lived in the Land of Israel, with the rest of the Jewish population spread throughout the Roman Empire, Egypt and Babylon.
After the destruction of the Temple and the occupation of the country by the Romans, many Jews were killed or exiled, sold into slavery in Rome. Others fled to Babylon or other points east (there are whole Kurdish tribes, for example, where the vast majority of members carry the "kohen gene," says Misinai).
Most of those who fled or were exiled were those living in Jerusalem and the coastal region, where the Romans had a strong presence. The mountain folk, "tillers of the soil," were left more or less alone, due to the difficulty of navigating the hills. Even when the Arabs invaded what the Romans renamed Palestine, the Jewish communities of the hills in Judea and Samaria remained more or less intact.
In 1012, though, their luck finally ran out; those who had maintained their Jewish identity and their connection with the Land of Israel were offered the stark choice of conversion or exile by Shi'ite caliph Al-Hakim. Most of the Christianized Jews, who had more or less forgotten their identities already, left the country for greener pastures in Asia Minor and Europe, but many of the Jews remained, converting to Islam - but, Marrano-like, clinging to whatever Jewish customs they could.
Although Al-Hakim's decree was lifted several decades later, many of the secret Jews - whom Misinai terms the "Musta'arbim" - decided not to return to open Judaism, preferring to keep up their external Muslim identity, which exempted them from various taxes and penalties imposed on the "dhimmis." Many young Jews saw that it was possible to be "Jewish on the inside and Muslim on the outside" while accruing material benefits (there was no Islamic inquisition organized to check the "purity" of converts), and opted for the Musta'arbi path as well.
But as among the Marranos, Jewish identity was difficult to keep up, and as further historical tragedies unfolded - the Crusades, the Mameluke invasion and, in what was the final blow, the famines and disease that raged throughout the 16th century, the country became nearly depopulated. The converted Jews tried their luck in different places in the Arab world, moving back and forth to the Land of Israel when they were able to. But the wandering made it too difficult for most to keep up their secret Jewish identities.
The Edomites and Moabites, meanwhile, had lived in their ancestral lands east of the Jordan River continually, but were more subject to forced conversion to Islam because of their proximity to Arabia - and because they were more removed from the Jewish people (although, says Misinai, they were among the fiercest fighters against the Romans). During the famines of the 16th century, which struck the entire region, many of these "brethren of Israel" emigrated to Persia, where they were subject to the rule of Shi'ite fanatics (an attitude that has prevailed until today). There they lost touch with their Jewish roots, being forced to juggle yet another identity to stay off the radar of the harsh religious disciplinarians there.
As things improved in the 18th and 19th century, many of those who left returned, moving back and forth between present day Jordan and Israel, with the former mountain dwellers returning to their ancient homes, and the Edomites, Moabites and descendants of the Roman army settling in the plains. It is these groups who comprise the bulk of the 1948 refugees, fleeing the villages when the Jews declared an independent state.
(In his book, Misinai discusses the circumstances of their leaving, and determines that there are far fewer refugees and descendants than is widely believed, because of the Palestinians' taking advantage of UNRWA's largesse, which doles out free food and aid without asking questions. But that's another story.)