Who are the Palestinians?
“Palestinian” is the term that identifies non-Jewish people, both Christian and Muslim, who have lived in the Holy Land for generations. During the last 150 years, many of these people found themselves displaced by Jewish settlers returning to their ancestral homeland. As Israeli immigrants returned in steadily increasing numbers, Palestinians responded in various ways. Some made peace with their new Jewish neighbors. Others passively tolerated Palestinian losses. Still others have resorted to violence and force of arms.
It is important to see that even though Palestinians are often thought of simply as “the enemies of Israel” the real Palestinian populace has a complex make-up and history.
When Israel moved into the land under Joshua, it was called the “land of milk and honey.” Because Canaan was such a hospitable and fertile land, it has been inhabited from the earliest times. Archaeology has determined that Jericho is one of the world’s oldest inhabited sites.
When Israel conquered Canaan, many inhabitants were driven out, but large numbers remained. Many Israelites intermarried with Canaanites and people of nearby nations ( Judges 14:1-3; Ruth 1:1-4 ). Consequently, the land was never inhabited by Israelites alone. Further, when the leading classes of Israel and Judea were driven into Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian exile because of unbelief and non-compliance with the Mosaic Covenant, many common people remained in the land. They multiplied and were joined by colonists from other nations. When Israelite leadership returned and regained political control, they did not expel the great numbers of non-Jews or less observant Jews who lived in the land. At the time of Christ, Jews were actually a minority in large areas of the land.
Again, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersal of the Jews by the Romans in A.D. 70, many common people remained in the land. They had Israelite ancestry to some degree but hadn’t been part of the rebellion against Rome. (It was under Roman rule that the Holy Land, as a whole, was first called Palestine, a name related to the Phoenician peoples who had long populated the coastal areas.) As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, many of the descendants of these common people of the Holy Land became either nominal or genuine Christians. Then, in the seventh century, Arabic-speaking Muslim armies conquered Palestine, Egypt, and all of the nominally Christian lands of northern Africa, along with Spain.
Although Muslim armies forced Christians and Jews to submit to Islamic law and imposed taxes and other restrictions that made them “second class citizens,” they spared their lives and permitted them to stay. This included the residents of Palestine. Further, unlike many historical conquerors, the Arabs didn’t send settlers to colonize the lands they conquered, but set up military garrisons in cities established to maintain Muslim rule. Except for a brief period when the Crusaders established a beachhead in the Muslim world, Muslim rule continued in Palestine under successive regimes until the end of World War I, when it came under the control of Great Britain.
During all of this time — from the time of Roman rule into the twentieth century — life continued largely unchanged. The people worked the land, tended their herds, carried on trade, and practiced the simple professions that supported village life. Although the Muslim conquest introduced Arabic as the language of everyday life and offered significant advantages to those who were willing to convert to Islam, Christians and Jews were tolerated as “people of the book” and many Jews and Christians remained in the land, carrying on their own traditions and generally living in peace with their Muslim neighbors.
Today the vast majority of “native Palestinians” are Muslims, but a significant percentage of them are adherents to other religions, including Christianity. Because they have long-established traditions and an ancient cultural identity tied to Palestine, they resent Israeli efforts to displace them and force them into other Muslim lands where they are not readily accepted or assimilated. Even in exile Palestinians retain their separate identity and yearn to return to their native land.