Though the definite origins of the word Palestine have been debated for years and are still not known for sure, the name is believed to be derived from the Egyptian and Hebrew word peleshet. Roughly translated to mean rolling or migratory, the term was used to describe the inhabitants of the land to the northeast of Egypt – the Philistines. The Philistines were an Aegean people – more closely related to the Greeks and with no connection ethnically, linguistically or historically with Arabia – who conquered in the 12th Century BCE the Mediterranean coastal plain that is now Israel and Gaza.
A derivative of the name Palestine first appears in Greek literature in the 5th Century BCE when the historian Herodotus called the area Palaistine. In the 2nd century CE, the Romans crushed the revolt of Shimon Bar Kokhba (132 CE), during which Jerusalem and Judea were regained and the area of Judea was renamed by the Roman Emperor Hadrian Palaestina in an attempt to minimize Jewish identification with the land of Israel.
Around the year 390, during the Byzantine period, the imperial province of Syria Palaestina was reorganized into Palaestina Prima, Palaestina Secunda and Palaestina Salutaris. Following the Muslim conquest, place names that were in use by the Byzantine administration generally continued to be used in Arabic and the use of the name “Palestine” became common in Early Modern English.
Under the Ottoman Empire (1517-1917), the term Palestine was used as a general term to describe the land south of Syria; it was not an official designation. In fact, many Ottomans and Arabs who lived in Palestine during this period referred to the area as Southern Syria and not as Palestine.
After World War I, the name Palestine was applied to the territory that was originally expected to be part of the British Mandate; this area included not only present-day Israel but also present-day Jordan. Jews living in Palestine typically referred to it as Eretz Yisrael in Hebrew but would identify as Palestinian Jews in English as reflected by institutions such as the Palestine Post newspaper (later the Jerusalem Post) and the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (later the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra).
Brian Schrauger noted:
During the 2,600 years those who lived in what the Roman Emperor Hadrian renamed Palestine were known as Palestinians, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, and people of any ethnic or religious affiliation. Accordingly, Palestinian did not describe any one ethnic or religious group. Its definition applied to anyone living in the territory, a certifiable historical fact all the way up to 1948 when Israel was reconstituted as a nation-state choosing to abandon Palestinian as the identifying name of its citizens, choosing Israeli instead. Most Muslims, with a variety of ethnic identities who remained in the land, kept the Palestinian designation.
Leading up to Israel’s independence in 1948, it was common for the international press to label Jews, not Arabs, living in the mandate as Palestinians. According to Zachary Foster, the first Arab to use the term “Palestinian” was Farid Georges Kassab, a Beirut-based Orthodox Christian who “noted in passing” in his 1909 book, Palestine, Hellenism, and Clericalism” that “‘the Orthodox Palestinian Ottomans call themselves Arabs, and are in fact Arabs,’ despite describing the Arabic speakers of Palestine as Palestinians throughout the rest of the book.”
Foster says the term was subsequently used in a few newspaper articles in 1910-1911. He argues that “In June 1913, the concept of a Palestinian identity began forming in the media, prompting Ottoman parliamentarian and Muslim Jerusalemite Ruhi al-Khalidi to write an article titled, “the Palestinian Race,” for the paper Filastin, arguing that Zionists were attempting to create an exclusionary society in Palestine.”
Six years later, the first “Arab Palestinian Congress” was held in 1919 during which David Margolis noted, the Arabs called for “Palestinian unity and independence, albeit still understanding Palestine as part of ‘Greater Syria.’”
The words “Palestine” or “Filastin” do not appear in the Koran. The term peleshet appears in the Jewish Tanakh no fewer than 250 times. It occurs at least eight times in eight verses of the Hebrew concordance of the King James Bible.
Sources:The Histories of Herodotus;