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The Forgotten History of the Term "Palestine"
A mosaic discovered 1884 at the Church of Saint George in Jordan depicting the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, the Jordan River, and the Dead Sea in the 6th Century AD. (Getty Images)
A mosaic discovered 1884 at the Church of Saint George in Jordan depicting the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, the Jordan River, and the Dead Sea in the 6th Century AD. (Getty Images)

The Forgotten History of the Term "Palestine"

Douglas J. Feith

Some think of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute as a clash of nationalisms. Others stress religious antagonism, while others yet see an East-West power struggle. But it is roundly agreed upon that a key element of the conflict is land. That land, for many years by many people, was called Palestine.

Yet few people—including Middle East policy makers, journalists, historians and even lexicographers—know much about the history of the name “Palestine,” or what territory it has at one time or another encompassed.

The ancient Romans pinned the name on the Land of Israel. In 135 CE, after stamping out the province of Judea’s second insurrection, the Romans renamed the province Syria Palaestina—that is, “Palestinian Syria.” They did so resentfully, as a punishment, to obliterate the link between the Jews (in Hebrew, Y’hudim and in Latin Judaei) and the province (the Hebrew name of which was Y’hudah). “Palaestina” referred to the Philistines, whose home base had been on the Mediterranean coast.

It is widely thought, as reflected in my 1976 New College Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, that the term Palestine refers only to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Countless books and maps say that Israel, in conquering the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six-Day War, took control of “all of Palestine.” But that is not correct.

The term “Palestine” was used for millennia without a precise geographic definition. That’s not uncommon—think of “Transcaucasus” or “Midwest.” No precise definition existed for Palestine because none was required. Since the Roman era, the name lacked political significance. No nation ever had that name.

The term was meaningful to Christians as synonymous with the Holy Land. It was meaningful to Jews as synonymous with Eretz Yisrael, which is Hebrew for the Land of Israel. As noted by the Palestinian scholar Muhammad Y. Muslih in The Origins of Palestinian Nationalism, Arabic speakers sometimes used the Arabic words for “Holy Land,” but never coined a uniquely Arabic name for the territory; Filastin is the Arabic pronunciation of the Roman terminology. “Palestine was also referred to as Surya al-Janubiyya (Southern Syria), because it was part of geographical Syria,” wrote Muslih. In the pre-World War I-era, scholars also sometimes said Palestine was the region just south of Syria.

Since biblical times, Palestine was understood to span the Jordan River. It was common to call the one bank Western Palestine and the other Eastern Palestine, as evidenced by such works as Edward Robinson, et al., Biblical Researches in Palestine and the Adjacent Regions (1856); Charles Warren, Underground Jerusalem (1876); Frederick Jones Bliss, The Development of Palestine Exploration (1906); and Ellsworth Huntington, Palestine and Its Transformation (1911). The Israelite tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Menasseh, the Bible said, all held land east of the Jordan River. Before World War I, no books described that river as Palestine’s eastern boundary.

Eastern Palestine was also known as Transjordan, meaning “across the Jordan.” In other words, the Jordan River did not bound Palestine; it bisected it. Referring to the Jordan Valley in his book Sinai and Palestine (1863), the Oxford University scholar Arthur Penrhyn Stanley said, “It is around and along this deep fissure that the hills of western and eastern Palestine spring up.”

The terminology of Western and Eastern Palestine appeared universally in 19th- and early 20th-century literature. In George Adam Smith’s influential study, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land, Book II is entitled “Western Palestine” and Book III “Eastern Palestine.” The famous works of Britain’s Palestine Exploration Fund—the first coauthored by H.H. Kitchener, later Field-Marshal Earl Kitchener, when he was but a lieutenant—were titled The Survey of Western Palestine and The Survey of Eastern Palestine.

No one in the pre-World War I period ever needed to specify how far eastward Eastern Palestine extended. As the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica stated, “The River Jordan, it is true, marks a line of delimitation between Western and Eastern Palestine; but it is practically im¬pos¬sible to say where the latter ends and the Arabian desert begins.”

“Palestine” applied vaguely to a region that for the 400 years before World War I was part of the Ottoman empire. In that empire, it was divided among several provinces and governates and never composed an administrative unit.

During the Great War of 1914-1918, the Ottoman empire, which included Palestine, fought alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary against the Allies. That made the Holy Land enemy territory from the British perspective, and Britain took the lead in conquering it. When the war ended, the victorious Allies divided the formerly Ottoman Near East into new political units. In April 1920, they assigned to France the mandate to govern Syria, including Lebanon. They assigned two mandates to Britain, one for Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and one for Palestine. Borders for the three territories were not yet defined.

