Who Are the Palestinians

By Hasan Afif El-Hasan

In 1917, Jews constituted 7 percent of the indigenous Palestinian population and owned 1 percent of the land. Britain, as a colonialist power and the victor of World War I forced the Palestine Mandate and gave itself the right to grant a homeland to the Jewish people in Palestine in “Balfour Declaration” that facilitated the colonization of the land by foreign Jews.

The 1948 War that led to the creation of Israel over seventy-eight percent of Palestinian territory resulted in the devastation of the Palestinian society. More than 80 percent of the Palestinians who lived in the part of Palestine upon which Israel was established became refugees, their society disintegrated and their lives at the individual, community and national level were changed. The Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem came under the Hashemite regime while those residing in the Gaza Strip came under uncaring Egyptian administration. Then after the 1967 war, Israel brought these regions under its military occupation, and the Palestinians ended either refugees or under occupation.

Who Are the Palestinians?

They are the descendents of all the groups that inhibited Palestine since the ancient Canaanites and beyond. Palestine was successively conquered by Canaanites, Philistinians, ancient Hebrews, ancient Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Ayyobies, and Turks. The groups which lived in Palestine fought, inter-married, collaborated and no group was obliterated.

We can’t explore at length several millennia of uninterrupted history of the Palestinians in one article or even in one book, but this narrative is an attempt to review some archeologists’ findings and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic texts about the Canaanites, the first inhabitants of Palestine. Ancient Egyptians who had personal contacts with the Palestinians through commerce and military campaigns have been credited for providing partial answers to the question of who were the early Palestinians. Modern archeologists have unmasked evidence from the annals recorded on clay and early bronze pottery that Egypt was involved in Palestinian and Syrian affairs during the First and Second Egyptian Dynasties 3100-2686 B.C.

People lived in Palestine in permanent settlements since the so-called Pre -pottery period 8000 to 5000 B.C. (Before Christ); they developed farming techniques and domesticated animals according to many historians including the Canadian archeologist Donald Redford. But Palestine as a geo-political unit dates back to 3000 B.C. Palestine was called the Land of the Canaanites until the twelfth century B.C.

The topography of Palestine with its mountains dividing the land into upland, valleys, steppe and coast, formed natural barriers among ancient communities and limited the cultivation of large tracts of land. It made it impossible to create large towns or a nation-state in all of its territory as in Egypt or Mesopotamia (Iraq) where the rivers that were easy to negotiate allowed a central government to control the lengthy stretches of their banks especially after developing crop cultivation and cattle control.

Unlike their counter-parts in Egypt who had the service of the gods as a major factor for the structural form of their towns, security against invaders and wild animals was the Palestinian community’s uppermost concern. In written description of their neighbors in the north, the Egyptians of post-3000 B.C. called the Palestinian cities “unwt” which meant “fortified enclosures”.  As an example, the British archeologist Kathleen Kenyon wrote in her book “Digging up Jericho” that the two-thousand people community of Jericho surrounded their town with a stone wall three meters wide and four meters high, interspersed with towers. Jericho is one of the major Palestinian cities to be excavated in the twentieth century.    

According to the historian Donald Redford, contemporary archeologists from Britain, the US and Australia estimated that in Early Bronze age, Palestine had a population of about 150,000 living in twenty large settlements that each can be characterized as a town and scores of small communities that were within a day-walk distance from the closest major town. The towns came into being as they grew slowly over the years from small settlements into larger communities. Palestinian towns were surrounded by very thick brick and stone walls with gates and towers. Town people engaged in agriculture and trade with each other and with their neighbors in Egypt in the south and Byblos in Syria to the north. The international letters written in Semitic Accadian language on clay tablets that had been sent by Canaanite officials to the Egyptian government officials in Amarna City during the 18th Dynasty rule sheds more light on the Canaanites relations with the Egyptians.

Most of the settlements were in three geographic locations that have water supplies and fertilized soil, the northern coastal plain, upper Jordan valley and the Valley of Jerzeel (Marj Ibn Aamer). Archaeological records show settlement in the Palestinian desert of Negev and there were well travelled roads from northern Egypt to the region of southern Palestine. Miscellaneous artifacts discovered in the ruins of Arad town located north east of Beer Sheba in the Negev desert surrounded by two dozen satellite villages suggest town was a center of trade commerce. Arad was a prosperous 3rd millennium BC Canaanite town, built as a fortress surrounded by a stone wall with towers. And since there were no under-ground water springs in the town’s vicinity, its planners built reservoirs to capture the winter rain running water.

