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Palestine (from Latin: Palaestina; Hebrew: ארץ־ישראל‎ Eretz-Yisra'el, formerly also פלשתינה Palestina; Arabic: فلسطين Filastīn, Falastīn, Filistīn) is one of several names for the geographic region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River and various adjoining lands. Different geographic definitions have been used over the millennia, and these definitions themselves are politically contentious. In recent times, the broadest definition of Palestine has been that adopted by the British Mandate, and the narrowest is that used in contemporary politics today, the the West Bank and Gaza Strip. (above is from from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestine )

The land variously called Israel and Palestine is a small, (10,000 square miles at present) land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. During its long history, its area, population and ownership varied greatly. The present state of Israel occupies all the land from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean ocean, bounded by Egypt in the south, Lebanon in the north, and Jordan in the east. The recognized borders of Israel constitute about 78% of the land. The remainder is divided between land occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six day war and the autonomous regions under the control of the Palestinian autonomy. The Gaza strip occupies an additional  141 square miles south of Israel, and is under the control of the Hamas government, separate from the Palestinian Authority at present.

There is no legal international entity or country called "Palestine" at present, though Arab governments and literature produced in Arab countries refer to Palestine, variously meaning the occupied territories or all of the land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean, including Israel. 

Palestine has been settled continuously for tens of thousands of years. Fossil remains have been found of Homo Erectus, Neanderthal and transitional types between Neanderthal and modern man. Archeologists have found hybrid Emmer wheat at Jericho dating from before 8,000 B.C., making it one of the oldest sites of agricultural activity in the world. Amorites, Canaanites, and other Semitic peoples related to the Phoenicians of Tyre entered the area about 2000 B.C. The area became known as the Land of Canaan. (Click here for historical maps and some details of early history)

(Click here for books about Israel & Palestine before 1918 )

The Jewish Kingdoms of Ancient Judah and Israel

The archeological record indicates that the Jewish people evolved out of native Cana'anite peoples and invading tribes. Some time between about 1800 and 1500 B.C., it is thought that a Semitic people called Hebrews (hapiru) left Mesopotamia and settled in Canaan. Canaan was settled by different tribes including Semitic peoples, Hittites, and later Philistines, peoples of the sea who are thought to have arrived from Mycenae, or to be part of the ancient Greek peoples that also settled Mycenae.

According to the Bible, Moses led the Israelites, or a portion of them, out of Egypt. Under Joshua, they conquered the tribes and city states of Canaan.  Based on biblical traditions, it is estimated that king David conquered Jerusalem about 1000 B.C. and established an Israelite kingdom over much of Canaan including parts of Transjordan. The kingdom was divided into Judea in the south and Israel in the north following the death of David's son, Solomon. Jerusalem remained the center of Jewish sovereignty and of Jewish worship whenever the Jews exercised sovereignty over the country in the subsequent period, up to the Jewish revolt in 133 AD.

The Assyrians conquered Israel in 722 or 721 B.C. The Babylonians conquered Judah around 586 B.C.  They destroyed Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, and exiled a large number of Jews.  About 50 years later, the Persian king Cyrus conquered Babylonia. Cyrus allowed a group of Jews from Babylonia to rebuild Jerusalem and settle in it. However, a large number of Jews remained in Babylonia, forming the first Jewish Diaspora. After the reestablishment of a Jewish state or protectorate, the Babylonian exiles maintained contact with authorities there. The Persians ruled the land from about 530 to 331 B.C. Alexander the Great then conquered the Persian Empire. After Alexander's death in 323 B.C., his generals divided the empire. One of these generals, Seleucus, founded a dynasty that gained control of much of Palestine about 200 B.C. At first, the new rulers, called Seleucids, allowed the practice of Judaism. But later, one of the kings, Antiochus IV, tried to prohibit it. In 167 B.C., the Jews revolted under the leadership of the Maccabeans and either drove the Seleucids out of Palestine or at least established a large degree of autonomy, forming a kingdom with its capital in Jerusalem. The kingdom received Roman "protection" when Judah Maccabee was made a "friend of the Roman senate and people" in 164 B.C. according to the records of Roman historians.