How did British Mandate Palestine get its borders? The line in the north emerged from Anglo-French negotiations in 1923. The one in the south was fixed by treaties in the mid-1920s between Britain and the new nation of Saudi Arabia. The border between Mandate Palestine and Mandate Mesopotamia was of little immediate importance, given that it was in the middle of an uninhabited desert and Britain controlled both sides. That line was finally fixed through an exchange of letters in 1932.

What particularly interests us here is how Britain handled Eastern Palestine. The short answer is that it remained under the British Mandate for Palestine until 1946, when it became the independent kingdom of Transjordan, later renamed Jordan. Western Palestine remained under the Mandate until May 1948.

The longer answer requires us to go back to World War I.

In November 1917, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, a promise to help create in Palestine a Jewish national home. The promise, motivated by a combination of strategic and moral considerations, was controversial, including within the government.

As Britain (with a small bit of help from French forces) was conquering Palestine and Syria, its military commander, General Edmund Allenby, chose to view Eastern and Western Palestine as distinct areas. A practical man, he had no interest in Jewish nationalism, nor any sympathy for it. In 1918, he combined Transjordan and inland Syria into a military occupation zone that Britain allowed the Arabian Emir Faysal to administer from Damascus. Allenby assigned Palestine west of the Jordan to a different occupation zone, with its own military government based in Jerusalem.

Allenby hoped Faysal would reign over a Syrian kingdom that included Transjordan. That would give London influence over the whole area, as Faysal was understood to be Britain’s man. But French leaders were hostile to Faysal, and, when they took control of Damascus in July 1920, they ousted him. (Britain soon consoled Faysal with the kingship of Iraq.) British officials, not wanting France to control Transjordan, quickly made clear that Transjordan was not part of French Mandate Syria.

What, then, should be done with Transjordan? Britain’s high commissioner in Palestine had said it should be recognized as part of Palestine under his supervision. He stressed that it could help Western Palestine meet its future food, water, and electricity needs.
Britain’s new foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, however, disagreed, primarily because of his concerns about the costs of administering Transjordan. At the same time, however, he saw Western and Eastern Palestine as a strategically valuable “land bridge” connecting British Egypt to British Mandate Mesopotamia. His dilemma was how to retain control of that “bridge” while limiting Britain’s responsibilities in Transjordan.

Curzon suggested that Transjordan might be given “some form of independent Arab Government.” One option, he said, was to recognize Transjordan as belonging to Palestine or Mesopotamia. Another was to divide Transjordan between those Mandates. And a third was to leave it “for future arrangement.” Curzon preferred to wait, “leaving the eastern boundary of Palestine . . . for subsequent definition when the situation as regards Arabia has developed further.”

In February 1921, Winston Churchill became secretary of state for the colonies and responsibility for the Middle East was transferred from Curzon to him. Churchill promptly devised a set of policies of huge importance and lasting effect. They created kingdoms and put men on thrones. They drew new maps. And, it can be argued, they partitioned Palestine for the first time between Arabs and Jews.

High on Churchill’s agenda was Eastern Palestine. Churchill shared Curzon’s view that an Arab administration of Transjordan could help keep down British expenditures. Churchill also agreed to maintain the ban on Zionist settlement east of the Jordan River—originally put in place by Britain’s military administration, which claimed to lack the resources necessary to protect Jews there.

Zionist leaders argued that Britain should not exclude Transjordan from the Jewish national home. In a communication to a senior British official, the U.S. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis said that Palestine needed access to water resources in Transjordan for irrigation and power and also to Transjordan’s “fertile plains . . . for food and sustenance.” (Upon joining the Supreme Court in 1916, Brandeis had resigned his chairmanship of America’s principal Zionist organization, but he remained active in the Jewish national cause.)

The leader of the Zionist Organization, Chaim Weizmann, argued to Churchill that Transjordan, from earliest times, was “an integral and vital part of Palestine.” Its plains were the Holy Land’s “natural granary” and the climate was “invigorating.” The area was “scarcely inhabited and long derelict,” Weizmann said, and severing it from Palestine “would be scant satisfaction to Arab Nationalism, while it would go far to frustrate” Britain’s Jewish-national-home policy. “While Eastern Palestine may probably never have the same religious and historic significance as Western Palestine,” he wrote, “it may bulk much larger in the economic future of the Jewish National Home.”

Churchill knew that it might not be possible diplomatically to arrange a separate British mandate for Transjordan. His staff therefore proposed acknowledging the territory as part of Mandate Palestine—a decision comfortably within the time-honored common understanding that Palestine straddled the Jordan River.

