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The term Palestine originates with the Philistines, who inhabited the southern coast of the region in biblical times. It fell into disuse with the disappearance of the Philistines c. 1000 B.C., but was reintroduced by the Romans following the Second Jewish Revolt ("Great Revolt") of Bar Kokhba of 132-135 A.D in the province of Judea. Historically, there was a clear distinction between Philistine and Judean territories; however, the Romans adopted the name for the province in an effort to erase any memories of the Judean rebels they defeated. Similarly, Jerusalem, Palestine's historic capital, was renamed Aelia Capitolina.
For nineteen hundred years afterwards, the region was subject to successive waves of invaders, each of which left some mark on its people and landscape. This can be attributed to Palestine's strategic location at the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe, and its unique religious status as a "Holy Land" to the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
In 1917, the British captured the region from the Ottoman Empire and called it Palestine, after the longstanding Roman name for the area. This came at a time of renewed interest in the country among the European powers, Arab nationalists, and Jewish Zionists, who sought to reestablish their ancient homeland there. Competition between the latter two groups came to a head immediately after World War II, when Zionist claims gained greater urgency after the murder of almost six million Jews in the Holocaust. The Zionists demanded an independent homeland to absorb the Jewish refugees from Europe; the local Arab population, by now called Palestinians, argued that they played no role in the Holocaust, so the refugee problem should not be resolved at their expense.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to partition what remained of the British Mandate of Palestine into two states: one Jewish, and one Arab. The proposal was rejected by the Palestinian Arabs and the surrounding Arab states but accepted by the Jews. On May 14, 1948, the Jewish population declared its independence as the state of Israel. Israel was promptly invaded by the armies of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria (for more information, see the article on the 1948 Arab-Israeli War). Large numbers of Palestinian Arabs fled during the fighting, while others were expelled from their homes in what is called in Arabic the Naqba, or "Tragedy." Israel managed to maintain its independence and even expand its borders, but a new refugee problem, this one of Palestinian Arabs, was created.
What remained of the territories allotted to the Arab state in Palestine was occupied by Jordan (the West Bank) and Egypt (the Gaza Strip) from 1948 to 1967, when Israel occupied those areas in the Six Day War. Since that time, the Palestinians have struggled to assert their own independence, either in all the territories of Palestine or in the West Bank and Gaza Strip particularly. To date, efforts to resolve the conflict have ended in deadlock, and the people of Palestine, Jews and Arabs, are engaged in a bloody conflict.
In current usage, then, the term Palestine describes the geographical area, the geopolitical unit in its colonial boundaries, or, most frequently, the proposed state of the Palestinian people.
The disputes of the last half century in Israel and Palestine have their immediate origins in the Zionist movement of the 19th century in Europe, and the rise of Arab nationalism in the second half of the 20th century, but the roots of the conflict go back millennia because of the religious beliefs related to this land.
Today, many Arabs, especially Palestinians, look back at the peoples in this land over the last millennium and hold them to be an indigenous Palestinian nation. Many historians disagree with this assessment, regarding it as a historical anachronism. There is little historical evidence that the Arabs in Palestine saw themselves as a united people or nationality prior to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was only with the rise of Arab nationalism in its current form in the first half of the 20th century that this perception began to change.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir claimed:
Many Palestinians today take great exception to any such former view. They interpret such views to mean that Israelis deny the existence of various Arab peoples in the land before 1948. The former position is often rejected or denied. While the historical situation is often argued about, there is no party in the Middle East conflict that would deny the existence of a de facto Palestinian nation today - which, many believe, is entitled to a state.
There are now somewhere between five and six million Arab Palestinians worldwide. Some live as a minority in Israel proper, some live in the West Bank and Gaza, but most are refugees in many parts of the world (mainly the Middle East, Europe, and North and South America). Many still live a life of diaspora, as displaced persons.
Few Palestinians have assimilated to their host countries; most Arab nations forbade Palestinian Arabs from becoming citizens in Arab nations. Most Palestinians still feel a sense of identity, with their Palestinian nationalism. Palestinians are working for their political and national rights in both the West Bank and in Arab nations, where they are still discriminated against.
Jews have been been living in Palestine as a minority virtually throughout its history. Being a major center for Jewish religious life (for instance it was where the Mishnah and the Palestinian Talmud were written), it has been the aim of numerous Jewish travellers from all over the Jewish world to visit there. At times, the Jews would deal in various crafts; in other cases they would be supported by contributions from communities abroad. Mentions of Jerusalem and the "Holy Land" were a major part of everyday Jewish rite; they were therefore never fully forgotten by the Jews.
Political History of Palestine to 1917
The earliest known people in Palestine were the Canaanites, who formed part of a wave of migration of Semitic peoples out of the Arabian Peninsula. Some of these peoples came to be known as the Israelites. Successive waves of migration brought other groups onto the scene, such as the Samaritans and the Phoenicians. For further discussion on the very early ethnic history of the region, see:
The exiled Jews who returned to their traditional home encountered the Jews that had remained, surrounded by non-Jews. One group of note (that exists up until this day) were the Samaritans, who adhered to most features of the Jewish rite and claimed to be descendants of the Assyrian Jews; they were not recognized as Jews by the returning exiles for various reasons (at least some of which seem to be political). The return of the exiles from Babylon reinforced the Jewish population, which gradually became more dominant and expanded significantly.
