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Arab Claims to Palestine 

What is the Arab historical connection with Palestine? What is the source of their claims?

The Arabs' homeland is not Palestine, but Arabia, the south-western peninsula of Asia. Its 1,027,000 square miles (2,630,000 square kilometres) embrace the present-day Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait, Bahrein, Qatar, Trucial Oman on the Persian Gulf, Muscat and Oman, and South Yemen. When in the seventh century, with the birth of the new Islamic religion, the Arabs emerged from the desert with an eye to conquest, they succeeded in establishing an empire that within a century extended over three continents, from the Atlantic Ocean to the border of China. Early in their phenomenal progress, they conquered Palestine from the Byzantines.

Purely Arab rule, exercised from Damascus by the Omayyad dynasty, lasted a little over a century. The Omayyads were overthrown in 750 by their bitter antagonists, the Abbasids, whose two centuries of government was increasingly dominated first by Persians, then by Turks. When the Abbasids were in turn defeated by the Fatimids, the Arabs had long had no part in the government of the empire, either at the centre or in the provinces.

But the Arabs had one great lasting success: Throughout a large part of the subjugated territories, Arabic became the dominant language and Islam the predominant religion. (Large scale conversions were not on the whole achieved by force. A major motive in the adoption of Islam by "non-believers" was the social and economic discrimination suffered by non-Moslems.) This cultural assimilation made possible the so-called golden age of Arabic culture.

"The invaders from the desert," writes Professor Philip K. Hitti, the foremost modem Arab historian, "brought with them no tradition of learning, no heritage of culture to the lands they conquered. . . , They sat as pupils at the feet of the peoples they subdued." What we therefore call "Arabic civilisation" was Arabian neither in its origins and fundamental structure nor in its principal ethnic aspects. The purely Arabic contribution in it was in the linguistic and to a certain extent in the religious fields. Throughout the whole period of the caliphate, the Syrians, the Persians, the Egyptians, and others, as Moslem converts or as Christians or Jews, were the foremost bearers of the torch of enlightenment and learning.

The result was a great volume of translation from the ancient writings of a host of cultures in East and West alike, from Greece to India. Most of the great works in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and philosophy were rendered into Arabic and, in many cases, were thus saved for Europe. The translation period was followed by the even brighter glow of great original works in Arabic on all these subjects as well as on alchemy, pharmacy, and geography.

"But when we speak of 'Arab medicine' or 'Arab philosophy' or 'Arab mathematics'," notes Hitti, "we do mean the medical science, philosophy or mathematics that are necessarily the product of the Arabian mind or developed by people living in the Arabian peninsula, but that body of knowledge enshrined in books written in the Arabic language by men who flourished chiefly during the caliphate and were themselves Persians, Egyptians or Arabians, Christian, Jewish or Moslem.

"Indeed, even what we call 'Arabic literature' was no more Arabian than the Latin literature of the Middle Ages was Italian-- Even such disciplines as philosophy, linguistics, lexicography and grammar, which were primarily Arabian in origin and spirit and in which the Arabs made their chief original contribution, recruited some of their most distinguished scholars from the non-Arab stock."1

The history books and the literature of the period fail to reveal even a mention of Palestine as the centre of any important activity or as providing inspiration or focus for any significant cultural activity of the Arabs or even of the Arabic-speaking people.2

On the contrary: Anyone seeking higher learning, even in specifically Moslem subjects, was forced to seek it at first in Damascus, later in the centres of Moslem learning in various other countries. The few known Palestinian scholars were born and may have died in Palestine, but they studied and worked in either Egypt or Damascus.

Palestine was never more than an unconsidered backwater of the empire. No great political or cultural centre ever arose there to establish a source of Arab, or any other non-Jewish, affinity or attachment. Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo-these were the great, at times glittering, political and cultural centres of the Moslem Empire. Jerusalem, where a Moslem Holy Place was established on the site of the ancient Jewish Temple never achieved any political or even cultural status.

