Palestine - The Long History Of A Vague, Confusing Name

on November 30 2012 10:39 AM
  • Palestinian Flag men 29 Nov 2012 2
    Palestinians wave Palestinian flags as they take part in a rally in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Reuters
  • Palestinian Flag Cake UN 194
    A pizza with toppings arranged to form the Palestinian flag. Reuters
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Now that Palestine has received an upgraded “observer nonmember” status at the United Nations by an overwhelming margin at the General Assembly, the name of this new de facto state becomes an important issue.

Will it simply be called Palestine? Or will it take another name?

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, or JVL, the origins of the name Palestine are unknown, although it may have been derived from the Egyptian and Hebrew word “peleshet” or “plesheth,” which was used to describe the nomadic peoples of northeastern Egypt. This, in turn, became the Philistines, a people of Greek origin who conquered present-day Israel in the 12th century B.C. (Philistines were, of course, mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.)

The JVL notes that a derivative of Palestine, Palaistine, first appeared in the works of the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th century B.C.

Before that, though, Hebrew Scripture cites the Philistines in the Book of Judges, where the parents of Samson are told by an angel, "He shall be the first to deliver Israel from the Philistines."

By the 2nd century A.D., after Roman armies seized the area, Judea was renamed Palaestina, or Falastin to Arabic speakers. (Centuries later, when the Ottoman Turks ruled much of the Middle East, the term Palestine referred to a broad piece of territory south of Syria, although few residents ever used that name.)

The name became fixed under the British Mandate following World War I -- at that time, Palestine encompassed lands that now comprise present-day Israel, Jordan and Gaza.

The JVL claims that for much of the first half of the 20th century, Jews and Arabs living in the region were both called Palestinians. Not until after Israel's independence in 1948 did the Arabs residing in Gaza and the West Bank formally become known as Palestinians.

Alex Spillius, diplomatic correspondent at the Daily Telegraph, said that there has never really been a sovereign state called Palestine.

He also opines that even if Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, names his state Palestine, it is doubtful that the more militant Hamas, which rules Gaza -- a completely separate region -- will accept it.

“If those two groups cannot reconcile in the interests of peace, do they merit being commonly described as a single entity?” Spillius asks. “Will widespread usage of the term have to wait for full independence, if and when that is achieved?”

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