By Pinhas Inbari, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs—
Yet again, Palestinian leaders are claiming that the Palestinians are descended from the Canaanite people who lived in the land of Canaan before the Israelite tribes settled in it. No less than the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, made that claim in Germany; no one was taken aback by his remarks or questioned him.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat frequently makes the assertion, and during an international forum, he insultingly sniped at senior Israeli politician Tzipi Livni that his origins lay with the Canaanites of Jericho who were wiped out by the Israelites, alluding to “war crimes” of Joshua ben Nun. Again, none of the senior international officials who were present made any effort to ask questions, raise doubts, or come to the defense of the abashed Israeli representative.
Ironically, a strong dissenting view to this thesis that the Palestinians can be traced back to the Canaanites comes from Hamas. On March 23, 2012, the Hamas Minister of the Interior and National Security, Fathi Hammad, linked the Palestinians’ origins to Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula:
Who are the Palestinians? We have many families called al-Masri, whose roots are Egyptian! They may be from Alexandria, from Cairo, from Dumietta, from the north, from Aswan, from Upper Egypt. We are Egyptians; we are Arabs. We are Muslims. We are part of you. Egyptians! Personally, half my family is Egyptian – and the other half are Saudis.
The Palestinians’ Canaanite narrative is not new. It emerged after the fall of the Hashemite monarchy in Syria in 1920, Syria’s incorporation into the French Mandate, and King Faisal’s flight to Iraq so that he could assume the throne there in 1921. Yasser Arafat claimed that the Palestinians are descendants of the Jebusites, whom he describes as a Canaanite tribe. In short, this argument has been around for a while.
What’s in a Name?
What is the source of the name “Palestine?” It is not Arab; it is derived from the name “Palestina,” by which the Roman Emperor Hadrian chose to call the land after the defeat of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 135 CE. His aim was to erase “Judea” and negate any connection of the land’s history and identity with the Jews. This denial of the land’s Jewish roots has regrettably been continued to the present day by today’s Palestinians.
When the Islamic armies conquered the land, they adopted the administrative name used by the Byzantines and dubbed part of Palestina Prima (“the first Palestine”) – more or less today’s Jerusalem area and the Shfela [coastal plain] – as “Jund Filastin.” Jund means “army;” Jund Filastin means “the Palestine military command.” In other words, the name did not signify the national identity of a “Palestinian people” who lived in the land, but instead, a military district, in line with the Byzantine nomenclature. The hub of Jund Filastin was the town of Ramle, not Jerusalem; the intention was apparently to protect the trade routes leading from Egypt to Syria and Iraq.
The first generation of the Palestinian Muslim leadership took part in the Great Arab Revolt of the Hashemites in 1916. Palestinian leaders were members of the Hashemite administration in Syria, and it was only after King Faisal’s reign collapsed that they came to Palestine.
Arab demonstration in Jerusalem, circa 1920. The sign on the left says: “We resist the Jewish immigration;” the sign on the right says: “Palestine is part of Syria.”
According to Palestinian historian Muhammad Y. Muslih, during the entire 400-year period of Ottoman rule (1517-1918), before the British set up the 30-years-long Palestine Mandate, “There was no political unit known as Palestine.” In Arabic, the area was known as al-Ard al-Muqadassa (the holy land), or Surya al-Janubiyya (southern Syria), but not Palestine.8
The Arabs of British Mandatory Palestine (1918-1948), then, had been exposed to competing narratives by which they could construct their political identity. Haj Amin al-Husseini, for example, was an Ottoman officer, but he joined the Hashemite army as a recruiter. Another figure from those days was Aref al-Aref, a supporter of the Hashemite regime in Damascus who orchestrated the April 1920 Nabi Musa riots in Jerusalem as a way of honoring the reinstatement of the Hashemite Faisal’s government. In 1919, al-Aref edited a Jerusalem-based publication called “Southern Syria.” At the 1920 riots, Haj Amin al-Husseini held up a portrait of King Faisal of Syria and showed it to the Jerusalem Arab crowd: “This is your King!” The crowd responded: “God Save the King!”11 The focus of much of the protest at the time was on the imposed separation of British Mandatory Palestine from Syria, which came under a French Mandate. The goal was reunification not Palestinian independence.
Anti-Zionist demonstration in Jerusalem 1920
As long as Palestinians saw themselves as part of Syria, they were not aware of their Palestinian identity. Adnan Abu Odeh, a senior Jordanian statesman of Palestinian extraction, wrote about Palestinian-Jordanian relations and made a distinction between the two peoples. In his view, the difference between Jordanians and Palestinians does not necessarily lie in how they define their identity but in how others define them. This distinction emerged, he maintains, when the British established the Emirate of Transjordan, which defined the Jordanians, and designated Palestine as the Jewish national home, thereby defining the Arabs who lived in the territory allocated to the Jews as Palestinians.
The following are Adnan Abu Odeh’s definitions:
Trans-Jordanians: Jordanian citizens whose origin is in Transjordan,
Palestinians: The Arab people of Mandatory Palestine,
Palestinian Jordanians: Palestinians who became Jordanian citizens after the West Bank and the East Bank were unified by Jordan in 1950,
Jordanians: Jordanian citizens of whatever origin.
Thus, the national definition of the Palestinians stemmed from the borders that the Western powers carved out, whereas, after the First World War, they defined themselves as part of the short-lived Hashemite regime in Syria.
