Palestine – What is in a Name?

The name “Palestinian” has come to be associated only with Arabs. This inaccuracy cements the errors engendered in what is, essentially, a rewriting of history. Not only does it make it more difficult to find a common basis for understanding that would promote a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the Holy Land, but it can also be seen as a source of humiliation for the Arabs so labelled.

The correct term for the Palestinian Arabs is just that: Palestinian Arabs. That allows for recognition of the fact that there are also Palestinian Jews. Before 1948, all peoples living in the land, Jews and Arabs alike, were Palestinians. And they were Palestinians only because the area under dispute was called the Palestinian Mandate.

By calling their mandated territory Palestine, Britain made cynical use of the name given to this area by the Roman Empire, who had adopted it in order to separate the land from any association with its Jewish history. And now, history repeats itself: if “The” Palestinians are supposedly only the Arabs, then this facilitates the promotion of the hateful lie that Israel stole this land from its rightful indigenous population and has no right to sovereignty.

I know many Palestinian Jews. My ex-in-laws, for example, were born here, my father-in-law in the Old City of Jerusalem and my mother-in-law in Hebron. They became Israelis the day Israeli independence was declared. The Arabs living in this land before 1948 did not view themselves as Palestinians. In fact, as late as 1996, Azmi Bashara, then an Israeli Arab Member of Knesset, stated clearly on an Israeli television interview programme that the Arabs are NOT Palestinians and never were (view on the video below). He was not the only one. To this day, there are Arabs living in this region who claim that there is no such thing as a Palestinian Arab identity.

In the first half of the last century, nationalism was an unacceptable Christian European implant into this region, and pan-Islamic identity was the more pervasive attitude. With time, national identities grew and Moslems began to acknowledge the borders and the country names that defined them. Had the Palestinian Arabs accepted the partition plan in 1947 and got down to the business of building a country, it is likely that they would have found a different name for themselves, one that more appropriately reflected their true history and/or culture.

It may be natural for the Palestinian Arabs to call themselves by this name until such time as they will have a sovereign nation, at which point they will be free to name themselves anything they want – just as the Palestinian Jews did when they became Israelis.

I am afraid that by allowing themselves to be called “The” Palestinians, they are basing their national identity on nothing more than rejection of the Jews and exploitation by other Arabs who used them as pawns in their war against the Jews, rather than on a celebration of their own culture. With these two elements set up as their defining national experience, will they ever really feel free to make peace with their Israeli neighbours? Furthermore, is this a healthy basis for the foundation of a proud new nation? How will they justify this when they teach their school children about their history decades into the future?

Accuracy and recognition of the true history of the region is no less important for the Palestinian Arabs than it is for the former Palestinian Jews, unless, of course, what they still really want to do is eliminate Israel from the map and reincorporate the land into Greater Syria.

About the Author
Sheri Oz, owner of, is a retired family therapist exploring mutual interactions between politics and Israeli society.
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