In 539 BC the Babylonians were annexed by the Persian Empire, which held Palestine until the time of Alexander the Great, who conquered Gaza and the surrounding areas in the early 330s BC After Alexander's death in 323 BC, his empire was partitioned, and the competing Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires occupied various portions of the eastern Mediterranean, including different parts of Palestine, until the Roman Empire swept through in 63 BC. Under the Romans the territory of Palestine was in nearly constant revolt, and a number of events with far-reaching consequences took place, including the founding of Christianity, the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by the Roman army and mass suicide of Zealots in 66-70, and the sacking of the entire city of Jerusalem by the Romans in 132. (Some sources mark the failed Jewish revolts as the beginning of the Diaspora).
Over several centuries, the Diaspora grew even further. In addition to the large Jewish community in Babylon, large numbers of Jews settled in Egypt, and in other parts of the Hellenistic world and in the Roman Empire. This migration was primarily driven by economic opportunities, though the situation in Israel also contributed. Israel experienced a large amount of conflict, principally over Hellenistic and then Roman rule.
The Jews were divided between those who were Hellenists, and supported the adoption of Greek culture, and those who believed in keeping to the traditions of the past. This conflict caused frequent disputes, which resulted in political and military upheveal -- such as the Maccabean revolt of the 2nd century BC, the war of the 70s and the revolt led by Bar Kokhba in the 130s. The frequent conflict contributed to Jewish emigration, both as refugees, through deportation, and by reducing economic opportunities in the region compared to elsewhere. It also led to many deaths among the Jewish population of Palestine, both deaths in battles with the Romans and others, deaths due to massacres, and deaths due to the famine and disease that so often accompany armed conflict.
Palestine changed hands several more times in the post-Biblical period, becoming at first part of the Byzantine Empire after the division of the Roman Empire into east and west (a fitful process that was not finalized until 395), then an early acqisition of the first Islamic Caliphate in 638. From that point until 1948, Palestine was dominated by Islamic influences and without much in the way of political independence, and always under the administration of regional powers. The Umayyad dynasty controlled the Caliphate until they were overthrown by the Abbasids in 661. Over time the monolithic Caliphate fragmented, and the Fatimid Caliphate assumed control of Palestine in the 900s.
In the next century, Seljuk Turks invaded large portions of West Asia, including Asia Minor and Palestine, which was the proximate cause of the Crusades by the Christian European powers. Jerusalem and the surrounding lands, being holy places to Christianity, were the object of these military expeditions. The Christian forces established the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which lasted from 1099 until Saladin reconquered the city in 1187.
The Ayyubid Sultanate, founded by Saladin, controlled the region until 1250, when the Mamluks invaded. The Mamluk Sultanate ultimately became a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, in the wake of campaigns waged by Selim I in the 16th century.
Over time the Jewish population in Palestine declined, due to several causes: Jewish emigration, deaths due to the multiple rebellions against the Romans, the deportation of Jews and the settlement of pagans by the Romans in response to these revolts, and the conversion of some Jews to Christianity (and later Islam). This conversion was driven both by the attractiveness of these religions to some Jews, and the taxation applied to Jews by Christian and then Muslim rulers (see Dhimmi). These special taxes on Jews especially affected agriculture, in which the majority of the Jewish population in Palestine was involved (the Diaspora, by contrast, was primarily urban). As a result, the Jewish population in their original homeland dwindled over the centuries to a tiny percentage, both of the local population and of Jews as a whole. By the end of the first millennium almost all the Jewish population lived in the Diaspora; that is, in the Arab world beyond Palestine, or in Europe.
During this period Israel continued as a constant topic of Jewish thought and liturgy, though its Jewish population was by then minimal -- for many of the Jews of the period "Eretz Israel" was a mythical place of redemption, since few of them ever set foot in it, and those who did found it dramatically different from how they believed it once was.
Most Jews during this period believed that the Jewish people would return to Israel with the coming of the Messiah; some proposed that Jews attempt to return earlier, by their own devices, but until the rise of Zionism in the 19th century they were in a minority.
While up until the end of the 19th century, most Jews did not have aspirations to come to the land of Israel, there were always Jews in it; they settled mainly in the "four sacred cities" (Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias and Hebron). Jews of European origin lived mostly of donations from off-country, while many Sephardic Jews found themselves a trade. By the end of the 19th century, the Jewish population of Palestine numbered 60,000, about 15% of the land's population.
Rise of Zionism
Zionism, a political movement seeking to have Jews return to their ancient homeland in Palestine, arose in Europe and Russia in the 19th century, due to the liberation of European Jews from the many legal restrictions placed upon them in Medieval times, and the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Thanks to widespread anti-Semitism Jews were not accepted as part of general society, but by leaving the ghetto they were no longer accepted by the Jewish community either. Zionism was also heavily influenced by the rise of nationalism, a major trend in 19th-century European politics. Zionists held that an independent Jewish homeland was necessary to ensure Jewish survival as a nation and to protect Jews from anti-Semitism. They began to settle in Palestine, though intially the numbers were small. The British government, who after World War I administered Palestine under a League of Nations mandate, supported this aspiration of the Zionists by the Balfour Declaration in 1917.