A remnant of those early days is the flag of Palestine, which is actually the flag of the Great Arab Revolt of the Hashemites. It still serves as the official flag of the Syrian Baath Party and was only adopted as the official flag of Palestine at the PLO congress of 1964. In any case, the flag’s colors represent symbols from Islamic history and are in no way specifically linked with the Palestinians.
This latter flag represents the Syrian aspiration for an empire. Similarly, the first generations of Palestinian nationalists joined the Hashemite administration out of hope that pan-Arabism would liberate Palestine. To this day, the PLO regards itself as pan-Arab. This means that for the Palestinians, defining themselves as pan-Arabs entails the total negation of the other – in the Palestinians’ case, of Israel. The first article in the 1964 Palestine Liberation Organization’s Charter declares “Palestine is an Arab homeland bound by strong Arab national ties to the rest of the Arab Countries and which together form the great Arab homeland.”
The flag of Palestine is, then, one of the flags of “Greater Syria.” It expresses a pan-Arab commitment, which the flags of Jordan, the Baath Party, and the Hashemites during their short-lived regime in Syria also upheld.
Denial of Jewish History
When Nabil Shaath, head of the PLO’s foreign relations department, explained why they oppose the 1917 Balfour Declaration, he described Jewish history as “a potpourri of legends and fabrications.”17 Britain had awarded the country to those who had no bond with it whatsoever. “[The Jews] he said, “have no connection with the country, neither in distant nor in more recent history. Britain destroyed Palestine and cleared the path for the colonialist settlers instead of the real owners of the country. That is history,” declared Shaath.
Associating Palestinian history with the Canaanites is, then, part of the total denial of Jewish history. It is echoed in the denial of the Jewish people’s connection to the Temple Mount and the existence of a Jewish Temple there – nothing but a “potpourri of legends and fabrications.”
This narrative is directly linked with the outrageous UNESCO resolutions that sever the bonds between the Jewish People and the cities of Jerusalem and Hebron. Some time ago, in one of the West Bank cities, I talked with a retired Palestinian teacher about the Canaanites. He claimed that they were a Yemenite Arab tribe that settled in Palestine and that the Israelites when they conquered the country, did not build a single new city or village; all the cities are Canaanite cities.
He also said that the Israeli Shekel bears a Canaanite name; the evidence is that it was a Canaanite currency that Abraham paid to the Canaanites for the Cave of Machpelah. He claimed the Palestinians hold the right to the name “Shekel.”
According to the Torah – so the Palestinian teacher claimed as well – Ishmael (Abraham’s son) was the firstborn, not Isaac. God’s promise to Abraham pertained to Ishmael and not to Israel, he insisted.
One theory associates the Canaanites with the tribe of Amalek,18 hated by the Israelites. It posits that the Canaanites were among the Amalekites’ descendants, and that “explains” why the Jews want to annihilate the Palestinians. Thus, linking the Palestinians with Canaan reflects an uncompromising attitude of all-out war.
Palestinian scholar Khairiya Qassemiya wrote in the PLO’s journal that the Palestinians’ disengagement from Syria was difficult for them because they then had to contend alone, without the Arabs, against the Zionists. King Faisal, she wrote, opposed severing Palestine from Syria, and in doing so set the stage for the ongoing opposition of all Syrian governments to creating a separate Palestinian state that is detached from Greater Syria.
The collapse of Faisal’s government, however, cut the Palestinians off from Syria19 and forced them to seek separate roots for their identity; thus, the Canaanite ethos was born.
For his part, PLO leader Yasser Arafat was known to describe the Palestinians as a “nation of heroes” (kum jabarin). The term comes from a Koran verse concerning the Israelites’ trepidation over entering the land of Canaan since it harbored a “nation of giants,” that is, the Canaanites. Thus, Arafat gave the Canaanite narrative Islamic roots.20
The Public Relations Hype versus Genealogy
Such is the ethos. When one looks into what the Palestinians say about themselves, how each family describes its lineage, there is no trace of a “Canaanite” ancestry. Most of the families find their origins in Arab tribes, some of them with Kurdish or Egyptian background, and there are even – by word of mouth – widespread stories of Jewish or Samaritan ancestry. Although one might have expected some effort to adduce a Philistine ancestry, there is almost no such phenomenon.21
In Nablus, there is a family named Kanaan – that is, Canaan. We asked members of the family about its lineage, and they affirmed that they had been Canaanites for 3,000 years. However, a look at the family’s website gave a different picture.22 It is indeed an ancient family – part of it Christian, indicating its pre-Islamic origin; but coming from Aleppo in Syria. From Aleppo, the family branched out to Damascus, Cyprus, and other places, including Nablus. Although the name may indicate Canaanite ancestry, the Canaanite forebears were in Syria, not in the land of Canaan.
According to another source within the family, the clan originated in Homs, Syria and became widely dispersed in the Middle East, apparently including Nablus, about 300 years ago. Despite the fact that the name suggests a Canaanite lineage, this source says the family’s origins lie in the ancient Arab Tamim tribe.
Thus, apart from the Kanaan family with its possible Canaanite ancestry coming from Syria, not Palestine, and its possible Arab origins, there is no direct or indirect evidence of the Palestinians having descended from the Canaanite people as they claim.