nl  Dutch site

Why call them Palestinians?

by Alfred Esch

If we should believe what is said in the media today, the Palestinians are the original inhabitants of Palestine. Almost every Biblical encyclopaedia speaks about Palestine as if there has been a Palestinian nation living in that region for ages. But whoever takes a good look in the history-books will come to a completely different conclusion. Where do we find the origin of this name ‘Palestine’?


The famous Greek historian Herodotus (485-430 B.C.) was the first to speak of Palaestine in his welknown ‘History’. The ‘Father of History’, as Cicero called him, visited many east-mediterranean countries. And there he found a people, he described as living between the Great Sea (=Mediterranean) and the Salt Sea (=Dead Sea), in the north bordering Phenicia and in the south stretching to Egypt. He was really impressed by these people of Israel, because they were so different from the surrounding nations. Herodotus described the circumcision of Israel’s newborn boys. He also told about their God, prohibiting the making of carved images. They served their God in a temple without a single sculpture or statue. Israel was not even allowed to call their God by His Name!

Herodotus, being a true Greek, was used to worshipping many gods (idols), calling them all by their very names. In all the other countries surrounding Israel temples were full of idol-images.


In Herodotus’ ‘History’ we can also read that the Philistines once inhabited the southern coast of today’s Israel. They lived in a region spoken of in the Old Testament as Peleshet, a Hebrew name, often translated as: Land of the Philistines, Philistia or Palestine (see for example: Genesis 21:32, Isaiah 14:29 and Psalm 60:8). The word Peleshet comes from the root Pelesh which mens ‘dividers’ or ‘intruders’.

Ancient Egyptian inscriptions mention a non-semitic seafaring nation coming from Crete (=Caphtor, see Amos 9:7) and invading Egypt. When they were thrown out by Ramses II (1194 B.C.) they settled down in the coastal region of today’s southern Israel. They established five towns: Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, Gaza and Gath.

Even before conquering Jerusalem (587 B.C.) Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed all these five towns and had deported the inhabitants to Babylon (see 2 Kings 25). After that nothing was ever more heard of these Philistines!

The (uncircumcised) Philistines were neither Arabs nor Semites. There was no connection whatsoever with the Arabs or the Arab countries.

The Arabs who had no name of their own for this region, adopted the Greco-Roman name Palestine, that they pronounced Falastin.


Wrestling was a favorite sport in Greece. During his historic investigations Herodotus was really amazed when he discovered that one of the ancestors of the Israelites had been a wrestler. For it was Jacob who wrestled with God (Genesis 32:25-27). At Peniel his name was changed into Israel: ‘God’s warrior’ or in another translation

‘he who wrestled with God’. The Greek word for wrestler is palaistes. So Herodotus gave Israel the Greek name Palaistine, the land of the wrestler. He also showed the men of Palaistine were circumcised, where as the Philistines were not!

The Jewish philosopher Philo also identified Palaistine with the biblical land of Canaan. Aristotle described the Dead Sea, being situated in Palaistine.


In 63 B.C. the Roman general Pompeius ruled in the Near East. He too used the name Palaistine for the land of the Israelites. In 135 A.D. Publius Aelius Hadrianus (Emperor of Rome from 117 to 138 A.D.) called Judea: Syria Palaestina. It is generaly accepted that Hadrian purposely called Canaan Palaestina to insult the Jews (and their God!). He was determined to wipe out the identity of Israel-Judah-Judea. So he actually cut them off from their Biblical inheritance and national history. In the same way Hadrian changed the name of rebuilt Jerusalem in Aelia Capitolina and on the Temple Mount he erected a pagan temple for the Roman god Jupiter Capitolinus! The Romans have killed many Jews and have sold even more as slaves. Others abandoned Canaan, but never has there been a time without Jews or Jewish communities in the land.


So over 2000 years Palestine has been in use as the name for the land of Canaan, Eretz Yisrael, the land God Himself promised to Abram and his offspring (Gen.12:7,

Psalm 105:11). So all the inhabitants, including the Jews were in fact Palestinians!

After the First World War the Ottoman Empire was divided and the borders of Israel were laid down, naming the land Palestine. In 1920 the League of Nations assigned Palestine to the British to govern it temporarily as a mandate, with the promise of establishing a Jewish National Home, as stated in the Balfour Declaration (1917).

In 1948 the government of the new Jewish nation decided to give the country the Biblical name of Israel again, so at once all ‘Palestinians’ became Israelites.


So it is very clear that Palestine has never exsisted as an autonomous entity. There is no language known as Palestinian. There is no distinct Palestinian culture. There has never been a land known as Palestine, governed by Palestinians.

From the end of the Jewish state in antiquity to the beginning of British rule, the area now designated by the name Palestine was not a country and had no frontiers, only administrative boundaries.


- ‘When Palestine meant Israel’ – D. Jacobson

- ‘Bijbelse Encyclopedie’ – W. H. Gispen

- ‘Biblical Archeology Review’

- ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’

Subtitles to the pictures:

- A coin from Aelia Capitolina (Jerusalem). Hadrian’s plan to change Jerusalem into a Hellenistic town was one of the causes of the Bar Kochba revolt.

- In 129-130 A.D. Emperor Publius Aelius Hadrianus visited Judea. Most likely this is part of a statue erected in honour of his visit.