Throughout the period of Jewish sovereignty recorded in the Bible, various peoples such as the Philistines, Amorites, Moabites, Nabateans, Canaanites, and others mentioned in the Bible and known from other sources, controlled fluctuating portions of the land. Most of these were absorbed into the Jewish people or dispersed by the various conquerors.

Palestine From Roman to Ottoman Rule

About 61 B.C., Roman troops under Pompei invaded Judea and sacked Jerusalem in support of King Herod. Judea had become a client state of Rome.  Initially it was ruled by the client Herodian dynasty. The land was divided into districts of Judea, Galilee, Peraea and a small trans-Jordanian section, each of which eventually came under direct Roman control. The Romans called the large central area of the land, which included Jerusalem, Judea. According to Christian belief, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, Judea, in the early years of Roman rule. Roman rulers put down Jewish revolts in about A.D. 70 and A.D. 132. In A.D. 135, the Romans drove the Jews out of Jerusalem, following the failed Bar Kochba revolt. The Romans named the area Palaestina, at about this time. The name Palaestina, which  became Palestine in English, is derived from Herodotus, who used the term Palaistine Syria to refer to the entire southern part of Syria, meaning "Philistine Syria." Most of the Jews who continued to practice their religion fled or were forcibly exiled from Palestine, eventually forming a second Jewish Diaspora. However, Jewish communities continued to exist, primarily in the Galilee, the northernmost part of Palestine. Palestine was governed by the Roman Empire until the fourth century A.D. (300's) and then by the Byzantine Empire. In time, Christianity spread to most of Palestine. The population consisted of Jewish converts to Christianity and paganism, peoples imported by the Romans, and others who had probably inhabited the land continuously.

During the seventh century (A.D. 600's), Muslim  Arab armies moved north from Arabia to conquer most of the Middle East, including Palestine. Jerusalem was conquered about 638 by the Caliph Umar (Omar) who gave his protection to its inhabitants. Muslim powers controlled the region until the early 1900's. The rulers allowed Christians and Jews to keep their religions. However, most of the local population gradually accepted Islam and the Arab-Islamic culture of their rulers. Jerusalem became holy to Muslims as the site where, according to tradition, Muhammed ascended to heaven after a miraculous overnight ride from Mecca on his horse Al-Buraq. The Al-Aqsa mosque was built on the site generally regarded as the area of the Jewish temples. The land was called "Filastin" under early Arab rule as it had been called Palestine by its previous rulers, but the name soon fell into disuse.

The Seljuk Turks conquered Jerusalem in 1071, but their rule in Palestine lasted less than 30 years. Initially they were replaced by the Fatimid rulers of Egypt. The Fatimids took advantage of the Seljuk struggles with the Christian crusaders. They made an alliance with the crusaders in 1098 and captured Jerusalem, Jaffa and other parts of Palestine.

The Crusaders, however, broke the alliance and invaded Palestine about a year later. They captured Jaffa and Jerusalem in 1099, slaughtered many Jewish and Muslim defenders and forbade Jews to live in Jerusalem. They held the city until 1187. In that year, the Muslim ruler Saladin conquered Jerusalem. The Crusaders then held a smaller and smaller area along the coast of Palestine, under treaty with Saladin. However, they broke the treaty with Saladin and later treaties. Crusade after crusade tried unsuccessfully to recapture Jerusalem for more than a brief period.

The crusaders left Palestine for good when the Muslims captured Acre in 1291. During the post-crusade period, crusaders often raided the coast of Palestine. To deny the crusaders gains from these raids, the Muslims pulled their people back from the coasts and destroyed coastal towns and farms. This depopulated and impoverished the coast of Palestine for hundreds of years.

In the mid-1200's, Mamelukes, originally soldier-slaves of the Arabs based in Egypt, established an empire that in time included the area of Palestine. Arab-speaking Muslims made up most of the population of the area once called Palestine. Beginning in the late 1300's, Jews from Spain and other Mediterranean lands settled in Jerusalem and other parts of the land. The Ottoman Empire defeated the Mamelukes in 1517, and Palestine became part of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish Sultan invited Jews fleeing the Spanish Catholic inquisition to settle in the Turkish empire, including several cities in Palestine.