The ban on Jewish settlement in Eastern Palestine, however, created a legal conundrum. How could Churchill maintain the ban when one of the chief duties of Britain, as Palestine’s mandatory power, was to encourage “close settlement by Jews on the land?” Churchill did not buy his staff’s argument that the Mandate, as then drafted, gave Britain the necessary authority. Amending the draft would be awkward, but Churchill feared a legal challenge. He sought help from lawyers. If it were “absolutely necessary” to change the Mandate to keep Transjordan out of the Jewish national home, he wrote, then he wanted the new authority couched in vague language: “to specify areas affected without referring in detail to proposed difference in treatment.”

The result was an artfully muddy amendment that was added to the Mandate as Article 25. It stated, “In the territories lying between the Jordan and the eastern boundary of Palestine as ultimately determined, the Mandatory shall be entitled . . . to postpone or withhold application of such provisions of this mandate as he may consider inapplicable to the existing local conditions.” The words were framed, a senior official explained, to enable Britain “to withhold indefinitely the application of those clauses of the mandate which related to the establishment of a National Home for the Jews.”

After the League of Nations eventually approved the Mandate in 1922, the British representative Arthur Balfour submitted to it a memorandum, citing Article 25, that listed all the clauses about Jews and said they were “not applicable” in Transjordan. Balfour told the League’s governing council that the memorandum’s object was “to withdraw from Trans-Jordan the special provisions which were intended to provide a national home for the Jews west of the Jordan.” France’s representative said he understood that Balfour’s memorandum “only aimed at maintaining in the area to the east of the Jordan the general regime of the Mandate for Palestine.” Balfour said he agreed.

On March 23, 1921, Churchill had traveled to Jerusalem to persuade Emir Abdullah, Faysal’s brother, to content himself, at least for the time being, with a position in Transjordan. Having decided that Transjordan “should be constituted an Arab province of Palestine under an Arab governor, responsible to the High Commissioner,” Churchill suggested that Abdullah take responsibility there for six months with British help. Abdullah agreed.

Nothing is so permanent as the provisional, the adage says. That six-month arrangement has not ended—it has been in operation for a century. It gave rise to the emirate of Transjordan, which existed under the Palestine Mandate until 1946 and then evolved into the kingdom of Transjordan, which changed its name in 1949 to the kingdom of Jordan, which exists to this day under the kingship of Abdullah’s great-grandson, Abdullah II.

Zionist leaders of all stripes were unhappy with the British government’s policy on Transjordan. Vladimir Jabotinsky would demand reversal of the territory’s exclusion from the Jewish national home, making a rallying cry of the slogan “Two banks to the Jordan—this is ours, and this too.” The words, which rhyme in Hebrew (Shtey gadot la-yarden—zu shelanu, zu gam ken) were from a poem by Jabotinsky that, put to music, became one of the anthems of his political movement’s youth organization.

Although the idea that the Jewish national home should include Eastern Palestine became associated mainly, if not exclusively, with the political right when Jabotinsky’s Zionist Revisionist movement adopted it as a tenet, in 1921 it was a consensus view among Zionists from right to left.

Some British officials likewise looked askance at the Transjordan policy. Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen of the Colonial Office said he “exploded” when he heard Churchill “had severed Transjordan from Palestine.” In his memoir, A Crackle of Thorns, Alec Kirkbride, a British military officer in Transjordan who became Britain’s first ambassador there, commented wryly that, after Britain chose to put Abdullah in charge, “In due course the remarkable discovery was made that the clauses of the mandate relating to the es¬tablish¬ment of a National Home for the Jews had never been intended to apply to mandated ter¬ritory east of the river.” Leopold Amery, a former colonial secretary and one of the drafters of the Balfour Declaration, criticized the Transjordan policy for “taking out of Pales¬tine the larger and better half, the half more suitable to large-scale colonization.” Years later—in a May 22, 1939 House of Commons debate—he described the decision as Palestine’s “first partition.”

In early 1921 Colonial Office officials mulled the question of terminology and proposed that “‘Palestine’ and ‘Eastern Palestine’ should be brought into use for the territories lying respectively to the west and east of the River Jordan.” Their recommendation was only partially adopted. Palestine became the term used for Western Palestine. But the territory east of the Jordan would commonly be called Transjordan.

The common use of “Transjordan” rather than “Eastern Palestine” had consequences. After the 1948-49 Israeli War of Independence, it allowed supporters of the Palestinian Arabs to describe them as “stateless.” After the 1967 Six-Day War, it allowed people to say plausibly, if inaccurately, that the Jews had taken control of all of Palestine, leaving none to the Arabs.

