The long history of Palestine

Issue: 162

Mark Krantz

A review of Nur Masalha, Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History (Zed Books, 2018), £20

The construction of a people as illegitimate is gathering pace: the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism (which includes “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” as an example), the new Nationality Law in Israel, further settlement expansion in the occupied territories, continual siege of Gaza. All these oppressive measures go hand in hand with a political project that attempts to deny Palestinian existence, and denigrate Palestinians as a people without a history.

In Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History, Nur Masalha has produced an impressive work that challenges those who are trying to erase the Palestinians from history. The book locates the “multicultural identity and shared histories of Palestine in a very long history of the whole region”. Masalha has written a comprehensive history of Palestine to counter those “histories” that are based on biblical scripture and “omit the Palestinians from their own history”, or, as is the case with the “New Histories” of “Israel-Palestine”, that speak on the Palestinians’ behalf “while omitting Palestinian voices”.

Masalha starts by charting the “historical beginnings and ancient roots of the name Palestine”. The English name Palestine comes from the Old French name Philistine, which comes from the classical Latin Philistinus (Palastina), which in turn comes from late Classical Greek speaking Philistinoi. He draws on maps, coins, and mosaics to provide physical evidence of the long history of Palestine. Coins were minted in the urban centres in Palestine through many historical periods: the coinage of “Philistia of 6th-4th century BC”; the Arab-Byzantine coins of the 7th century; the “vast quantities of coins bearing the mint name Filistan”. All provide material evidence of the importance of Palestine as a centre for trade with a level of autonomy.

Palestine is found on the earliest known maps beginning in Late Antiquity and the famous “world map” of Claudius Ptolemy (170 AD). In Florence around 1480 a map of “Palestina Moderna et Terra Sancta” was published. There is a collection of Arab Jewish fragments of manuscripts, starting in the period 870 AD, that covers a millennium and is a testimony to the “flourishing culture of Arab-Jews” during the Ottoman period. Masalha chronicles in detail the ecclesiastical autonomy of Palestine during the Byzantine era (5th and 6th centuries), and the rise of the All Palestine Church of Jerusalem with the power to appoint Palestinian bishops.

Extensive evidence shows that from the Bronze Age to the modern era, across more than three millennia, Palestine with its shifting boundaries has—as a country—existed. Yet denial of the existence of Palestine is at the heart of the “scriptural history” and “scriptural geography” taught in Israel today. This is a history the treats Old Testament Bible stories as factual. Within the Israeli education system a tailored reading of Bible stories is provided to all children and college students “to create a notion of continuity with a biblical past”. So Abraham was the first “Zionist”, migrating to Palestine; Joshua led the conquest of Palestine and saw the wiping out of the Canaanites (just like today); and King David conquered Jerusalem (just like today).

According to Masalha, “claiming this ancient mythology as history is an essential part of Zionist secular nationalism”. The Israeli defence minister has published a chronology of biblical events, complete with exact dates for the creation of the world. Army issue bibles are given to all Israeli Defence Force soldiers; the geography described in the Bible is used to provide a topological map of the “land of Israel” today. This “past” is used to justify and validate the continuous oppression of the Palestinian people today. But these scriptural histories ignore archaeological and material facts.

After more than 150 years and thousands of biblical excavations carried out in and around the old city of Jerusalem there is still no archaeological or empirical evidence for the “United Kingdom of David and Solomon” described in the Bible. There are, however, Assyrian sources that report a David who was a small tribal leader in Judea around the 7th century BC. There is no archaeological evidence of an exodus of Hebrew slaves escaping from Egypt as described in the Passover story.

More recently “new histories of Israel” have arisen in the period of the so-called Israel/Palestine peace process. These histories subsume Palestine and obscure the long history of the country under the rubric of “Israel-Palestine”. They offer no explanation as to why a “new state (Israel) which was created in 1948 should come before the name of a country (Palestine) which has existed for millennia”. Why is there a “Tel Aviv-Jaffa” peninsula when Jaffa has been a Palestinian city for more than a thousand years? For Masalha, “Palestine cannot be treated as a mere appendix to modern Israel.”

The book contains a comprehensive catalogue of “the naming and re-naming of Palestine’s sites/cities/towns and villages” that has been used as a “major weapon of the Zionist project to detach the Palestinians from the history of the country”.

Masalha is also critical of historical approaches to Palestine that are constructed as a chronology of empires. The history of Palestine is more than just a history of succeeding imperial conquests from without (Roman, Ottoman, British). There are many examples that show how “Palestine enjoyed a great deal of social, political, and economic autonomy.” Examples provided include: economic and monetary systems based on issuing Palestinian currency; the development of local and autonomous regional “urban notables” of Ottoman Palestine; the administrative, provincial and military autonomy in Roman and Byzantine periods and the emergence of several Palestinian client states, as well as a high level of ecclesiastical independence.

A Zionist reading of Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History would no doubt raise the question: “But where are the Jews?” For Zionist historians the Jews have a separate history from the Palestinians. Yet Josephus, the classical Jewish writer (37-100AD) reports on the “four thousand Essenes”, a Jewish sect that flourished and lived in Palestine and Syria. And Palestinian Jews during the Roman and Byzantine period all spoke Palestinian Aramaic.

Masalha shows how Judaism was rooted in and based on faith, not territory. For thousands of years Judaism had “nothing to do with modern ideological constructs of race and identity”. Religious pluralism was always at the heart of the identity of Palestine. Things only began to “change ideologically and radically in the 19th century under the impact of European theories of social Darwinism when being Jewish was reinvented into a racial identity”. It was in this period that political Zionism arose, a project with “ambitions to create a new Hebrew society that would be different from the Jewish life in the diaspora”. In 1948 Zionists built a new (and pure) Jewish city of Tel Aviv, Israel. This new society would not be like the “multi-religious and pluralistic” Jerusalem or the old city of Jaffa.

Masalha’s long history gives Palestine and Palestinians a voice, a history that brings to life the “multi layered heritage of Palestine, a history of mixed styles and contradictory traditions, a history full of twists and turns, of memory and forgetfulness and of suppression and recovery”.

Mark Krantz is the author of Rise Like Lions: The History and Lessons of the Peterloo Massacre and a member of the SWP in Manchester.