While Saeb Erekat can lay claim to encyclopedic knowledge of Palestinian negotiating history, the PA negotiator expanded his field earlier this month to embrace the entire historical foundation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“When you say ‘accept Israel as a Jewish state,’ you are asking me to change my narrative,” he told Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni at the Munich Security Conference.
“I am the son of Jericho. I am 10,000 years old … I am the proud son of the Netufians and the Canaanites. I’ve been there for 5,500 years before Joshua Bin Nun came and burned my hometown Jericho. I’m not going to change my narrative,” he said.
That Palestinian line of argumentation tends to irk Israelis, and not just because many doubt that his lineage is quite what he claims. Considering Erekat is an Arab, they reason, his historic claim to Palestine cannot possibly predate the region’s Islamic conquest in the year 634, over 2,000 years after the biblical Joshua. Many Palestinians, indeed, emigrated to historic Palestine from places like Egypt and Syria parallel to the Zionist immigration throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Mordechai Kedar, a lecturer in Arabic literature at Bar-Ilan University, said that unlike the undisputed linguistic and cultural connection between ancient and modern Jews in the land of Israel, Palestinians could claim no similar ties to the Canaanites.
“After the Bedouins of the Arab desert occupied the geography of the Middle East in the seventh century, they proceeded to occupy its history and theology,” Kedar told The Times of Israel.
Still, Hillel Cohen, a researcher of Palestinian history at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said that Erekat’s claim is powerful — not because of its historic validity, for which he said no credible expert could vouch. Rather, said Cohen, it conveys a powerful message to Israeli Jews.
“The claim essentially says: ‘You [the Jews] say you were here first? Even according to the biblical narrative that’s not true. The Canaanites were here before you, and we’re their descendants.’” By evoking the story of Joshua and Jericho, Cohen added, Erekat accomplishes a dual goal. “‘Not only were we here before you,’ goes the argument, ‘but we were the victims of an ancient genocide perpetrated by your people.’”
In the modern world of nation states, it is not surprising for Palestinians to resort to ancient history in search of legitimization, Cohen said. Inspired by the romantic European movements of the mid-19th century, Zionism predicated the Jewish claim to the land of Israel on the ethnic connection of contemporary Jews to the Israelites of old. This narrative was largely accepted by Christian Europeans who were well-versed in biblical texts, having interacted with Jews for centuries.
The Palestinian historic narrative, which was less familiar to the West and remains less widely accepted to this day, functions both as a reaction to the exclusive Zionist claim to the land, and as a reflection of Palestinians’ self-perception as natives of the larger Middle East.
“The Jewish myth is one of unique ancestry. A separate people. The Palestinian narrative, however, is one of accumulation. It is an eclectic view of history claiming that modern-day inhabitants of Palestine are the indigenous Canaanites who absorbed into their midst Jebusites, Edomites, Jews, Christians and Muslims. Unlike the Jewish narrative which is based on ethnic origin and religion, the Palestinian identity stems from territory,” Cohen said.
Palestinians typically mark the beginning of their history with the Canaanites. Every Palestinian history textbook, Cohen noted, starts with the words “Jerusalem is a Jebusite-Canaanite city founded 5,000 years ago.’”
Palestinians are not the only Middle Eastern people to claim lineage to extinct ancient nations. Just as modern Hungarians traced themselves to the Magyars, modern Iraqis see themselves as descendants of the Babylonians, Lebanese claim Phoenician ancestry, and modern Egyptians say they’re heirs to the ancient Egyptian empires.
“Once this becomes the international language, everybody starts using it,” Cohen said.
Modern nations have the right to take pride in their ancestors, imagined or real, said Mazen Abdel Latif, a lecturer in the archaeology department of An-Najah University in Nablus. But modern science has disproved the notion of “ethnically pure” nations, be they Jews or Palestinians.
“People always moved around and intermingled,” Abdel Latif told The Times of Israel. “There were 15 Jewish tribes in the city of Medina in the Arabian peninsula, where Jews and Arabs lived together and shared the same culture, despite the occasional fighting between them.”
Palestinian historiography cannot be proven scientifically, Cohen of Hebrew University acknowledged. But for that matter, the ethnic connection of contemporary Jews to biblical figures remains arguable, he added.
“Jews cannot prove through DNA testing that they are descendants of the 12 tribes,” Cohen said. “It’s impossible to examine these historic claims. Was Abraham a historic figure? I don’t know. It’s a matter of faith.”
But for Kedar of Bar-Ilan University, the question is not one of genes but one of cultural and linguistic heritage.
“There is no doubt that Jews lived here in the past, while there’s no proof of Arab connection to this land before the seventh century,” he said. “There is no connection between the Arabian nations and the Canaanites: not ethnic, not cultural, nothing. They produce these myths to justify the fact that they are here.”
Palestinian family names speak more than anything to the foreign origin of their bearers, Kedar added. The Al-Masri family from Nablus obviously originated from Egypt (Al-Masri means Egyptian in Arabic). The Houranis came from the Houran region in southwestern Syria. Saeb Erekat’s clan in Jericho prides itself in originating from Saudi Arabia, Kedar noted.
“Since when did they become Palestinians?” he wondered.
In March 2012, Hamas’s interior minister Fathi Hammad said as much when pleading with Egypt to supply Gaza with much needed fuel, Kedar remarked.
“Allah be praised, we all have Arab roots, and every Palestinian, in Gaza and throughout Palestine, can prove his Arab roots — whether from Saudi Arabia, from Yemen, or anywhere. We have blood ties. So where is your affection and mercy?” Hammad asked his interviewer on Egypt’s Al-Hekma TV. “Personally, half my family is Egyptian. We are all like that. More than 30 families in the Gaza Strip are called Al-Masri. Brothers, half of the Palestinians are Egyptian and the other half are Saudi.”
For Kedar, statements of this kind are proof of Palestinian duplicity. “Sometimes, in times of distress, the truth comes out and all the fairy tales they invent go out the window,” he said.
The Palestinian narrative of Joshua vanquishing the indigenous people as a foreign conqueror, set out by Erekat, clashes to some extent with Islamic teachings, Cohen noted. In the Koran, God commands the people of Israel to enter the land.
“According to the Islamic narrative, the entry of the Jews [into the land] is not part of a man-made genocide, but the result of divine command,” he said.
Indeed, arguments like those made by Al-Najjah University professor Omar Ja’ara on Palestinian national television in 2012, whereby Moses was the leader of “the Muslim children of Israel,” may sound comically anachronistic to Jewish ears.
But Cohen said borders between Jew and indigenous gentile were largely blurred until the first century CE.
“The complete extinction of the Edomites and the formation of an exclusive Jewish collective does not occur until the destruction of the Second Temple [in the year 70 CE],” Cohen said.
Abdel Latif of An-Najah university said that as a believing Muslim he accepts the Israelite presence in historic Palestine starting from Jacob (referred to in the Koran as Isra’il) through the 12 tribes, down to Moses and King David. The Hebrew presence in the area has also gained archaeological support from the Amarna Letters found in Egypt and dating back to 1,300 BCE. The stone cuneiform tablets, written in Akkadian, make reference to a people called Habiru or ‘Abiru, believed to be the Hebrews, Abdel Latif said.
Perhaps what irritates some Israelis when hearing arguments like Erekat’s is not the embellishment of history per se, but the use of history during the peace process in what is perceived to be a nonconstructive manner.
Livni, for one, retorted to Erekat’s comments with a rebuke: “It’s not about whose narrative is more just or who has rights over the entire land … It’s about creating two states for two peoples.”