In 1798, Napoleon entered the land. The war with Napoleon and subsequent misadministration by Egyptian and Ottoman rulers, reduced the population of Palestine. Arabs and Jews fled to safer and more prosperous lands. Revolts by Palestinian Arabs against Egyptian and Ottoman rule at this time may have helped to catalyze Palestinian national feeling. Subsequent reorganization and opening of the Turkish Empire to foreigners restored some order. They also allowed the beginnings of Jewish settlement under various Zionist and proto-Zionist movements.  Both Arab and Jewish population increased. By 1880, about 24,000 Jews were living in Palestine, out of a population of about 400,000. At about that time, the Ottoman government imposed severe restrictions on Jewish immigration and land purchase, and also began actively soliciting inviting Muslims from other parts of the Ottoman empire to settle in Palestine, including Circassians and Bosnians.  The restrictions were evaded in various ways by Jews seeking to colonize Palestine, chiefly by bribery.

In 1917, the British conquered the land, which they renamed Palestine once again, and were subsequently given a mandate to create a Jewish national home. This program evoked widespread v resistance and resentment on the part of the Arab states and violent resistance by Arabs living in the country.  

In 1947, the British turned over their mandate to the United Nations which partitioned Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state in a vote on November 29, 1947. (see Partition Resolution)

The Arabs vowed to destroy the Jewish state. Fighting broke out the next day, and escalated to an invasion by Arab countries on May 15, 1948, when the British left Palestine. The Israelis won the war. About 650,000 to 725,000 Palestinian Arab refugees fled or were expelled during the fighting, and Israel expanded its territory by about 22% over the UN allotted areas. A small number of Jews living in areas not conquered by Israel were either massacred or forced to evacuate, so that no Jews at all remained in those areas, while only about 140,000 Arabs remained in what became the state of Israel, out of a population of about 800,000. The remaining areas that were to have been a Palestinian state were apportioned to Arab countries. Egypt occupied the Gaza strip. Transjordan occupied the area that had long been called Judea and Samaria by Europeans, but which was presently renamed "the West Bank" by Transjordan. Jordan claimed this land as its own, and changed its name to "Jordan" but few states recognized this annexation. Jordan also illegally occupied East Jerusalem, an area that was to have been internationalized under the UN resolution. Abortive Palestinian governments set up by Egypt and Jordan did not gain any international recognition and were soon dissolved.

In the 1967 Six Day War, Israel conquered the West Bank and later annexed East Jerusalem, an annexation which is likewise not recognized by other states.  Palestinian Arabs presently began agitating for their own state.

The evolving conflict is detailed in the History of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Map of Palestine

Country Stub - More information to be supplied

Synonyms and alternate spellings:

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Encyclopedia of the Middle East

Note - This encyclopedia is a work in progress. It is far from complete and is being constructed and improved all the time. If you would like to contribute articles or expansions of existing articles, please contact news (at) mideastweb.org.  Suggestions and corrections are welcome. The concise version of this dictionary is at our Middle East Glossary.

Spelling - Spelling of words in Middle-Eastern languages is often arbitrary. There may be many variants of the same name or word such as Hezbollah, Hizbolla, Hisbolla or Husayn and Hussein. There are some conventions for converting words from Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew There are numerous variant renderings of the same Arabic or Hebrew words, such as "Hizbollah," "Hisbulla" etc. It is not possible to find exact equivalents for several letters. 

Pronunciation - Arabic and Hebrew vowels are pronounced differently than in English. "o" is very short. The "a" is usually pronounced like the "a" in market, sometimes as the "a" in "Arafat."  The " 'A " is guttural.  " 'H "- the 'het ('Hirbeh, 'Hebron, 'Hisbollah') designates a sound somewhat similar to the ch in "loch" in Scots pronunciation, but made by touching the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The CH should be pronounced like Loch, a more assertive consonant than 'het.

The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

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