To the Arab rulers and their non-Arab successors, Palestine was a battleground, a corridor, sometimes an outpost, its people a source of taxes and of some manpower for the waging of endless foreign and internecine wars. Nor did a local non-Jewish culture grow. In, the early Arab period, immigrants from Arabia were encouraged, and later they were given the Jewish lands. But the population remained an ethnic hodgepodge. When the Crusaders came to Palestine after 460 years of Arab and non-Arabic Moslem rule, they found an Arabic-speaking population, composed of a dozen races (apart from Jews and Drupes), practising five versions of Islam and eight of heterodox Christianity.

"With the passing of the Umayyad empire Arabianism fell but Islam continued."3 The Persians and the Turks of the Abbasid Empire, the Berbers and the Egyptians of the Fatimid Empire, had no interest at all in the provincial backwater except for what could be squeezed out of it for the imperial exchequer or the imperial army.

Their state did not improve under the Ottoman Turks. The fact of a common Moslem religion did not confer on the Arabs any privileges, let alone any share in government. The Ottomans even replaced Arabic with Turkish as the language of the country. Except for brief periods, the Arab inhabitants of Palestine had cause to dislike their Turkish rulers just one degree less than did the more heavily taxed Jews.

The Arabs did, however, play a significant and specific role in one aspect of Palestine's life: They contributed effectively to its devastation. Where destruction and ruin were only partly achieved by warring imperial dynasties -- by Arab, Turkish, Persians, or Egyptians, by the Crusaders or by invading hordes of Mongols or Kharezmians -- it was supplemented by the revolts of local chieftains, by civil strife, by intertribal warfare within the population itself. Always the process was completed by the raids of Arabs -- the Bedouins -- from the neighbouring deserts. These forays (for which there were endemic economic reasons) were known already in the Byzantine era. Over fifteen centuries, they eroded the face of Palestine.

During the latter phase of the Abbasids and in the Fatimid era, Bedouin depredations grew more intense. It was then that Palestine east of the Jordan was laid waste.

Starting in the thirteenth century, with the entry of the Mamluks, all the instruments of ruin were at work almost continuously. The process went on even more colourfully under Ottoman misrule. Bedouin raiders, plundering livestock and destroying crops and plantations, plagued the life of the farmer. Bedouin encampments, dotting the countryside, served as bases for highway attacks on travellers, on caravans carrying merchandise, on pilgrim cavalcades.

Count Volney, describing the Palestinian countryside in 1785, wrote:

The peasants are incessantly making inroads on each other's lands, destroying their corn, durra, sesame and olive-trees, and carrying off their sheep, goats and camels. The Turks, who are everywhere negligent in repressing similar disorders, are the less attentive to them here, since their authority is very precarious; the Bedouin, whose camps occupy the level country, are continually at open hostilities with them, of which the peasants avail themselves to resist their authority or do mischief to each other, according to the blind caprice of their ignorance or the interest of the moment. Hence arises an anarchy, which is still more dreadful than the despotism that prevails elsewhere, while the mutual devastation of the contending parties renders the appearance of this [the Palestinian] part of Syria more wretched than that of any other. . . . This country is indeed more frequently plundered than any other in Syria for, being very proper for cavalry and adjacent to the desert, it lies open to the Arabs.4 Neither history books nor reports of travellers, whether Christian, Moslem, or Jewish, report on any other permanent feature of the Arabs' historical relationship with Palestine. In the tenth century, the Arab writer Ibn Hukal had written: "Nobody cares about building country, or concerns himself for its needs." This was a mild foretaste of the ruination of a country, carried out over hundreds of years. There is no reason to blame the handful of Arabs who were part of the medley of peoples that made up the settled population Palestine.5 They were merely subject residents, usually downtrodden, of this or that village or this or that The remote central authority in Constantinople stretched out its conscripting hand to take away their sons, the local tax farmer sucked them dry, the village over the hill, and the rival tribe, had to be guarded against or fought in a cycle of mutually destructive retaliation. The Bedouin nomads tore up their olive trees, destroyed their crops, filled their wells with stones, broke down their cisterns, took away their livestock -- and were sometimes called in as allies to help destroy the next village.6

Thus it was that by the middle of the nineteenth century, when hundreds of years of abuse had turned the country into a treeless waste, with a sprinkling of emaciated towns, malaria-ridden swamps in its once-fertile northern valleys, the once-thriving south (Negev) now a desert, the population too had dwindled almost to nothing.