Numerous books—for example, Rashid Khalidi, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (2006)—now contain maps that attach the labels “Palestine” or “Mandate Palestine” only to Palestine west of the Jordan. Writing that the Zionists “were ultimately able to take over the entire country,” Khalidi endorsed the common but ahistorical assertion that Palestine extended no further east than the Jordan River. By way of contrast, it is notable that another leading American scholar of Arab origin, Princeton University’s Philip K. Hitti, in his History of Syria: Including Lebanon and Palestine (1951), dealt accurately with this point of geography. After identifying Palestine as “the southern part of Syria,” Hitti wrote that Palestine was “amputated” from Syria, and then, “In 1921 Transjordan, with a biblical name but no real historical existence, was in turn amputated from Palestine and placed under the Emir Abdullah.”

Would the world now perceive the Arab-Israeli conflict differently if British officials had adopted that proposal from the Colonial Office to continue to use the term Eastern Palestine, rather than Transjordan? Would world politics be different if people generally understood that the kingdom of Jordan is in Eastern Palestine and Israel is in Western Palestine? Would the conflict have been different if no one had ever contended that the Palestinian Arabs are “stateless?”

Such questions have been excitedly debated over the years, including within Israel. Early in his political career, Ariel Sharon, who became Israeli prime minister in 2001, made famous the slogan “Jordan is Palestine,” using it to counter demands for Israeli territorial concessions to the Palestinians. Of the various arguments advanced in favor of such concessions, one was that Israel should agree to divide the land it controlled because the Arabs deserved a state in at least part of Palestine. Sharon’s answer was that an Arab state—Jordan—already existed in Palestine.

Sharon’s slogan became a hot button in Israeli politics because it sounded dismissive of concerns about how Israel should deal with the rights of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River. Anyone who heard it that way had good grounds to object. Those concerns are serious and the slogan is not at all the end of the story. But, as much as one might dislike its political implications, the simple statement that Jordan is Palestine is factual.

The distinguished Anglo-American historian Bernard Wasserstein clearly did not like the slogan’s political implications. Rejecting the view of Jabotinsky and Sharon that Palestine was partitioned in 1921 as a “myth,” he wrote, “In fact, what occurred [when Britain decided that Transjordan would be part of the Palestine Mandate, albeit outside the Jewish national home] was a huge addition to the territory of Palestine, not any subtraction.” He added, “Zionist disappointment at the loss of what they had never been promised and never possessed led to the idea that they had been somehow cheated out of their birthright. The legend persists.”

Wasserstein’s point is supported by the view of Allenby and his officers. When they spoke of “Palestine,” they generally meant only Western Palestine. From their perspective, Transjordan’s inclusion in the Palestine Mandate was an addition. But Jabotinsky and Sharon were not wrong. As is clear in any library of books of history and natural history from before the Great War—including, as we have seen, the massive British military surveys of the Palestine Exploration Fund and the widely-read work of the scholar George Adam Smith—“Palestine” had a western part and an eastern part that were separated by the Jordan River. From the viewpoint of the established experts in geography, declaring Transjordan out of the Jewish national home was a subtraction.

Wasserstein’s statement that Transjordan “had never been promised to the Zionists” is true in that it was never explicitly promised to anyone. Britain, however, did promise to help create a Jewish national home “in Palestine,” and all the parties involved understood that the boundaries remained to be specified.

For their part, Zionist leaders and top British officials understood that the word “Palestine” in the Balfour Declaration included Transjordan—in other words, that Eastern Palestine, or at least part of it, was included in the promise to the Zionists. That is clear from the Brandeis and Weizmann letters. It is evident from Amery’s remarks. And it is shown conclusively by Churchill’s agreement to accept Article 25. If the Balfour Declaration had been limited to west of the Jordan, Churchill would not have felt compelled to add in Article 25 to make the Mandate’s Jewish-home clauses inapplicable east of the Jordan.

Wasserstein is correct that the Zionists never “possessed” Transjordan, but it is unclear what that signifies. Jews in ancient times had lived east of the river, but Britain banned the Zionists from settling there.

To sum up: “Palestine” was long universally understood to include the land on both sides of the Jordan River. Eastern Palestine is now the kingdom of Jordan. Its eastern border was not finalized until after the League of Nations approved the Palestine Mandate. Maps of Mandate Palestine that include only Western Palestine are misleading because the emirate of Transjordan was part of Mandate Palestine, governed under Britain’s Jerusalem-based high commissioner for Palestine from 1921 until the emirate became an independent kingdom in 1946. Amery had a firm basis for saying that taking Transjordan out of the Jewish national home in 1921-1922 can properly be called Palestine’s “first partition.”

This examination of the term “Palestine” is not an argument about what Israel should or should not do to try to make peace with its Arab enemies. While it refutes the contention that there is only one state now in Palestine, it says nothing about whether Israel should be willing, in pursuit of peace, to relinquish control of various parts of Western Palestine.

The value of this history is not in how it relates to anyone’s preferences regarding the two-state solution or other ideas about peace. Its value inheres in its accuracy. A true account of history justifies itself.

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