Since 1964, the name “Palestine” has been associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization, whose charter claims, in Article 23, the right “to liberate Palestine in accordance with the fundamental law of this Organization.” For the PLO, all of the Land of Israel is Palestine.
So what are the origins of the name Palestine, and what is its connection to the Land of Israel?
Where does Palestine come from?
While several biblical references have the borders of the Land of Israel reaching “from the entrance of Hamath [in Syria, beyond the mountains of Lebanon] unto the brook of Egypt [the Nile], the term Eretz Israel, or “Land of Israel,” first appears in the Book of Samuel 1, written circa 630-540 BCE. The action in Samuel 1 has the Israelite tribes back home in the land in c.1650 BCE, 450 years after they left.
Meanwhile, the oldest archaeological reference to Israelites living in the land originally known as Canaan, chronologically in sync with the c.3,200-year-old biblical Exodus story, comes from the c.1200 BCE Egyptian engraved stone slab Merneptah Stele, describing their language, culture, and monotheism.
Fast forward to the close of the 19th century when traveling to “Palestine” becomes fashionable in Europe. The Palestine Exploration Fund is founded in London in 1865 by academics and clergymen under the patronage of Queen Victoria. Use of the name “Palestine” is based on the 3rd-century BCE Greek translation of the Septuagint, in which the name “Israel” is exchanged with Palaistin. Etymologically, the translation utilizes palaistis meaning “wrestler/rival/adversary” in the Genesis story of Jacob’s all-night wrestle/struggle with the angel of Esau until, victorious at dawn, he is renamed “Israel.”
Jacob’s sons are the fathers of the 12 Tribes of Israel, they and their descendants are the B’nai Yisrael, “Children of Israel,” who return to the land of Canaan after Egypt, during the Iron Age. The Book of Joshua, completed in 586-537 BCE describes the Hebrews’ 13th century BCE conquest of Canaan under Joshua Bin-Nun. Archaeological evidence of the book’s accounts is extant.
The first known reference we have to Palestine as “a district of Syria, called ‘Palaistin,’” comes mid-5th-century, in Greek historian and geographer Herodotus’s magnum The Histories. He writes: “This part of Syria, and all the region extending from hence to Egypt, is known by the name Palaistin.” First-century Judeo-Roman historian Flavius Josephus also quotes Herodotus as explaining that “the Syrians in Palaistin are circumcised.” Josephus comments: “No other of the Syrians that live in Palestine, besides us [the Jews] alone, are circumcised.” In his four-volume treatise Meteorology (340 BCE), Aristotle describes the Dead Sea as “a lake in Palaistin, such that if you bind a man or beast and throw it in, it floats and does not sink.”
Later, the term “Judaea” is used by Greek historian Hecataeus of Abdera and philosopher Clearchus of Soli and Egyptian priest Manetho in the early 3rd-4th centuries BCE, indicating the area inhabited predominantly by Jews. In his polemical work Contra Apionem, Josephus (who uses “Judaea” to reference both the Roman Provincia Judaea and the Land of Israel) writes that “Syrians” call the Jews Judaei, and that these “took their name from the country they inhabit, which is called Judaea.”
In 40 CE, Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria writes that Moses “conducted his people as a colony into Phoenicia, and into the Coele-Syria, and Palaestina, which was at that time called the land of the Canaanites, the borders of which country were three days’ journey distant from Egypt.”
Roman emperor Claudius also refers to the land as “Judaea,” in his first century CE letter to the Alexandrians. Roman coins (issued by Vespasian, 80-81 CE) before the failed 132 CE Jewish Revolt are stamped, “Judaea Capta.” Punitatively, emperor Hadrian changes the appellation, “Judaea,” to “Palaestina.” By the early 2nd century CE, it becomes “Syria Palaestina.” Yet Plutarch – a priest of Apollo at Delphi – and other early 2nd-century CE writers call the land “Judaea.” In his elegy, Ars Amatoria, Roman poet Ovid mentions the Jewish Sabbath as “the seventh-day feast that the Syrians of Palaistin observe.” Subsequently, 4th century CE Jerome, patron saint of translators, speaks of “Judaea, which is now called Palaestina.” Likewise, Eusebius of Caesarea identifies the Syrians, “who invented the alphabet,” as “Hebrews who inhabited the country adjacent to Phoenicia, which was itself called Phoenicia in ancient times but afterward Judaea.”
Under the Byzantines, Syria Palaestina and neighboring areas become Dioceses Orientis (“eastern dioceses”) divided into Palaestina Prima (center, coast, Judea and Samaria); Palaestina Secunda (northern Transjordan, lower Jezreel Valley, Galilee, Golan); and Palaestina Tertia, or Salutaris (Negev, southern Transjordan, parts of Sinai).
The first Muslim presence in the area is the 629 CE invasion by Arabs from the Hejaz. After the Fath es-Sam, or “Muslim conquest,” of Byzantine Syria c. 634-638 CE during the Rashidun Caliphate, the Jund Filastin (“military district of Palestine”) is created on most of Palaestina Prima and Palaestina Tertia. Its capital is the newly built Ramla.
In July 1922, the League of Nations – following the Sykes-Picot Agreement and San Remo Conference – approves a British Mandate for Palestine. Ten years later, after the first-ever Maccabiah Games take place in Tel Aviv, the first Jewish English-language newspaper in Israel is founded by Gershom Agron in Jerusalem. Called The Palestine Post from its foundation on December 1, 1932, it becomes The Jerusalem Post on April 23, 1950, almost two years after the dissolution of “Mandatory Palestine.” ■
The writer is a veteran editor at The Jerusalem Post.