Ancient Canaanites tribes, the first identified ancestors of the Palestinians, ruled all Palestine and Jordan until around 1150 B.C. when the Philistines settled in the southern coastal area. Ancient Egyptian texts described Canaan as land  that encompassed the eastern coast of the Mediterranean which includes modern Palestine, western part of Jordan, parts of southern Lebanon and parts of south west Syria. Sometimes, the Canaanite City of Gaza was referred to by the Ancient Egyptians as Canaan due to its close proximity and its commercial relations with Egypt.

Historians postulate that the 15th Egyptian Dynasty, known as the “Hyksos”, who ruled north Egypt from 1650-1550 B.C. was Canaanite. When Egypt’s central government under the 13th and 14th Dynasties was too weak to defend the country, Canaanite invaders from the north (Palestine) conquered several small kingdoms in Egypt’s Delta and established the “Hyksos” rule over north Egypt. Their capital was the city of Avaris in the Eastern Delta, at Tell ed-Dab’a on the Pelusiac branch of the Nile. Egypt’s trade under the “Hyksos” reached the Euphrates in the north. They were the first to introduce the horse and chariot into Ancient Egypt, and as time passed, their kings gradually became more and more Egyptianized. They built temples and cemeteries like those of the Egyptian pharaohs but the architectural layout was of Canaanite style. The “Hyksos” temples’ architect, burial custom, pottery and weapons in Egypt were not different from those found in contemporary Middle Bronze II period in Palestine. This supports the claim that the “Hyksos” were Canaanite in origin according to the Egyptologist, William Gillan Waddell.

The Land of Canaan fell under the Ancient Egyptians rule in around 1480 BC, not for the last time in history. Under Pharaoh Thutmose II of the 18th Dynasty, the Egyptians conquered the Land of Canaan up to the banks of the Euphrates River. After their experience with the Hyksos invaders, the Egyptians began to value the Land of Canaan for its strategic location vis-à-vis foreign powers in the north who might have challenged Egypt again. After expelling the Hyksos elites, the vengeful Egyptians destroyed their monuments and Thutmose II extended Egypt’s frontiers and turned the Land of Canaan into a buffer zone.

Canaan had always been valued for its resources and its two transit corridors, one along the coast and the other crosses the Jordan River. The Egyptians appointed local magnates at local principalities as their own vassals. Egypt took stringent measures to retain its hold on Palestine for its proximity and its resources that included copper mines, olive oil, wine, grapes and figs. Business boomed up and down the coast from Gaza in Palestine to Ugarit (Latakia today) in north Syria and commerce resulted in extensive exchange of merchandize, workers and ideas.

The Philistines, Indo-European tribes referred to as the “Sea People” settled in the coastal plain of Canaanite Land around 1,150 B.C. Waves of the Philistines settled in Palestine during the early rule of Egypt’s 20th Dynasty. Excavations suggest that their material culture was Mycenaean Cypriote besides the Canaanite and Egyptian.

Less than a century after their arrival, the Philistines moved to establish themselves independent of the aegis of Egypt. According to the University of Chicago archeologist R. H. Dornemann, the Philistines broadened their area of influence beyond their fortresses by controlling towns in the south formerly belonging to the Egyptian administration. And in the north, their settlements began to appear in the Valley of Jerzeel and in the Jordan Valley.  

Some contemporary Palestinian families claim to be descendents of one ancient Palestinian group or another. When Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, Hamdi Canaan, whose family claims to be descendant from the ancient Canaanites, was the Palestinian mayor of Nablus, one the ancient cities in Palestine. His family has been in the soap manufacturing business for hundreds of years, using the Palestinian olive oil as the main ingredient.

The Palestinians today do not only have to suffer living under military occupation or as refugees, but to add insult to injury, Newt Gingrich, an American politician who will do anything including selling his soul to get a vote, said “the Palestinians are an invented people.” The archeologists’ findings and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic texts suggest the Palestinian People existed long time before the Americas were discovered and when Newt Gingrich European ancestors were living in caves.

– Hasan Afif El-Hasan is a political analyst. His latest book, Is The Two-State Solution Already Dead? (Algora Publishing, New York), now available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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