There was never a "Palestinian Arab" nation. To the Arab people as a whole, no such entity as Palestine existed. To those of them who lived in its neighbourhood, its lands were a suitable object for plunder and destruction. Those few who lived within its bounds may have had an affinity for their village (and made war on the next village), for their clan (which fought for the right of local tax-gathering), or even for their town. They were not conscious of any relationship to a land, and even the townsmen would have heard of its existence as a land, if they heard of it at all, only from such Jews as they might meet. (Palestine is mentioned only once in the Koran, as the "Holy Land"- holy, that is, to Jews and Christians.)

The feeling of so many nineteenth-century visitors that the country had been waiting for the return of its lawful inhabitants was made the more significant by the shallowness of the Arab imprint on the country. In twelve hundred years of association, they built only a single town, Ramleh, established as the local subprovincial capital in the eighth century. The researchers of nineteenth-century scholars, beginning with the archaeologist Edward Robinson in 1838, revealed that hundreds of place-names of villages and sites, seemingly Arab, were Arabic renderings or translations of ancient Hebrew names, biblical or Talmudic. The Arabs have never even had a name of their own for this country which they claim. "Filastin" is merely the Arab transliteration of "Palestine," the name the Romans gave the country when they determined to obliterate the "presence" of the Jewish people.

Sir George Adam Smith, author of the Historical Geography of the Holy Land, wrote in 1891: "The principle of nationality requires their [the Turks’] dispossession. Nor is there any indigenous civilisation in Palestine that could take the place of the Turkish except that of the Jews who-- have given to Palestine everything it has ever had of value to the world."7 This blunt judgement was entirely normal; it aroused no objections and offended no one. It was a simple statement of a unique and irrefutable fact. The Arabs' discovery of Palestine came many years later.

1. Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, 9th ed. (New York, 1967), 174, 240, 402. Whatever the precise definitions of the cultural historians, the Arab Empire certainly ushered in a cultural era that illuminated the Middle Ages. In this golden age, Palestine played no part at all.

2. See, for example, R. A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs (London, 1930).

3. Hitti, pp. 286-287. To, the Mamluks who, in 1250, followed the Crusader Christian interregnum, Palestine had no existence even as a subentity. Its territory was divided administratively, as part of a conquered empire, according to convenience. Its variegated peoples were treated as objects for exploitation, with a mixture of hostility and indifference. Some Arab tribes collaborated with the Mamluks in the numerous internal struggles that marked their rule. But the Arabs had no part or direct influence in the regime. Like all the other inhabitants of the country, they were conquered subjects and were treated accordingly.

4. Volney, Vol. II, pp. 196-197.

5. "In a peaceful interlude, in the seventeenth century," writes de Haas (p. 16), "one visitor claimed that seventy-seven languages are use in Jerusalem." For a detailed analysis of the Palestine non-Jewish population, see also James Parkes, Whose Land?

6. James Finn, Stirring Times (London, 1878), pp. 315-31&

7. Quoted by Herbert Sidebotham in England and Palestine (London, 1918), p.174. 

This page was produced by Joseph E. Katz
Middle Eastern Political and Religious History Analyst 
Brooklyn, New York 
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Source: "Battleground: Fact & Fantasy in Palestine" by Samuel Katz, 
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Copyright © 1973, 1977, 1978, 1985 by Samuel Katz.
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